Is fried chicken only a summertime food? No! Part of what's so great about it is that the alchemy of bird and breading and boiling oil tastes like a sunshiny picnic with a checkered tablecloth all year long. But look, people: If you haven't been to Harry's Chicken Joint in West Seattle to take their fine work to Alki or Lincoln Park, you should hurry, for already the days grow shorter, and you will want this memory to hold in your mind. A few months from now, as dusk falls at 4 p.m., eating more of Harry's chicken with its dark-golden-brown skin will return the golden summertime to your mind.
There's only one problem with the picnic plan: A lot of times, the takeout from Harry's Chicken Joint never makes it out the door. The owner, Bruce Cougan—the place is named after his father, a man with prodigious eyebrows who learned a thing or two about cooking while living in New Orleans—says people picking up their orders smell the chicken, then sit right down at the seven-seat counter and eat it all up right there. If I may make a recommendation: Order your half or whole bird ($13/$24) to go, but ask them to pull a piece or two out for you to eat on the spot. It is worth the burned fingertips.
Harry's chicken—as Bruce and his jovial-tough-guy cook will tell you—is soaked in buttermilk for 24 hours. Then it's double-dredged in a mixture including Broussards Spicy Cajun Creole Seasoning, then smoked, all prior to going into one of the cast-iron cauldrons of bubbling oil lined up rather medievally on top of the stove. The chicken is fried, at lower than normal temperature, for around 15 minutes. What comes out of the mammoth, blackened Dutch ovens—they're 20-quart, from Cajun Cast Iron, available online in case you want to try this at home—is pretty much magic. All that buttermilk and slow-cooking means that the meat has an unusual tenderness; a new customer once said she didn't want the breast meat of her bird because it always comes out dry, and Bruce gave her an on-the-spot money-back guarantee, and behold, she was converted. The crust is also unusual: not too thick, crisp but not shatteringly so, with a little cayenne that's like a loving punch in the mouth. (One piece I ate had a bunch of breading trapped along one side, making a rich trove of extra-spicy Thanksgiving- stuffing-type goodness that I devoured silently, feeling weirdly guilty.) The smoking imparts a distinctive saltiness—the chicken comes out almost hammy, in a somewhat unholy but awfully good way.
Is it heresy to not care much about the sides in the face of such great fried chicken? Don't get me wrong—Harry's sides are good, and a good value, at $2 per serving. The beans are on the sweet side, but certainly not one-dimensional, with a big piece of pork here and there; the collards aren't too vinegary but have a nice peppery tang, and bits of bacon, too; the potato salad is creamy-style with the skin still on some of the pieces and just a bit of truffle oil; the slaw is non-creamy-style with a good crunch; the fried okra (a special, $4) is sliced into small rounds, the better for the breading-to-vegetable ratio. But, really, at Harry's, bird is the word.
Harry's Chicken Joint was originally a tiny diner called Nate and Kate's—you can see a photo of the old-timey adorableness on Harry's Facebook page. (More recently, it was Meander's Kitchen, before that place moved to White Center.) The lace curtains in Harry's windows have a rooster-and-baby-chick pattern woven into them; the pleasantly random art collection includes black-and-white days-of-yore baseball photography, a tribute to the Beatles, a poster showing all the models of Porsche from 1948 through 1983, two versions of an original painting of two shorebirds, various chicken figurines, a clown bobble head, and a carved leopard holding a fishing pole. There's a cooler of vintage sodas, and a big bouquet of fresh daisies on top of a fruit-patterned tablecloth. Bill Evans plays on the stereo. Most of the business is takeout, Bruce says, but occasionally, as had happened the night before, the place inexplicably fills up and everybody has a grand old time.
Whether it's full or not, Harry's is the neighborhood hangout you always wished you had. While we waited for our chicken to fry, a neighbor came in and was greeted by name. While she waited for her to-go order, she said that they really ought to bring back the grilled cheese and tomato soup, and Bruce said well, they'd be doing that really soon, in time for fall. Also coming soon: a shrimp po'boy. A couple guys wandered in. Could Bruce help them, he asked? They said that they'd driven by a time or two and just wanted to check out the menu. "It's the best," the neighbor lady said. They wondered about takeout, and she told them that the place closes around nine, but they might want to call early in case Harry's ran out of chicken. "Do you work here?" they said, and everybody laughed.
Harry's will be celebrating its six-month anniversary soon with a big party at Beveridge Place Pub down the street, with free fried chicken, sandwiches, and sides for all the place's friends. Go in even one time, and you'll fall into that category.