The crunchy, spice-laden skin of good fried chicken may sell the dish, but a juicy, tender interior seals the deal. Great fried chicken has both, and our search for the ideal never ends. Fried chicken excites like no other iconic American dish, be it burger, pizza, burrito and yes, sushi. Here are three versions of fried chicken that have given me a lot of pleasure recently.
Monday night fried chicken at the Elite Cafe
Manager Cassandra Miles grabbed my arm as I was briskly walking up Fillmore Street to tell me about fried chicken night at the Elite Cafe, the 34 year old New Orleans-inspired institution which replaces its front oyster bar with blues musicians Monday through Wednesday evenings. “Come in on Monday” she said, “when we make my fried chicken. I taught the kitchen how to do it.” I knew it had to be special because not that many restaurant people mug me on the street and physically try to pull me through the door.
The following Monday, I ate the fried chicken with my chicken-crazed, sazerac-swilling husband and now we have a weekly date. Cassandra’s unique fried chicken is the result of two days of brining in an herb-scented court bouillon, at least six hours of dry-rub marination, and a quick last- minute flouring in a paper bag that creates a thin, crackling, spice-infused skin. Cassandra cuts up small chickens so that each wing, thigh, drumstick and breast becomes dark brown outside just as the flesh inside firms into doneness, a godly balance of succulence and crispness that makes it so unusual. I am able to polish off the dark thigh, drumstick and wing and but can only manage the skin off the breast. It breaks my heart to leave the exceptionally moist white flesh, but we all have our priorities.
This $20 plate comes with deeply seasoned buttermilk mashed potatoes, a model of their kind; huge collard leaves long cooked with bacon (I think they should be chopped); elegant pickled spring vegetables (tiny turnips, carrots, fennel, ramps), crisp and brilliant in every way; and a ramekin of bona fide, pan-seasoned cream gravy that catapults the chicken and the mashed potatoes over the top.
Always begin with a plate of hot, buttery “Meetinghouse” cream biscuits (4/$5) that practically crumble at the touch of a butter-laden knife, the legacy of Joanna Karlinsky, a former Elite chef, who came up with the recipe for her former restaurant. Perfectly balanced traditional cocktails, including sazeracs, and tasty, eclectic wines live up to the standard set by Cassandra’s fried chicken.
2049 Fillmore Street (between California and Pine), San Francisco 415 673-5483
Fried Chicken dinner at farmerbrown
Chef/owner Jay Foster may have been prescient when he opened farmerbrown, his house of local-ingredient-inspired southern cooking, on the corner of Market and Mason nine years ago. Now this piece of funky mid-market real estate, so conveniently located near theaters, malls, and Union Square, has become a hotspot. And a big reason is Foster’s fried chicken, also served at his Little Skillet in SOMA at a takeout window in Ritch alley not far from the ballpark.
I rediscovered the joy of Foster’s fried chicken at a City Picnic at the Hosfelt Gallery, a benefit for Education Outside, a public primary school program that builds gardens and teaches in them. (Foster happens to send his kids to San Francisco public schools.)
How moist this chicken was, how exciting the batter-covered skin, even at room temperature. However, the chicken is at its very best hot from the farmerbrown kitchen, especially after a precisely made, state-of-the-art cocktail at the long, friendly bar.
I go all dark meat on the $22 southern fried chicken plate–2 legs, thigh and wing. Each golden piece, bigger than Elite’s, is encased in spicy crunch and the flesh drips with juice. The frying is clean, the shaggy deep-fried bits somehow chickeny, and an integral part of the bird. Every other inch of the plate’s real estate is occupied by collard greens, long braised with ham hock, and farmerbrown’s shells n’ cheese, a creamy, sauce-heavy, superior version of mac n’cheese that uses Oregon Tillamook cheddar.
Though meals start with divine, hot, miniature cornmeal muffins, you still need a side of angel biscuits (2 for $4.50), crumbly and rich, just because you do. For dessert, don’t miss farmerbrown’s famous pecan pie ($8.50), a nut extravaganza with a filling lighter than most and a magically crisp, butter crust.
25 Mason (at Market), San Francisco 415 409-3276
Combo Box at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen on Divisadero
Every once in a while I pick up a fried chicken box ($6.17)–2 pieces of spicy fried chicken (a wing and a thigh) with a side of coleslaw and biscuit–at Popeyes on Divis because my husband, formerly known as Chicken Bucket, makes me do it. I go at lunchtime when the place is busy and the service maddeningly slow because of inefficient, often mistake-ridden counter people. Then, at least, the chicken comes out hot and freshly cooked. (Better to wait than get the old stuff.) The spicy version is saturated with fat, the skin and flesh one, married, fragrant with frying compound, and irresistible. I think Popeyes use pressure cookers to fry, a scary technique you don’t want to do at home. I witnessed this first hand when Chicken Bucket actually used his own stove-top chicken bucket to cook fried chicken for me once upon a time. Popeyes cole slaw is too sweet, but you need some antidote to the greasy chicken. Certainly the crumbly, fat- laced, salty buttermilk biscuits offer no relief. But that chicken…..
599 Divisadero (at Hayes), San Francisco 415 346-3088
Fried Chicken Plate at 4505 Burgers & BBQ
On the way home with an order of Popeyes, I noticed that the super popular 4505 BBQ now offers 2 pieces of fried chicken with cream gravy, a Parker house roll and cole slaw (actually your choice of side) ($12), so of course I bought a box and ate it next to Popeyes. The cole slaw scented with celery seed in tangy yogurt-poppyseed dressing was superior. So was a Parker house roll with a golden buttery top. Plus, each box contains a treat of sliced, house-made, bread-and-butter pickles and cream gravy, great for dunking with the Parker house roll.
The chicken was dark and spicy like the Elite’s, but the seasoned batter fell off the parts and the flesh, though moist, tasted smoky. Smoke does not belong in fried chicken; and one of the joys of fried chicken is eating the crunchy skin with each bite of meat. I had to scrape up the crumbs at the bottom of the box as I ate, as seasoning. Stick to the fantastic 4505 double burger which lives up to its moniker as the “best damn grass fed cheeseburger” or the pulled chicken, brisket and pulled pork, all made with beautifully raised meats.
599 Divisadero (at Grove), San Francisco. 415 346-3088