FOR A YEAR and a half after I moved to Seattle, I kept the lease on my rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment. I missed New York. I didn't drive, I couldn't stand milk in my coffee, and I had no desire to go kayaking. No restaurant would cook me a medium-rare burger, and the local lox tasted like cat food. Luckily, I had come to Seattle in the name of True Love--and my calm, happy Seattleite boyfriend was far more important than smoked salmon. It didn't matter that Seattle never felt quite like home; I had True Love.

One year, 10 months, and two weeks later, Mr. True Love had become Friendly Ex, and I still hated milk in my coffee. I was sick of feeling like an outsider, a total Seattle rookie. Something had to change.

And then Ezell's reopened.

The original Ezell's Fried Chicken was my Holy Grail of Seattle destinations. I was constantly hearing about how great it had been. It was, I was told over and over, the "absolute best." Eyes would light up and roll back, closing to cherish a private moment, recalling a flawless thigh, breast, or leg. And yet each time I tried to go, I found an empty stump of a building.

I had even been schooled by diehards on Ezell's history: The little family joint opened up in the Central District in 1984, named after Mr. Ezell Stephens from Marshall, Texas. It had achieved instant cult status: the lunchtime line of wriggling adolescents from neighboring Garfield High; catering; being served at Safeco Field. And of course the whole Oprah incident--apparently Miss Thing, before becoming the current model of svelte self-empowerment, had visited Seattle, stumbled upon Ezell's, and just FREAKED OUT. She praised the humble poultry on TV, heaping national attention and love on the corner of 23rd and Jefferson... she was so enamored, legend has it, that she even had Ezell's FedExed to Chicago. When the place was ruined by fire in 1999, folks feared the worst--despite the handwritten sign in the window that promised resurrection.

When I heard Ezell's had been restored, I visited immediately, alone and hopeful, noticing the immaculate space--lots of stainless steel, bare walls, a pristine counter, bright lights. I started out gentle: a Snack Pack with three pieces of dark meat (spicy or original) and a sweet roll ($4.18), some potatoes and gravy (all sides: sm. 85¢/lg. $2.25/1 lb. $3). Peach cobbler ($3) on impulse.

NOW I UNDERSTOOD. Moist, tender meat: juices intact, piping hot, and flavorful despite its thick armor of fried skin--crisp, impeccable skin... fried with confidence and subtle seasoning, and dredged generously. I crunched and savored. That SKIN. The grease was kept to a minimum, and I could taste the flour, the pepper, the... was that paprika? I tried their French fries (woo-hoo!) and potato salad, and was relieved to find it more vinegary than mayonnaisey. I definitely wanted to try their sweet potato pie ($1.84 slice). The baked beans for sure. They have fried fish and shrimp dinners too. And--it's like they read my diary--they offer side orders of liver and gizzards! I nibbled on a piece of skin (yeah, that's gotta be paprika), too content to try anything else.

I next found myself back at Ezell's on a dark, dark night, when I ordered a box (16-piece with six rolls, $21.59) and some sides. I opened the box on the street, tearing into a leg on Madison. The potatoes and gravy were comfortingly salty and lumpy, a badge of authenticity. The cobbler was face-scrunchingly sweet, a perfect yin to the taters' yang. A man approached me as I walked, grease covering my chin. "Excuse me, miss," he said, looking confused. "Can you tell me how to get to 14th and Union?" I shocked myself by giving him precise directions, just like a real Seattle resident would. He thanked me, and I kept walking, chewing slowly. It was impossible to stop smiling. I couldn't wait to get home.

Ezell's Fried Chicken

501 23rd Ave, 324-4141. Mon-Thurs 10 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat 10 am-11 pm; Sun 11 am-10 pm. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

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