The South's Best Fried Chicken
Few foods test the mettle of a Southern cook more than fried chicken. Fortunately, culinary artists throughout the region happily accept the challenge. Today, this crispy chicken has broadened its habitat from our grandparents’ kitchens to fast-food joints, gas stations, and even white-tablecloth restaurants. Southerners now have a dazzling variety of ways to enjoy this iconic dish. Some cooks hew to traditional recipes, while others look abroad for flavor. And some show their definition of “global warming” with fiery spices and sauces. Here’s our list of some of the South’s perfect plates of poultry.
AQ Chicken House
This storied joint in northwest Arkansas has been serving up superlative fried chicken since 1947. Though the standard offerings on the menu here are just fine, for an unusual spin on a classic, we recommend trying AQ’s Over the Coals rendition. After the chicken is fried, it’s finished on a charcoal grill. Just as you’re savoring the lemon pepper-seasoned crust, you’ll get hit with a delicate but smoky aftertaste. If you are having trouble making up your mind, AQ also offers a combination platter that lets you sample its traditional Southern fried, barbecue, and Over the Coals versions. Another solid option is the AQ Combo, which pairs fried chicken with spaghetti and a homemade sauce. Complete your meal with some delicious side items like creamy sweet potato casserole, crispy fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and other Southern favorites.
Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken
Ever since fried chicken and waffles became trendy, chefs have looked for interesting riffs on that classic combination. Bless the soul who chose doughnuts as the “bread” component! Astro Doughnuts, located in our nation’s capital, serves up individual pieces as well as “fingers” of irresistibly crunchy fried chicken, but it’s really their sandwiches that shine. You can “build a sandwich” by starting off with a chicken breast and then choosing a type of bun (in this case, a savory doughnut), the kind of sauce that will be drizzled on the chicken breast, and additional toppings like a coleslaw made with kimchi (a spicy cabbage relish from Korea), pickled jalapeños, or a farm-fresh egg. There are many interesting choices on the menu that will spark your interest. Try a bun that’s seasoned with Old Bay. Or if you want something sweet, we guarantee you’ll fall in love with the crème brûlée doughnut. It’s a square, cakey version with a creamy custard on the inside and caramelized sugar on top. As one diner rhapsodized, “It’s everything!”
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey
James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen’s Beasley’s Chicken + Honey—with its airy design, community tables, environmentally friendly chalkboard menu, and knowledgeable staff—is one of the most popular dining spots in the City of Oaks and often has a line out the door. As indicated by the restaurant’s moniker, the signature fried chicken comes drizzled with honey, a nod to Christensen’s beekeeping father. It’s tasty for sure and takes a minimalist approach that yields good results—a thin, crispy, and lightly seasoned crust with juicy chicken underneath. The real standouts here are the sides: grits fries served with slightly spicy chowchow (vegetable relish), roasted beets with an orange and white-balsamic vinaigrette, fried black-eyed peas dusted with cumin (a welcome twist on a Southern staple), and a pimiento mac-and-cheese custard.
Busy Bee Cafe
If you like your fried chicken made the old-school way, then it’s hard to top longtime Atlanta institutions like the Busy Bee Cafe. One of the oldest soul food restaurants in the U.S., it opened in 1947. Busy Bee takes a classic approach to making fried chicken by lightly seasoning it with little more than salt and pepper and flouring the pieces just enough to create a crisp, thin crust that’s not too greasy. Finish off your meal with some of the cafe’s blackberry cobbler or a slice of “Key lime cake,” a lime-flavored, layered cake topped with cream cheese frosting.
Percy “Frenchy” Creuzot earned his restaurant chops in the late 1960s by feeding Houstonians the food he grew up with in his native New Orleans. What started out as a po’boy-sandwich shop changed fortunes when Frenchy put fried chicken on the menu. With that fateful decision, Frenchy’s took flight. His cayenne pepper-infused fried chicken with a thin, spicy crust won over many college students near his first restaurant. Though fried chicken anchors the current menu, the Creole side dishes like dirty rice (rice mixed with crumbled sausage), gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice really round out the meal.
Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken
The best-known locations of Gus’s are in Memphis, but this otherworldly fried chicken got its start over 60 years ago about an hour away in Mason, Tennessee. Napoleon “Na” and Maggie Vanderbilt began experimenting to create a good recipe for chicken, which they sold from the back of a tavern. They eventually opened a restaurant, and we must give thanks for their dedication, for it is some of the best fried chicken we’ve ever had. Fortunately, we can still savor it because they passed the torch (and the recipe) to Na’s son, Vernon “Gus” Bonner. He changed the restaurant’s name, wisely kept the secret recipe, and continued to serve superb food. Gus’s isn’t going to give up its recipe, but we surmise they soak the chicken in some cayenne-spiked milk before flouring and frying it in peanut oil. The finished product has a reddish appearance that portends of piquant spice, and it delivers a much-needed kick to your palate.
