It takes three days to prepare the chicken for the Dixie Fried Chicken Supper at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, the diner on San Felipe next to the St. Regis. The chicken—brined, marinated in buttermilk, and double-dipped in flour and batter—has a tender inside and a thick, crunchy crust. Served only on Sundays, it comes with mashed potatoes, slaw, and two dipping sauces: a hot pepper sauce-spiked syrup and a peppery cream gravy.
Chef Travis Lenig, who started serving Dixie Fried Chicken with french fries as a Wednesday special at the original Liberty Kitchen on Studewood, calls it “the best thing on the menu.” It’s so popular, in fact, Liberty owner Lee Ellis is expected to open another place next door called Lee’s Fried Chicken & Doughnuts this summer. Meanwhile, Eleven XI in Montrose has a whole fried game hen on the menu that’s battered inside and out, and Brad Ogden’s new fast-casual restaurant, Funky Chicken on Heights Blvd., also specializes in fried chicken, as will chef Brandi Key’s new Rice Village eatery, Punk’s Simple Southern Food.
How did fried chicken become the hottest category on the Houston dining scene? “It’s the ultimate comfort food,” says Lee Ellis. “You pick it up and eat it with your hands; it’s nostalgic; it reminds people of simpler times. And nobody cooks it at home.”
Fried chicken’s recent spate of popularity began in 2006, when Max’s Wine Dive opened on Washington Ave. with champagne and fried chicken as its signature pairing. Described on the menu as “house-made jalapeño-and-buttermilk–marinated chicken, deep-fried slow and low with mashed potatoes, collard greens, and brioche Texas toast,” it’s amazingly moist, slightly greasy, and indeed pairs well with a glass of bubbly. Other iterations have followed suit. Buttermilk fried chicken is one of the top dinnertime sellers at Frank’s Americana Revival in River Oaks, and the juicy version made famous at Branch Water Tavern is still one of the best items on the menu at the restaurant’s second incarnation, The Federal Grill on N. Shepherd Dr.
Houston isn’t the only place where chefs are putting their own spin on the dish. In New York, Southern fried chicken has been trendy for several years. The Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken in the East Village is among the most popular outlets there, while Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem is said to be among the best. The definitive recipe for Southern Pan-Fried Chicken is the one in the The Gift of Southern Cooking. The cookbook, co-written by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock after the two met in the 1990s as members of the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food (a precursor to the Southern Foodways Alliance), rode a wave of enthusiasm for the new Southern food movement.
The collaboration between Lewis, a widow from Virginia whose grandfather had been a slave, and Peacock, a young chef from Alabama, helped erase the line between black and white Southern cooking, thanks to a fried chicken recipe so sophisticated and so in tune with the slow food movement, it changed the way food lovers looked at the dish—and Southern cooking in general.
The recipe—which calls for chicken pieces to be brined for 12 hours, marinated in buttermilk for 12 hours, then dipped in flour and fried in a cast-iron skillet with lard flavored with a stick of butter and a slice of country ham—made Colonel Sanders’s 11 herbs and spices sound like a joke. Brine and buttermilk have since become standard for recipes, but sadly, we’re still waiting for a restaurant that produces sinfully delicious bacon-crisp chicken in a cast-iron skillet full of butter and ham-flavored lard.
Houston was already in the very top rank of American fried chicken capitals long before the dish got trendy. The extraordinarily juicy, virtually greaseless poultry served at Barbecue Inn on Crosstimbers at Yale was ranked among the best in America by Food & Wine in 2012, in addition to making Travel & Leisure’s list of best fried chicken in the country in 2010.
Their version of the dish has been prepared the same way since the restaurant opened in 1946. The chicken pieces are lightly coated with seasoned flour and fried to order, which means a 25-minute wait, and when it finally arrives, you have to wait another five minutes until it’s cool enough to handle. The crust, which resembles cornflakes, never falls away from the meat—they are welded together. It’s a surprisingly simple recipe that’s astonishingly good.
Those with a craving for spice would argue that the sensational cayenne-spiked fried chicken at the original Frenchy’s on Scott St. is the best in town. Percy “Frenchy” Creuzot, a friend of New Orleans legend Austin “The Godfather of Fried Chicken” Leslie, brought the spicy Creole fried-chicken tradition of Louisiana to Houston in 1969. (Incidentally, the drive-in restaurant also serves a remarkable rendition of red beans and rice.)
Meanwhile, cross-cultural variations also have their loyalists. The za’atar-sprinkled Palestinian fried chicken at Al Aseel on Richmond is top-notch, and so is the crunchy version piled with dried peppers at Mala Sichuan on Bellaire. Meanwhile, the citrus-marinated fried chicken at the Pollo Campero chain is still the favorite of Houston’s Central American community.
In fine-dining restaurants, chefs who want to get entrées out quickly have to find a way to partially cook the chicken, then fry it as it’s ordered. Randy Evans of Haven off Kirby precooks it sous vide in olive oil, then batters and fries it to order. The result is moist and spicy, with a terrific crust, although it falls away from the meat after the first bite.
Chef Ogden’s Funky Chicken also employs the double-cooking method, but here there’s no batter-dipping. The chicken is coated with a signature starch and spice blend, then doused with a second blend, this one paprika-based, when it comes out of the fryer. While the meat underneath is a little bland, the spicy, crunchy crust makes up for it, adhering to the chicken so that every bite is perfect.
Ogden, a CIA-educated chef with two James Beard Awards under his belt, recently closed his Las Vegas restaurants and moved to Houston to open three new ones, including Funky Chicken. He comes at fried chicken from a northerly direction: originally from Michigan, he got his first kitchen job at a Holiday Inn in Midland, Michigan where he learned Southern cooking from a hotel chef named Bee. Ogden started serving fried chicken at his Northern California restaurants in the 1980s.
One of Ogden’s signature dishes is Southern fried chicken salad, a humongous bowl of salad greens, pickled beets, and blue cheese tossed with a vinaigrette and topped with slices of crispy chicken. It’s one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. Some version of it will be on the menu at Ogden Pour Society, a gastropub scheduled to open soon in Gateway Memorial City.
Are the new top-chef versions of fried chicken better than the Houston classics? It depends on what you’re comparing—the chicken or the dining experience. Maybe the bourbon cocktail I paired with the Dixie Chicken Supper at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette colored my impression, but the pepper syrup and cream gravy served alongside the poultry there was much more exciting than the presentation at Barbecue Inn. Even so, thigh to thigh, breast to breast, Barbecue Inn’s classic fried chicken is still the best in the city. Of course, with so many new contenders in the works, we’ll see if they keep the title. Either way, looks like this dining trend’s got legs.