The South's Best Fried Chicken

From roadside shacks to highfalutin eateries, these top fried chicken restaurants have us fowl-mouthed and begging for seconds.

Story by Philip Malkus and Jennifer V. Cole

Southern food, despite persistent stereotypes, is about so much more than fried chicken. We revel in Louisiana gumbos and Lowcountry pilaus, oysters from Apalachicola and apple stack cake from the Appalachians. But let’s face it: We do love our browned bird, and our cooks excel at it. The seeming simplicity of fried chicken makes it a culinary tabula rasa open to interpretation. There are the basic variances: White meat or dark? Pan-fried or deep-fried? Marinated in buttermilk, brined, both, or seasoned only with salt and pepper? More broadly, though, the dish’s universality allows it to preen in every facet of our restaurant culture—from obscure soul food joints to white tablecloth pantheons, and at time-honored cafes as well as mom-and-pops that reflect the gamut of global cuisines arriving in our region. In the gospel of bird, we can honor tradition and herald change equally. This is our snapshot of Southern fried chicken right now, in all its many fine-feathered guises.

Down-home Classic Fried Chicken
The come-as-you-are golden (brown) standard

BARBECUE INN | Houston, Texas
Sure, this beloved time warp (in business since 1946) offers ribs and brisket, but don’t let the name mislead: The kitchen’s fryers trump its barbecue pits. Take a seat in one of the candy-apple red leatherette booths at the family-run establishment and savor the greaseless, cocoa-hued crust that flakes off the chicken in rippling shards, revealing flawlessly seasoned meat beneath. thebarbecueinn.com

GUS’S FRIED CHICKEN | Mason, Tennessee
Franchises in Memphis, Nashville, and other cities are spreading the Gus’s gospel. Make the pilgrimage, though, to the original location in Mason, opened in 1953 about 45 miles from Memphis, for the juke joint vibe and the crusty, copper-colored bird, seasoned with a secret recipe that has a hot and spicy kick. 901/294-2028

MARTHA LOU’S KITCHEN | Charleston, South Carolina
Lightly dredged in flour and dipped in milk batter, then submerged in peanut oil until bronzed, chicken fried to order is the one menu mainstay at the bubblegum-pink soul food shack run by Martha “Lou” Gadsden and her daughter, Debra, since 1983. They cut steam vents into leg and breast meat to reduce the frying time to 20 minutes. The don’t-miss sides: peppery, meaty lima beans and sultry okra stew. 843/577-9583

WILLIE MAE’S SCOTCH HOUSE | New Orleans, Louisiana
Rebuilt by volunteers after Katrina, this Treme ’hood icon began as a bar in 1957. Willie Mae Seaton’s wet-batter method creates a coating that hugs each piece, holding in the  juices until the first shattering bite. 504/822-9503

New Classic Fried Chicken
Hip new joints with old-school flavor

BEASLEY’S CHICKEN + HONEY | Raleigh, North Carolina
Ashley Christensen, the toast of Raleigh’s dining scene, uses newfangled pressure fryers to timeless effect: Her mottled, crackly fried chicken induces sentimental sighs. A  drizzle of honey (which comes standard, though you can ask for it on the side) is an ode to Ashley’s father, a hobbyist beekeeper. Order buttermilk biscuits to complete the feast. ac-restaurants.com/beasleys

LITTLE DONKEY | Birmingham, Alabama
Southern charm with a dash of Mexican chiles: A paste of dried arbols and other fiery peppers infuses the bird while it brines, which registers as a mellow, earthy heat rather than a lashing blaze. Splash the nubbly crust with a house-made vinegar made from morita and habanero peppers, and pair the chicken with elotes: corn on the cob speckled with crumbly Cotija cheese. thelittledonkey.com  

MAX’S WINE DIVE | Multiple cities in Texas
Fried chicken infused with earthy-spicy jalapeño and tangy buttermilk headlines the menu of retooled comfort foods at Max’s, which has locations in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. (We’re partial to the funky-fun, brick-walled Austin outpost.) Staffers wear T-shirts that say, “Fried chicken and Champagne…why the hell not?” Sure enough, a glass of sparkly Perrier-Jouët tempers the bird’s unctuousness brilliantly. maxswinedive.com

YARDBIRD SOUTHERN TABLE & BAR | Miami Beach, Florida
In a city best known for Cuban empanadas and Jewish delis, this bustling hot spot, with its dining room lined in smoky woods, finally brings the South to south Beach. The bar stocks 75 bourbons—and makes seductive bourbon-fueled cocktails, including an invigorating mint julep—to prime your palate before chowing down on a brined half-bird enveloped in a smooth, russet coating that clings to the meat. runchickenrun.com

Upscale Fried Chicken
White tablecloth spots that aren’t afraid of a grease stain

HARVEST | Louisville, Kentucky
At this rustic-chic restaurant with pictures of smiling local farmers on the wall, Coby Lee Ming cooks food mostly grown and raised within 100 miles—including fowl from nearby ranches and flour milled in Kentucky to make her pepper-flecked fried chicken. She arranges an airline cut (breast with wing attached) over a fluffy hoecake or savory bread pudding in a pool of milk-and-cream gravy and with a slick of homemade hot sauce sweetened with beets or carrots. harvestlouisville.com

WATERSHED ON PEACHTREE | Atlanta, Georgia
A new kitchen staff (helmed by Louisiana native Joe Truex), revamped menu, and relocation to Atlanta’s tony Buckhead community gave Watershed a slick makeover. But the fried chicken, made only on Wednesday nights and always sold out by 8 p.m., is the same brined, buttermilk-soaked, lard-and butter-simmered recipe that brought fame to the restaurant under Scott Peacock over a decade ago. watershedrestaurant.com