Indi’s Fast Food
It has been 87 years since Col. Harland Sanders made this state synonymous with fried chicken, but Kentuckians in the know also flock to another storied fast-food chain to satisfy their chicken fix. At the rainbow-awninged Indi’s Fast Food, you will find construction workers and famous chefs alike lined up to feast on crispy pieces piled high behind Plexiglas and beneath heat lamps that look more like a row of hair-dryer domes at a beauty parlor. What Indi’s famous chicken lacks in glamour, it makes up for in unbeatable flavor, with a peppery punch hidden in the crust. To round out your meal, choose from a laundry list of traditional side items like creamy macaroni and cheese, smoky baked beans, and fried potato wedges. Bonus: This late-night spot will add an extra hit of spicy heat to your order of chicken for only a quarter.
KYU (pronounced “cue”) mixes the old and the new. Chef Michael Lewis’ fried chicken draws culinary inspiration from Asian flavors, ingredients, and techniques and then gets mashed up with a traditional Southern barbecue approach. The result is a mouthwatering, wood-fire, Korean fried chicken (twice-fried, in fact) served with butter-braised chicory and a blend of hot sauce and soy sauce.
Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop
For a fried-chicken joint, Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop has an almost preposterously healthful menu: Customers can warm up for their whole-bird platters with roasted beets, kale salad, chilled black-eyed peas, and avocado toast. All of those items are quite good, but the chicken is truly great, as is apparent to anyone who has so much as glimpsed a drumstick. Its brittle crust is significantly darker than the fawn-blond shade that’s favored by fast-food chains. Ruddy as prized riding boots, it looks like something you could bequeath to your grandchildren. In reality, though, that chicken isn’t even making it home to your refrigerator. Dipped in buttermilk and shellacked with Old Bay seasoning, Leon’s chicken would rate as irresistible even if the last thing it touched before plating weren’t melted pork fat. (Still, let’s be honest: Lard never hurts.) It’s the shroud of peppery spice that’s so compelling. And if it’s all a mite too hot for your taste, Leon’s has you covered. A serving of charred radicchio with yogurt dressing and golden raisins will calm that overexcited tongue right down. Round out your meal with a side of hush puppies or fried brussels sprouts, and wash it all down with one of Leon’s famed cocktails.
Pork-perfumed smoke emanates from this barbecue joint-Mexican cantina hybrid, which specializes in hickory-smoked meat tacos and slow-stewed carnitas. But don’t miss the fried chicken. It’s rubbed with a paste of dried chile de árbol and other hot peppers, which sinks into the meat as it brines. Southern Living staffers recommend pairing the dish with sides like creamy pinto beans and street-style corn on the cob, drizzled with crema, dotted with Cotija cheese, and powdered with ancho chile.
Mary Mac's Tea Room
This iconic spot in midtown atlanta, which opened in 1945, takes the same tried-and-true approach to frying chicken as the Busy Bee Cafe. Mary Mac’s also offers a laundry list of solid side dishes to complement your entrée. Start off your meal on a strong note with a round of appetizers, including a cup of potlikker (with some collard green remnants mixed in) served with cracklin’ bread. You decide whether you want to dip the bread in the potlikker and take a bite, mix it all together by crumbling the bread in the potlikker, or eat them separately; you can’t go wrong with any of those options. If you’re dining with a group, we suggest ordering the Southern Special. This all-you-can-eat meal is served family style with your party’s choice of three main dishes (the fried chicken being a standout pick, of course), along with three of Mary Mac’s tasty sides and a delicious Southern dessert like banana pudding or peach cobbler.
Masada Café at The United House of Prayer for All People
In African-American circles, fried chicken is lovingly (and jokingly) nicknamed the “Gospel bird” or “Sunday cluck”—a nod to the dish’s hallowed and regular place at church functions. Where better to get the full vibe than at a restaurant connected to a church? Masada Café, which has limited hours, is set up like many meat ’n’ threes you’ll find in the South. Yet incorporated in this buffet line is some “glorifried” (pardon the pun) chicken that is the envy of many chefs. Masada’s proprietors know this because they sniff out the frequent attempts to get their recipe. Once you take a bite, you’ll understand ll the fuss. This chicken has a thin, papery crust, seasoned with salt and pepper, that clings to the moist meat without completely shattering after that first bite. This celebrated fried chicken is, in a word, “heavenly.” Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday.
