Like apple pie, capitalism and punk rock, fried chicken is one of those things Americans tend to think they invented. They didn’t.
The first three are all native to the British Isles, and fried chicken is a universal human response to the presence of chicken and oil. That said, there is a certain kind of fried chicken that is sanctified by the ages, forged in the crucible of the American South and watered with the sweat of sharecroppers. That is the great American fried chicken, and with only one exception, it’s never made it to New York.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t have great fried chicken. On the contrary! We are a world capital of fried chicken. Our polyglot, multi-ethnic dining scene brings us every nation’s version, including a Korean one that has taken the city by storm (or ought to). And then there is New York’s greatest strength, its close-knit community of imaginative chefs, each one forced by Darwinian pressure to surpass his rivals in the arts of invention and re-imagination.
You don’t need to explain to southerners that fried chicken isn’t really fried. They know that, if they know anything about fried chicken, and odds are they do. “Fried” usually means deep-fried, which is to say immersed in boiling oil. That’s the way to cook French fries and onion rings; chicken demands, or at least rewards, a gentler method.
Pan-frying is a specialty skill that involves cooking in just enough oil for the chicken to float in, but not to be covered by. The meat is cooked more gently, and only on one side at a time. The result is a juicier, more delicate bird. The origin is obvious enough.
Southern kitchens, especially the ones where the dish was perfected, didn’t have deep-fryers, or pots filled with a gallon of boiling oil. They had a pan, and they put some oil, and (hopefully) some lard in that pan, and they got it hot. Then they added, one piece at a time, chicken that had been soaked in buttermilk and then dredged in some flour. They cooked it ’till it was done, and then cooked some more pieces. When they were all done they were eaten.
The oil didn’t go anyplace, it only got more flavorful, as chicken fat mixed with it. The pan, too, got seasoned from all the use, and soon became an indestructible nonstick implement, heavy enough to withstand tornados and atomic warfare, and passed on to subsequent generations for the frying of subsequent traditions. That’s the basic story of fried chicken in the South, and it doesn’t involve deep frying.
There are some very good southern-style restaurants in the city, mostly in Harlem. Amy Ruth’s and Londel’s both make exemplary fried chicken, as does Sylvia’s, a mammoth but underrated tourist mecca. However, I refuse to vouch for any of these places. Amy Ruth’s, for example, serves a honey-dipped fried chicken, which I consider a Rococo extravagance, and a departure in spirit from the basic, almost Japanese delicacy of traditional Southern fried chicken.
When I want that kind of chicken, with its crust as crisp and brittle as the surface of a crème brûlée, its color a kind of Florentine gold, its seasoning barely present except as an invisible flavor enhancement, there’s only one man I can turn to: Mr. Charles Gabriel, of Rack and Soul restaurant on West 109th Street. Charles used to have a place further uptown, called Charles Southern Kitchen, which he says will open again in the summer.
Charles’ method for cooking the chicken is exactly the old-school protocol described above. He uses Perdue chicken pieces and soybean oil, and he puts a spice mixture that he’d rather not identify into his buttermilk. Why then is Charles’ chicken so good?
The secret is in the pan. It is vast – as wide as a roulette wheel, and holds as much as 30 pieces at once without crowding. The pan lets the chicken float in oil, without being submerged in it. As a result, it cooks more slowly, and as it cooks, it rises up like gnocchi in the oil. The inside is perfectly cooked with the thin, diaphanous batter just turning golden, and the combination comes together in a way that seems written in the stars.
The problem that most chefs have is not that they can’t recognize the way fried chicken is meant to be cooked; many can. But it’s hard to make it the right way.
They Know Not What They Do
Charles stands there all day, turning the pieces one at a time. Most kitchens have a few burners with speed freaks knocking out easy, compartmentalized ingredients at pickup: a veal chop that’s already been roasted and just needs to be seared up, say, or a fish that just needs three minutes in a pan. What they don’t have is a guy standing at a three-foot pan that takes up four burners to cook.
So what’s the solution? The deep-fry basket. You see it at every crappy neighborhood Chinese takeout, and any number of high-end Manhattan restaurants do it the same way, but with fancier breading. What’s worse, nobody seems to notice!
New York foodies, including the press, are blinded by the mere epiphenomenon of breading, and forget about the big picture. Here’s what New York Magazine had to say about one of the city’s most overrated, and overpriced, chickens, a $25 plate of crusty carrion served at Blue Ribbon.
“Coated minimally with a . . . mixture of matzo meal and flour, it’s then seasoned with a spice blend of togarashi peppers, paprika, cayenne, and sea salt; served on a bed of shredded Napa cabbage; and garnished with a sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce made with fresh wasabi, and honey the [owners] import from Mexico themselves.” Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, “Best Fried Chicken,” March 3, 2008, http://nymag.com/bestofny/food/2008/friedchicken/
Really? Great! Meanwhile, there is no mention at all of how the chicken is actually cooked.
