I fucking love fried chicken. It might be my favorite food. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows how obsessed I am with anything crispy, which should be all of you by now as the number of times I’ve linked back to that post to cite my love of all things crispy is verging on embarrassing). As a little kid, one of the only things not cooked by my parents that I’d reliably eat was chicken fingers, and while my tastes have broadened considerably since then (seriously guys, I made something with Nepalese in the name), I still love them, preferably fried until extra you-know-whatspy and dipped in honey mustard. But the world contains fried chicken beyond the dreams of mere diner chicken fingers, and I am on a quest to eat fucking all of it.
Here’s the problem, though: in college I lived in the same neighborhood as the greatest fried chicken establishment known to man (and I will take that claim to court, you best believe), Harold’s Chicken Shack on 53rd. Harold’s is a community institution, down to the bench seating and bullet-proof lazy susan on which you get your food. My usual was a quarter chicken (mixed light and dark meat) with mild sauce and salt and pepper. This comes in a paper bag with fries, two pieces of white sandwich bread and a paper cup of coleslaw which you can shoot, if that’s your jam. (It’s not my jam.) You can also use the bread as napkins.
You guys, this stuff is transcendent. The chicken is fried to order and it is perfect. The outside is crisp. The inside is moist and juicy, even the breast meat. Their mild sauce is basically barbecue sauce, and while I don’t normally like barbecue sauce this stuff is off the hook, tangy and savory and insane. The fries get soaked in the sauce and chicken juices, as the chicken sits on top of them, and … really, guys, I feel like you should be on board by now. It’s cheap and delicious and perfect and I miss it more than I miss a lot of my friends from college, and I really miss my friends from college.
But enough about foods I can only eat once a year if I’m blazingly lucky. Let’s talk about my ongoing search to fill the gnawing hole in my soul that can only truly be filled by Harold’s. Since moving back home in 2009, but especially over the past year, I’ve tried at venues both fancy and cheap-ass, and I have settled on a favorite-of-the-moment. Let’s talk about some of my attempts.
Red Rooster: Red Rooster is celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson‘s latest venture. Located in Harlem, Red Rooster is billed as a sort of fusion of soul food and schmancy fare. I went there for brunch with one thing on my mind: getting a pile of Samuelsson’s fried chicken and putting it in my face.
I started off with some sort of white peach sangria cocktail; split a side of cornbread, which comes with honey butter and tomato jam, with my friends; and, of course, got the fried chicken – or as Samuelsson folksily refers to it, the fried yard bird – for my entree. The cocktail was delicious. The cornbread itself was fine, but the tomato “jam” was entirely unlike “jam” and much closer to a very thin sauce. Not for nothing, but while tomato jam + cornbread sounds like a good flavor combination, it’s … not. Or I mean, it might be? But it was totally not the combination for which my mouth was prepared. The tomato jauce (what I did there, do you see it?) is a totally standard flavor profile for an Italian-style tomato sauce, and the cornbread is … Southern-style cornbread, I don’t know what else to tell you. It didn’t work for me. On its own or with the honey butter, the cornbread was fully satisfactory.
Least satisfying of all, however, was the fried chicken. Man, when you call your chicken “fried yard bird” I expect some Southern-fried deliciousness up in this bitch. I expect crispity crunchity tender savoriness. This is … not that. The chicken comes with a white gravy, so you can understand my surprise when the plate came and I saw no gravy. You can further understand my disappointment when I realized that the gravy had in fact been poured over the chicken, but was so thin that it had soaked in already, eliminating any hope of crispiness. Things did not improve from there. Samuelsson spices the chicken unconventionally, and like the tomato-jauce-over-cornbread situation, this might have been okay if I had expected something off the beaten track – but really, when you’re making fried chicken in Harlem and calling it yard bird, “off the beaten track” does not seem to be your goal. I was, let us say, disappointed. I mean. I ate all the bites. But I wasn’t happy about them.
310 Lenox Ave between 125th and 126th
The Cardinal: The Cardinal is better news on all fronts. The dinner menu combines Southern entrees with fancypants appetizers and, in my opinion, succeeds on all counts. Their steak tartare is seriously fucking delicious, if you like that sort of thing. (You should like that sort of thing. You should really, really like it.) The fried chicken comes in a monumentally-sized pile of highly tasty pieces, and the price is more reasonable (this is New York, and if you want $19 for a giant pile of fried chicken and table service, I’m okay with that). But the chicken is missing something – it’s kind of underseasoned. The feeling at the end of that giant pile of chicken is therefore not unadulterated joy but a more complex feeling. Maybe I should have used a sauce. That said, this is a fun place to go with a big group of friends, and the chicken is entirely satisfactory.
