How the bone-out chicken-fried chicken breast is destroying American menus and who's taking a stand against it
"By my reckoning, fried chicken must have a bone ... the presence of a bone in a piece of fried chicken is functionally and formally elemental. Without a bone, chicken lacks its savory essence, its primal, Henry VIII appeal."
John T. Edge, from Fried Chicken: An American Story
It all started back at the Super Bowl party when my friend Kemp, upon learning of my background in freelance food writing, asked, "So, where is the best fried chicken in town?" I was surprised at my lack of a concrete answer. I could summon a couple of names, but the best fried chicken in Austin? That is a loaded question. I had to do some research. And this turned into a quest that proved sadly that the quintessential American classic is disappearing from Austin's menus in favor of the flattened, breaded, fried breast filet know by the name of "chicken-fried chicken."
Most American-born people I know can claim their mother's or grandmother's fried chicken as "the best ever," fried to a crispy, golden perfection in a cast-iron skillet, served with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy. In Mexico City, fried chicken lacks such iconic status. That was until the early Seventies, when El Pollo Kentucky arrived in all its white-and-red-striped glory.
"Juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside," claimed the jingle. My brother and I were smitten. Going to El Pollo Kentucky was reserved for a special occasion, since my mother had less money and more sense than most American mothers today who feed their families value-pack dinners on a painfully regular basis. I learned to love American-style fried chicken then, and I still love it now. What I didn't know then was that, years later, I would find myself up to my elbows literally in seasoned flour, deep-frying chicken five nights a week.
To write about fried chicken in Austin, one must start at the beginning. And for me that is Threadgill's, where I worked from 1984 until 1989. At the granddaddy of "American food, Southern style" cooking establishments, when someone ordered fried chicken, the obligatory question posed by the waitstaff was "dark, white, or mixed?" The order would come to the kitchen, and the pieces of choice would be hand-tossed in seasoned flour, dipped in buttermilk egg wash, and deep-fried to order. I poke in at my old stomping grounds to see if anything has changed. Alas, it has. Gone are the days of dark, white, or mixed, in favor of you guessed it the "chicken-fried chicken breast."
Aghast, I call Eddie Wilson.
I've known Eddie, as he puts it, "since you were a tadpole," and I know that the man is serious about any endeavor he gets himself involved with. He likes to see things through, his way. So when I ask him about "86ing" the fried chicken off the menu, he has a very logical explanation. "Nobody has time to wait for their meals anymore. Making proper fried chicken takes time, and making large amounts to order is hard to do. It's hard to get the frying temperature right to cook the chicken so that it is not overly done on the outside and still cold next to the bone." He continues: "Fried chicken has been co-opted by the corporate chains who make it ahead of time. If I had a buffet, I could do it. It could be ready for folks to come 'n' get it, like they do at Dot's Place. But making it to order for people in a hurry just doesn't work."
I remember that we used to prebake the chicken in order to reduce frying time and make sure it was cooked through.
"But that changes the texture and consistency of the chicken," Wilson tells me. "It's just not right. So when it was time to revise our menu, the fried chicken didn't make the cut."
His argument, in my book, is valid. At least he kept the fried chicken livers.
So, if Threadgill's no longer serves proper fried chicken, who does? I ask countless people where they go for their favorite fried chicken, but most give me the same befuddled answer: "I don't know!" Except for my longtime friend Charlotte Harris, who answers, without a hint of hesitation, "Top Notch!" Oh yeah, I remember Top Notch. It was the Pollo Kentucky of my first days living in Austin, when special-occasion dining was hickory burgers and fried chicken at the timeless Burnet Road establishment. I pay a visit for old times' sake, and I am rewarded with freshly made, juicy fried chicken served atop a pile of fries. The chicken at Top Notch is not pan-fried "like mama used to make," but it is crispy, juicy, and delicious in its deep-fried glory. I devour it. Hope is restored.
Continuing my quest, I peruse menus and visit every restaurant that seems likely to serve fried chicken the proper way. Hill's Cafe, Hoover's Cooking, Ms. B's, Woody's South, the Broken Spoke, Evangeline Cafe, Gene's New Orleans Style Poboys & Deli, Shoal Creek Saloon, Cypress Grill, Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen ... all to no avail. Gene's Saturday special of smothered chicken is a heavenly soul-food classic, and the chicken fries thin strips of boneless breast fried and served like french fries are addicting.
Now, I know that chicken wings have bones and are sometimes fried and served in a variety of ways, and I never shy away from a dozen good wings. Chicken-wing chains are sprouting around town faster than sushi bars (well, almost). The Shaggy's Original jerk wings at Billy's on Burnet are something to write home about, as are the tangy, spicy wings from Hill-Bert's Burgers. And who can deny the ubiquitous crispy fried wings served at most local Chinese restaurants? But the honorable mention goes to Hill's Cafe's Mexican White Wings, chicken strips with chile serrano, wrapped in bacon, deep-fried, and dipped in a spicy cayenne-pepper sauce. Ouch. They are so good. But as much as I love wings, I don't quite consider them in the same category as classic fried chicken.
It should also be noted that I have nothing against the fried chicken-breast filet that most of the aforementioned restaurants serve. In fact, Ms. B's is delicious, with a well-seasoned crispy crust and wonderful red beans and rice on the side. Roky Erickson is partial to the one served at Evangeline Cafe, and Shoal Creek Saloon's is huge and tasty. But they lack the essence of real fried chicken: the bones. It seems to me that somehow, somewhere in time, diners decided that eating a boneless, skinless fried chicken breast is healthier than eating the same piece of chicken with a bone in it. And restaurateurs obliged. I despise flavor-of-the-month "health-conscious" hypes.
