Fried chicken feeds the soul of the South. This regional favorite ranks right up there with God, Mama, and country. Authors have penned tomes on the subject. Feuds have erupted over whose fried chicken tastes the best. Some cooks even guard their recipes with the zeal of armed guards at Fort Knox.
Now, some might consider it folly to step into the midst of such a debate. Not me. I was raised on fried chicken. I learned
the recipe at my mother's elbow. On occasion, I was even called upon to select dinner from my very own feathered flock. So
I know chicken. It's as much a part of me as my eye color.
To find the South's best, I relied on many sources, but the most valuable turned out to be you, our readers. We received hundreds
of letters nominating favorite restaurants. But perhaps the most eloquent summation came from Florence Bishop of Richmond,
Virginia. She writes, "I've always thought that if I make it to heaven, every meal will be fried chicken, fresh asparagus,
Amen, Ms. Bishop! After months of searching, I can tell you one thing for sure. You'll find a little bit of heaven here on
Earth if you visit one of these great chicken places.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, Texas
If we were offering a Readers' Choice Award, it would go to this Texas spot. In fact, we received more letters about Babe's than any other place.
This chicken shack occupies an old hardware store in the heart of Roanoke, a tiny town northwest of Fort Worth. Though sprawling
suburbia is quickly closing in, the town maintains its dry, dusty Texas character. A big neon chicken sign points the way
to the simple brick building, though it's not as if you could really miss it with the crowd gathered on the front porch.
Once you're seated at one of the tables with funky mismatched chairs, a waitress hurries over with a big Texas-style welcome,
passing out warm plates and cold bowls. Then she cheerfully asks, "Fried chicken or chicken-fried steak?"
The meal starts with a simple iceberg lettuce salad with vinaigrette dressing to fill the chilled bowls. Then heaping platters
of chicken come steaming from the kitchen, followed by bowls of cream-style corn, mashed potatoes, and cream gravy. Plentiful
homemade biscuits finish the parade.
"The only thing we cook up ahead of time is the cream gravy," owner Paul Vinyard observes. "That gravy gets a little better
the longer it sits, but the others--mashed potatoes, corn, chicken--we just do them over and over in small batches. When we
make biscuits, we make one little-old pan of 20 at a time."
"We work so hard at keeping it fresh," says Mary Beth (aka Babe), echoing her husband. "It tastes just like it came out of
your grandmother's kitchen. That's really our goal--to make you feel like you're eating in your grandmother's home." 104 North Oak Street, Roanoke, Texas; (817) 491-2900. Platter of chicken with all-you-can-eat sides: $8.99.
Bubba's Cooks Country, Dallas
While feasting at Babe's, I can't shake the feeling that I've tasted this food before. That's when I discover that Paul and Mary Beth Vinyard own another of my favorites, Bubba's Cooks Country in Dallas's tony University Park neighborhood. In fact, I like the chicken at Bubba's--dare I say it--just a trifle bit better than that at Babe's.
"It's the same recipe," Paul assures me. "There's no difference between the two."
It turns out that Paul, a food company executive-turned-entrepreneur, started Bubba's in 1981, long before there was a Babe's.
"My wife, Mary Beth, and I both grew up in small towns," rumbles the Turkey, Texas, native. "We liked the food that we grew
up on in West Texas, and we really couldn't find it in Dallas."
The restaurant is located in a dolled up 1928 Texaco gas station across the street from Southern Methodist University. It's
called Bubba's, not because that's Paul's nickname as most people think, but because it was the complete opposite of the upscale
Here, customers step up to the counter to order. In addition to fresh, hot chicken, they offer mashed potatoes with cream
gravy, green beans, coleslaw, baked beans, and fruit salad. Other veggie selections change daily. Heavenly homemade yeast
rolls top off the meal quite handsomely. They're made especially to be served with the sorghum and Texas Hill Country honey
that sit on each on the table. Paul and Mary Beth are planning to open two more restaurants, making the score Babe's: 5, Bubba's:
2. Original Bubba's Cooks Country: 6617 Hillcrest, Dallas; (214) 366-4464. Three-piece dinner: $7.35.