FEARING’S | Dallas, Texas
At Sunday brunch, Dean Fearing turns out his granny’s “paper bag shook” cast-iron skillet-fried chicken. The chicken, brined in apple cider and coated with a gossamer crust, sidles up to whipped potatoes, long-simmered bacony green beans, and luscious smoked tomato gravy. Ask to sit in the Sendero, the restaurant’s romantic, glass-walled room perfect for a languid meal. fearingsrestaurant.com

International Fried Chicken
Jet-set fryers packed with herbs and spices

AL ASEEL GRILL AND CAFE | Houston, Texas
Garlic and za’atar—a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes sesame seeds, sumac, and thyme—lend exotic zing to the chicken fried to order at this low-key Palestinian restaurant, a standout among the global eats along the city’s diverse, bar-heavy Richmond Strip. 713/787-0400

CARDAMOM HILL | Atlanta, Georgia 
In a dining room regal with carved-wood walls and silk-covered partitions, Asha Gomez serves boneless, delicately battered chicken thighs imbued with the spices of her native Southern India: tiny black mustard seeds, citrusy fried curry leaves, and a tropical whiff of coconut oil. You can order a gluten-free variation made with rice flour, which imbues extra crunch. cardamomhill.net

SOO CAFE | Raleigh, North Carolina
Hanging wooden trinkets and plastic plants decorate this cozy storefront that specializes in the other “KFC”: Korean fried chicken. A half or whole bird is fried to intense crispness and then coated in one of three sauces: sweet, hot and spicy, or, our favorite, a sticky, fragrant soy-garlic glaze. 919/834-2244

Fast Food and Supermarket Fried Chicken
POPEYES LOUISIANA KITCHEN
It's tender and juicy with seasoning that goes deep, all the way from crust to bone. (Get this: It tastes like chicken.) The Cajun version vaunts a balanced heat that starts up front with white pepper, followed by waves of red pepper for a subtle afterburn. Bonus: The paper packaging is vented, which keeps the crust from steaming to wilted flab inside the box. We wouldn't blame you for trying to pass this off as your own.

PUBLIX
This fowl hits the fried bird trifecta for flavor (we detect celery salt), crunch (deeply satisfying and crust-shattering), and grease factor (extremely low—it's eat-while-you-drive chicken). Leftovers held up well in the fridge, making this a prime candidate for picnics, family reunions, and church suppers.

MRS. WINNER'S CHICKEN & BISCUITS
The golden brown crust, a flour-coated relief map with a glitter-like smattering of black pepper, conceals supremely juicy meat. While fewer locations of this Georgia-founded chain dot the asphalt landscape than in years past, the chicken still holds court.

LEE'S FAMOUS RECIPE CHICKEN
Modest-size thighs and legs are enveloped in a pale blond, almost buttery crust (our guess: the result of frying in vegetable shortening). At this 48-year-old franchise founded by Lee Cummings, nephew of KFC's Colonel Harland Sanders, they hand-bread, dip in honey, and then pressure-fry every piece of chicken.

KFC
We're betting "finger lickin' good" wasn't an accidental tag-line—this chicken was the greasiest of the test. The Original recipe didn't win any fans. But the Extra Crispy got high marks for its beautifully mottled crust and rich flavor. Among those top secret herbs and spices, we nosed out onion and garlic powder and heaps of black pepper.

Fair-Feathered Trend: Nashville Hot Chicken
Spicy Buffalo wings have nothing on Nashville-style fried chicken, slathered with cayenne-laced paste. The beloved specialty started in the 1930s with Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (615/226-9442), where diners wait in line for mild (fiery for most), medium (expect tears), hot (pure masochism), or extra-hot, which the staff won’t even hand over to first-timers. Newcomer Hattie B’s (hattieb.com) also offers four degrees of heat, though they don’t quite climb the Scoville scale so mercilessly. And upscale restaurants now create their own riffs: The Catbird Seat (thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com) hands out an opening snack homage of cayenne-spiked fried chicken skins gussied up with dill salt and mind-bending Wonder Bread puree.

Fair-Feathered Trend: Chicken and Waffles
The origins of coupling bird with griddled hotcake are murky. In the last few years, though, Southern restaurants have adopted the dish wholeheartedly. The combo makes for a soulful breakfast at B-Side (b-sidebrunch.com), a Little Rock joint that stacks made-to-order wedges with a boneless chicken breast. The sweet-savory duo translates to fine dining just as seamlessly: Richmond newcomer Mansion Five 26 (hippodromerichmond.com) serves a plump fried breast over a fluffy, concentric waffle. And the dish’s straightforward appeal begs for embellishment: Palm Beach Garden’s Coolinary Cafe (coolinarycafe.com) gilds a jalapeño-cheddar waffle and buttermilk-marinated chicken with coleslaw, grilled lemon, and maple-Dijon glaze.

Fair-Feathered Trends: Fried Chicken and Champagne
There's no better pairing than Champagne and fried chicken—and not just because it's the perfect mix of high and low we Southerners love so much. Its effervescent acidity works as the ultimate grease cutter, keeping your palate crisp and clean as you chow through the salty deliciousness of fried yardbird. You don't have to spend big, but do opt for a dry sparkling wine, such as Spanish cava. Prosecco, with its frothy bubbles and higher sugar, just doesn't cut the fat.