I am looking for "finger-lickin' good" fried chicken, and as Wilson mentioned, it seems that national chains have the monopoly on that. While I won't deny that a serving of Popeyes' spicy chicken with their rehydrated mashed potatoes and giblet gravy after a night on the town is quite rewarding, I am looking for something more local, more "homey." The recently resurrected Dot's Place still fries massive amounts of bone-in chicken for the hordes of loyal customers, who sometimes wait in line for 25 minutes to get served. Dot Hewitt's cooking is that good. Unfortunately, Pflugerville is not necessarily on my radar, and the short business hours don't make it practical for many people to make the trek for fried chicken. Pflugervillians are in luck. I, however, need something closer.
My friend Joanie, who owns the legendary Iron Gate Lounge on East Sixth, reminds me of Tony's Southern Comfort Restaurant directly across the street. I pay a visit during lunch, and Tony's doesn't disappoint. Golden-fried to order, the fried-chicken special comes in dark and white, juicy, well-spiced, and served with choice of two sides. What's more, Tony's menu actually features chicken and waffles, with your choice of one breast or three wings served alongside a Belgian waffle with syrup. The origin of this unique combination is puzzling. I turn to my brilliant colleague John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. In his marvelous little book Fried Chicken: An American Story, he unearths several "conflicting views" of the origin of the chicken-and-waffle phenomenon: as Sunday breakfast in Virginia, as a dish native to Louisiana, as "a traditional breakfast of Southern black folks," as a traditional Harlem staple with possible roots in Alabama, and as a popular dish among the Pennsylvania Dutch (this one I had heard before from former chef Jodene Faux, a Pennsylvania Dutch descendant). I say hurray for Tony's.
In search of more surprises, I start looking into fancier places, those that serve upscale twists on American classics. The Woodland, Moonshine, Blue Star Cafeteria, El Gringo, or South Congress Cafe don't serve fried chicken on the bone, but only variations of the breast filet. By pure chance, I came to learn that Jasper's, the new restaurant at the Domain, owned by Texas celebrity chef Kent Rathbun, serves fried chicken during weekend lunches.
"It's my grandmother's recipe," says Rathbun with pride, and rightly so. Served over a mound of garlicky mashed potatoes, his pan-fried chicken is ever-so-lightly coated in seasoned flour, then fried to order to a luscious golden in a cast-iron skillet, rendering all the fat and leaving a crispy, light skin crust that left me swooning. Crispy fried skin, whether it is from chicken, turkey, fish, or pork, is one of my downfalls. I can eat chicharrones mercilessly, and I could chow pounds of that awesome crispy fish skin they use as a garnish at Uchi, all while watching the game and drinking a beer. Jasper's corporate chef, Aaron Staudenmaier, a young talent who is an absolute charmer, shares this passion with me. "I grew up in a family where crispy roasted chicken skin is a highly prized commodity," he tells me. "So I take great care to see that chef Rathbun's chicken is made properly." And I am ever so grateful to both of them, for I have found fried-chicken nirvana. I am proclaiming Jasper's as the very best fried chicken in Austin, until someone else proves me wrong.
"If fried chicken is American, then it denotes an American identity that accommodates cooks from a plethora of traditions," Edge writes. That statement substantiates my findings, because the second-best fried chicken in Austin is to be found at a Vietnamese restaurant. Possibly the very first Vietnamese restaurant in the city, the venerable Saigon Kitchen has moved from a tiny hole in the wall on Cameron Road to a popular location on North Lamar to its current location on South I-35. Although it has changed ownership and menu items have come and gone, one that I go back for time and again is the crispy fried-chicken special, a half-chicken seasoned and fried to perfection, served hacked over a pile of rice with house-made pickled vegetables, fresh cucumber spears, and tomato slices, with nuoc mam (fish sauce) on the side for dipping.
Another twist of fried-chicken fate takes me to El Zunzal, East Austin's little family-owned Salvadoran restaurant. There awaits an amazing dish called Pollo Frito en Tajadas, a whole, bone-in chicken breast fried to a crisp, smothered in a tangy creole-style sauce made with tomatoes, onions, celery, and bell peppers. The whole thing is served with fried plantains and slices of fresh cucumber, radish, and beets. Sound different? It is. And it is also incredibly delicious. If these international renditions of fried chicken represented the true meaning of globalization, I would be all for it.
During my research for this story, I popped in at Evangeline Cafe and asked owner Curtis Clarke for his opinion on the best fried chicken in town. Again, the answer was, "Well, I don't know, really." I bring up my research and the lack of results. He ponders for a minute, looking at me with a gleam in his eye, and says, "Well, maybe I should start making it!" Maybe you should, my friend. In fact, you definitely should.
Dot's Place (15803 Windermere, Pflugerville, 512/252-9300)
Marrow-Minded: Bone-in fried-chicken findings
El Zunzal (642 Calles, 474-7749)
Jasper's (11506 Century Oaks Terrace #128, 834-4111)
Saigon Kitchen (4323 S. I-35, 326-3969)
Tony's Southern Comfort Restaurant (1201 E. Sixth, 320-8801)
Top Notch (7525 Burnet Rd., 452-2181)