234 E. 4th St between B and C
Burger & Barrel: I went here because the Immaculate Infatuation boys claimed the fried chicken was the second coming of Christ. (I’m beginning to suspect the Immaculate Infatuation boys are secret hojillionaires and therefore I should listen to them less (also they can be a little sexist).) Let me just save you a trip. The portion is way too small, the chicken is too salty and otherwise insufficiently flavorful, it’s greasy, and for $19 you could go to The Cardinal and get twice the amount of food. Also that joint is LOUD. Go elsewhere. But it’s still better than Red Rooster.
25 W. Houston St between Mercer and Greene
Hill Country Chicken: Oh, Hill Country. I do love you. Your prices are so, so reasonable. Your chicken is so flavorful. And you sell miniature pies! Seriously guys, this place has it going on. Were it not for the final two entries on this list, Hill Country would be the winner. Its chicken is flavorful and multidimensional (unlike The Cardinal). They sell two recipes, and I advise you to get the one that’s skinless (the spice profile of skin-on can get a little weird – sometimes I swear I detect cinnamon). The sides are excellent, in particular the biscuits. You can also get as much or as little as you want because they sell chicken by the piece, and even with several pieces and several sides I’ve never spent more than $12. Also, they sell miniature pies. Did I mention the miniature pies? There’s miniature pies.
Prices are variable but low
Broadway at 25th
Bobwhite Counter: This is another one I went to on the advice of the Infatuation boys, but this time they earned their pay. (I don’t pay them. I don’t know what I’m talking about.) It’s a bit of a hike from anywhere (C between 6th and 7th), and my dear co-chicken eater made that hike with concern in her heart surrounding my deviation from a vendor that sells miniature pies. But we were both overjoyed with the chicken at Bobwhite Counter. It combines lunch counter ordering with table service and a counterwoman so surly that I considered the possibility it was a gimmick. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. She looked like a refugee from the East Village circa 1988, which is funny because Alphabet City has been gentrifying for about as long as I’ve been going there.) The chicken is amazing – the portions are just the right size and it’s crispy as fuck, and also nicely flavored. It’s not too greasy. It’s hella moist. And they sell cheesy grits during the eating of which I think I saw God. Go here. Just skip the radicchio cole slaw, or whateverthefuck that was.
94 Avenue C between 6th and 7th
Monument Lane: Bobwhite Counter would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for that darn Monument Lane!
Monument Lane is a pretty standard American food fancyish spot in the West Village that I’m sure has very nice overpriced dinner entrees, and I wouldn’t have looked twice at it if a friend hadn’t suggested it for brunch. That’s when I learned the secret of Monument Lane: during brunch they will serve you a whole half a buttermilk fried chicken with a biscuit for $15. Guys, you … I … it’s a good thing they only have this motherfucker for brunch or else I’d already be broke and dead because I would have eaten fried chicken for dinner every night since I first went there for brunch, which was about two months ago. (I already crave fried chicken near-daily. I am not joking. It is good that all these establishments here listed are really inconveniently located from my home.) This chicken is interestingly, but not distractingly, spiced. It is crisp as crisp can be. It is not greasy. It is juicy. It is the best fried chicken I have eaten in New York. I can only imagine that its absence from every fried chicken round-up I’ve read – and I’ve read a few – is due to its absence from the dinner menu.
Go here. Eat this. If you’re on a diet of any kind, this is the exception you want to make. You’re welcome.
103 Greenwich Ave at 12th St (between 7th Ave and 8th Ave)
I’m still hankering to try a number of places – Miss Mamie’s/Miss Maude’s, Amy Ruth’s, Charles Gabriel’s, Pies ‘n Thighs, Blue Smoke, and Blue Ribbon, and that’s just off the top of my head – and you best believe I will report back.
ETA 12/1/12: Sticky’s Finger Joint
Verdict: this is not by any means a destination spot. It’s not fried chicken like you’d get at Bobwhite Counter – it’s snack food. But it’s tasty and reasonably priced and I sort of really want to try a chicken finger with a mozzarella stick inside. Also, just FYI, everything at Sticky’s is made to order, which I didn’t expect. So if you’re looking for fast-fast food, this is not your spot. I probably waited about eight minutes for my fingers.
$7 for 3
8th St at MacDougal
ETA 5/18/13: The Commodore
how does it taste? Man, it is fucking delicious. The chicken is juicy and tender. The batter should be in the dictionary next to a picture of the word “crispy.” Any seasoning is mild, and the dipping sauces are both very pleasant, though unnecessary. This is the sort of plate you dive into and eat your way out of. It’s a good thing. After Monument Lane, this might be my favorite plate of fried chicken in the city.
366 Metropolitan Ave at Havemeyer