There really is some decent deep-fried chicken in New York. I go (albeit somewhat joylessly) for the crispy, clean version at Redhead in the East Village, which is plumper than most, cooked to order, and always satisfying. There is Blue Smoke’s by-the-numbers version, which I always thought underrated: the Amish, cage-free, certified humane, all natural antibiotic free chicken is fresh but underseasoned until doused with the restaurant’s house-made pepper vinegar.
But my favorite of all the New York deep-fried chickens is that of Pies-n-Thighs, in Williamsburg, which will be opening back up this summer, and whose amazingly light, fluffy chicken is almost as delicate as pan-fried. I still don’t know how the place pulls that one off, but I mean to find out.
None of the above ever comes anywhere near honey, in case you’re wondering. Honey goes with bees and bears and cups of hot tea. It has no place around chicken, any more than maple syrup or rainbow jimmies. (Of course, if a little syrup migrates across your plate from a waffle to a piece of fried chicken, that’s OK.)
The Korean Invasion
Happily for New York, the city hasn’t had to rely on restaurateurs who try to make up for deficiencies in their fried chicken with seasoning that would disgrace the most slatternly Maryland matron. Fried chicken has been reinvented from the ground up by the Koreans, who created a two part frying process that works well in busy commercial kitchens, and produces a chicken of notable crispness and flavor.
There are typically two methods of Korean fried chicken, both of which involve precooking. In the first, the chicken is fried in oil that’s barely hot enough to make French fries in. It’s given a Southern-style dredge of fine flour and very little else, and then left to cook in a fry basket for a few minutes before being taken out to rest. Then a few minutes later it goes in to finish up. In the other method, the chicken is cooked rotisserie style, and then breaded and fried for pickup . Both ways allow the chicken to cook without killing a delicate crust.
The Koreans sometimes mess the dish up at that point by putting various spicy or sweet sauces on it, but the best places, like Forte Baden Baden on 32nd Street, just put some salt on and call it a day.
I’m also a big fan of Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights, and Bonbon Chicken on Chambers Street, all of which do a booming to-go business.
A Gentleman of Rank
No discussion of fried chicken in New York can avoid the perennial rivalry between Popeye’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken – or KFC, as it’s now called, thanks to a rebranding attempt in the ’90s. (The company has since seen the folly of its way and is bringing back the original and proper name in stages.)
Popeye’s has the most resolutely loyal followers, but I remain dedicated to that white-suited gentleman with the honorary rank of “colonel.” Yes, the places are hideous. Yes, you want to die after you eat their food. Yes, the chickens are the most wretched animals imaginable, skeevy and skinny, and an affront to the name of poultry.
I don’t care. The colonel’s patented 11 herbs and spices, which I suspect are not much different than Charles Gabriel’s, give the original recipe an umami panache that Popeye’s can’t touch. Moreover, the CVAP oven, a humidity controlled piece of machinery now fashionable among the world’s greatest chefs, was actually invented for Kentucky Fried Chicken and still puts out a crispy but moist product every time.
Chicken of the Future
I continue to have faith in the chefs of New York City, who can’t leave well enough alone. They’re hell-bent on improving things that don’t need improving, and on putting their personal stamp on classic dishes, even those that are pillars of American vernacular cookery. I give up. I’ve had it with railing at weird hamburgers, savory sundaes, emu pot pies and all the rest of it. Sometimes they do strike gold, though, and that’s happened with fried chicken.
Take Erik Battes, who runs the kitchen at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry Street. Battes, borrowing a technique from England’s Heston Blumenthal, dusts an Amish chicken with some garlic and onion powder and some esplenette pepper, and then sautes it in hot oil. Then it goes into the oven, and when it emerges, is submerged in an aerated slurry of water, chili, Szechuan peppercorns, and ginger, all foamed up in a seltzer charger. Then it gets flash fried in hot oil and served with smoked chicken gravy, and it is incredible. The finished chicken is dusted with preserved lemon peel powder and lemon zest, and salt, and has the shattering crispness of tempura.
At the moment I eat this chicken, my veneration for the past deserts me; and my enjoyment of a great dish sets me outside of time, in an eternal realm of pleasure and gratitude. The power of the past is immense and immeasurable, but the present, in fried chicken, as in so much else, matters more.
Josh Ozersky, the senior editor, restaurants, with Citysearch, is the author, as “Mr. Cutlets,” of “Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore’s Guide to New York” (Ig Publishing, 2003) and the author of “The Hamburger: A History” (Yale University Press, 2008). Visit him online at www.mistercutlets.com.