2301 West Bay Street
Old Country Store
Stepping inside the Old Country Store—located at an otherwise deserted crossroads on U.S. 61—can induce sensory overload. The building’s weathered exterior hides a bustling cafeteria surrounded by antiques and memorabilia. But if you can remain focused and follow your nose to an alcove in the back, you’ll find the cause for all this activity—a glorious soul food buffet with some of the best fried chicken in America. Piled high and served molten hot, it achieves that delicious, near-mythical balance of tender, juicy meat and a bark of crunchy, salty crust that shatters audibly at tables all around you. The subtle hints of mustard, paprika, and turmeric that cling to your fingers provide the only clues to the meat’s unique blend of seasonings. Enjoy your chicken with turnip greens, field peas, cornbread, and a delightfully syrupy peach cobbler. What you’ll have is a meal that’s worthy of its place next to all the heavenly crumbs raining down onto your plate with each bite.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
This “hot” (both in terms of its trendiness and spice level) version of fried chicken originally comes from a bare-bones joint nestled in a spot on Nashville’s north side. Prince’s proves that revenge is a dish best served hot. If you don’t know the backstory by now, once upon a time, Thornton Prince cheated on his lover. In turn, she decided to teach him a lesson by making an incendiary version of fried chicken that she hoped would burn up his mouth. He took one bite and loved it. For decades, Prince’s has been pumping out poultry that will make you perspire after a few bites. Some sleuths figure that the secret recipe is to marinate the meat for several hours in buttermilk spiked with hot sauce before flouring it and frying it in a cast-iron skillet. It is then immersed in a lava flow of cayenne pepper and other spices mixed with some hot oil used to fry the chicken. The orangish red, crispy, incredibly juicy chicken is served on top of white bread and garnished with dill pickle slices.
Chef Vishwesh Bhatt, a multiple James Beard Award nominee, drew upon his fond memories of a chicken-and-rice dish that he ate as a child to inspire a distinctive and playful take on fried chicken and waffles. Because he grew up in India, chef Bhatt’s subcontinental spin on this dish is unique. He seasons his chicken with vadouvan, a French version of traditional curry powder with a predominately onion flavor. He then breads the chicken pieces with rice flour and does a shallow panfry that delivers a nice, greaseless crisp. The fried chicken is paired with a rice flour waffle that is sweetened with some jaggery (an unrefined sugar that is very popular in South Asia). Surprisingly, the jaggery is not cloying, and the dish has a nice balance of savory and sweet flavors.
Brooklyn, New York-born chef Edward Lee has become a cornerstone of the culinary scene in Louisville, Kentucky, where he creatively fuses his own Korean heritage with traditional Southern food. In 2015, Lee headed back to the East Coast and opened a new concept called Succotash in Maryland, with another location coming soon to Washington, D.C. Lee went into mad-scientist mode and melded Buffalo wings with Nashville hot chicken (and then added a nod to Korea) to create what he calls “Dirty Fried Chicken.” Lee’s version of hot chicken is selling like the proverbial hotcakes. After a soy sauce and vinegar brine, dark-meat chicken pieces are floured and fried in a pressure cooker. The crispy chicken is painted red with an Asian-inspired sweet and spicy sauce that mixes traditional fermented Korean chile bean paste (gochujang) with honey. Keeping with the Buffalo wing theme, Lee garnishes the fried chicken with blue cheese, nori (seaweed) for saltiness, and some pickles. If you like crunch, you’ll want to gobble up this chicken quickly before it bathes for too long in the wonderfully sticky sauce.
Ted’s Famous Chicken
“Dipped chicken” is another version of spicy fried chicken that thrives in North Carolina. In the early 1940s, entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin Cureton got the boss idea to dip (drown, really) fried chicken in a western North Carolina-style barbecue sauce that combines vinegar, red pepper hot sauce, and some ketchup. This sauce is usually squirted on plates of chopped pork shoulder, but it works just fine on fried poultry. Many restaurants in Central North Carolina offer delicious renditions, but we especially love the tongue-tickling version served at Ted’s. Depending upon how indulgent the sauce mixer is with the ketchup and hot sauce, dipped chicken can show up on your plate colored anywhere from brick red to light maroon. Nikki Miller-Ka of Winston-Salem, who writes the food blog Nik Snacks, shared her take on it: “Ted’s Kickin’ Chicken and Ted’s Famous Chicken are one and the same. All parts of the chicken are fried extra crispy with an abundance of nooks and crannies perfect for Ted’s house sauce to lie in wait for you to bite into. Spicy and piquant, the sauce is a winner in any book.”
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Willie Mae Seaton—the heart, soul, and spirit of this highly acclaimed fried-chicken joint—was still cooking well into her nineties. When she could no longer carry on, her great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton Stewart was there to sustain this establishment, which began as a bar in 1957. In recent years, Seaton’s fried chicken has garnered some considerable praise, including national recognition from the James Beard Foundation, the Food Network, and the Travel Channel—all for good reason. The chicken here is dipped in a wet batter and deep-fried, leaving diners with a golden, lightly seasoned, ethereal crust that gives way to the moist meat underneath. If you’re feeling a little guilty for eating such decadent fried chicken, make yourself feel better by ordering one of the nutritious meat-free sides.
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar
This Miami Beach spot offers an interesting spin on trendy chicken and waffles. Their fried, lightly spiced chicken is served alongside pillowy waffles flavored with sharp Vermont Cheddar cheese. The savory elements are balanced by a honey hot sauce; some bourbon maple syrup; and a nice spread of chilled, cubed watermelon. It’s addictive.