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.
Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles, Atlanta
I've eaten so much chicken that I can almost tell just by looking if it's going to be good. The second I spy the waitress carrying my plate here, I know it's going to be superb.
The skin on the chicken shimmers with a golden hue. Marinated overnight in a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, and other secret
seasonings, it's a crispy masterpiece on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. The sides sing with flavor too. There's
cheesy macaroni; rice with cream gravy; and tender, succulent collards seasoned with smoked turkey. I crumble my cornbread
in the pot liquor from the greens so I can savor every drop of goodness.
Then there are the waffles. Made from a malted batter, their sweetness blends harmoniously with the savory chicken. "Food
should be a party in your mouth," says executive chef Reginald Washington. "A blending of sugar and salt really brings out
the rich flavor in our food. That's why the combination has been so successful."
Reginald didn't invent the chicken-and-waffle craze, but the Alabama-born chef added his own twist to the trend, serving up
what he calls Nuevo Soul Food. "It's a little lighter, but with a different flair to it," he explains.
As you might expect, the restaurant looks more like a chic lounge than a chicken joint. The walls boast rich, warm paneling
adorned with music memorabilia and celebrity photographs of Gladys Knight, Ron Winans, and friends. Caramel-colored leather
covers the comfortable booths and chairs. The restaurant stays open late on weekends to serve entertainers and other night
owls. 529 Peachtree Street NE., Atlanta; (404) 874-9393. Three-piece dinner: $11.50.
Price's Chicken Coop, Charlotte
There's nothing fancy about this restaurant. In fact, there's not even a place to sit down and enjoy your meal, but we sure got lots of letters singing the praises of Price's. One reader even went so far as to visit www.mapquest.com and print out directions for us to follow.
Still, I was skeptical. The lunch counter occupies a simple redbrick building in the shadow of downtown Charlotte. I arrive
at three o'clock in the afternoon only to find a line trailing out the door. At lunchtime, it is not unusual for the line
to stretch around the block.
Once inside, I realize that this is no feel-good, what-can-I-get-you-honey kind of establishment. The white cinder block walls
are unadorned. A hand-lettered menu hangs above a long white counter where a half-dozen cashiers buzz around taking and filling
orders. Behind them, white-jacketed fry cooks stand over bubbling vats of hot oil, cooking chicken as fast as they can.
Maybe it's the anticipation that makes it taste so good, but it's all I can do to make it to the parking lot before ripping
into the flat white box. All around me, others sit in their cars, radios and air conditioners blasting, delving into their
own boxes filled with tater rounds, mayonnaise-based slaw, feather-light hush puppies, and scorch-your-fingers hot chicken.
Price's opened in 1962 to cater to blue-collar workers in the area who had only 30 minutes for lunch. Little has changed,
except now it's as popular with downtown businesspeople as it is with construction and factory workers. 1614 Camden Road, Charlotte; (704) 333-9866. Half-chicken dinner: $6.10.
Kessler's 1891 Eatery and Pub, Versailles, Kentucky
I expected to find dozens of mom-and-pop joints in out-of-the-way places that would vie for the title of best in the South. Not so. Most have gone the way of country stores and full-service gas stations.
But this tiny Kentucky town, right in the heart of horse country, claims such a treasure. The chicken dinner comes with a
small salad, lackluster green beans, and a baked potato or fries. Locals know to substitute the homemade coleslaw or potato
salad. Still, the chicken is golden brown, lightly seasoned, and oh-so juicy. Every order comes out steaming hot and cooked
Manager Todd Geising, who followed his dream of becoming a Thoroughbred exercise rider to Kentucky, started working at the
restaurant just a year and a half ago. The menu features 35 items, including the popular half-pound, handmade hamburgers and
the fried chicken. "I put love in every plate of food I make," Todd says. "That's really the key to my fried chicken." 197 Main Street, Versailles, Kentucky; (859) 879-3344. Three-piece chicken dinner: $10.95.
Fiorella's Restaurant, New Orleans
When people tell you New Orleans is not known for fried chicken, consider this: The famous Popeyes Chicken & Biscuit chain started in the Big Easy. Besides, any city with this many soul food restaurants has to have some fried chicken on the menu.
I ate enough in New Orleans to make my belly ache, and still it was a toss-up as to who had the best chicken. But I'm going
to go with Fiorella's for one simple reason: personality. This crispy bird has a kick to it. It's not hot enough to make you
sweat, but just spicy enough to get your attention. Mashed potatoes with real potato chunks make a perfect pairing.
Just across the street from the city's busy French Market, this local dive has the feel of a little country store. The sloped
porch roof looks as if it's about to fall in. Customers linger on a painted concrete bench out front. Screened front doors
stand open in welcome, the oversize menu posted on either side. Inside, a long mural of shrimpboats trolling the coastal waters
offers great local color.
Though the menu is vast, owner Victor Moran says fried chicken is his best seller. His motto: "Fry it fresh, serve it fresh."
Still, he attributes the great taste to a marinade he slyly describes as "special seasonings?and stuff." While locals make
up the bulk of the customers, Victor says he has some out-of-towners, including several Hollywood types, who make Fiorella's
their last stop so they can savor the flavor before they head home. 45 French Market Place, New Orleans; (504) 528-9566. Four-piece dinner: $8.25.
Seafood & Chicken Box, Center Point, Alabama
It would be easy to overlook this 12-table hole-in-the-wall. It's tucked into an inconspicuous strip mall in Center Point, a small city on the northeast side of Birmingham. Yet, our very own Editor claims the Seafood & Chicken Box as his favorite.
That's not the reason I chose it, of course. I picked it because they serve fresh, hot chicken, cooked to order. That, and
their secret seasoning. When the platter of chicken arrives at the table, the crispy brown crust glitters as if covered in
diamonds. I try in vain to get the owners, brothers Carl and Paul Gagliano, to reveal their secret. "It's a special herb,"
says Carl. "Or it could be a special spice," says Paul. "Or it could be both," they say in unison, smiling like Cheshire cats.
It's delicious, and that's all that really matters. Meals start with a bowl of coleslaw or a house salad, followed by homemade
hush puppies and crispy fries or a baked potato. The chicken is exceptionally tender and juicy, yet it features some of the
crispiest skin I've ever eaten. Carl says the egg wash infused with buttermilk makes the skin so tasty. Brotherly love keeps
the business running smoothly; Carl and Paul alternate days so that one of them is always on hand to fry the tasty fowl.
Don't expect to get this chicken in a hurry, no matter which brother is in the kitchen. The menu instructs customers to allow
20 minutes for an order of chicken. You either wait or call ahead. 1617-B Center Point Road, Center Point, Alabama; (205) 853-7414. Half-chicken dinner: $7.30.
Note: This article has been updated on October 31, 2005. At this time, we are unable to reach this business (or homeowner) after Hurricane Katrina. Please contact us if you have any information regarding its status.
While the chicken is the star, we couldn't forget the side dishes. Here are the best we found.
This article is from the July 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.