By Hope S. Philbrick
Here in Georgia, we like our chicken fried. It’s a fact celebrated in Zac Brown Band’s chart-topping hit “Chicken Fried.” The reason seems obvious: With its crispy coating and juicy meat, fried chicken is a finger-licking soul-nourishing dish that’s arguably just as satisfying whether it’s served piping hot or as cold leftovers. But not all fried chicken is created equal. Whether you’re a local or an out-of-town visitor, you deserve the best. Here we sing the praises of some of our favorite Atlanta preparations of the American South’s most ubiquitous dish.
The best things come to those who wait and fried chicken is no exception. “Our fried chicken is a three-day process,” says Chef Joe Truex of Watershed on Peachtree, which is why it’s only available on Wednesday evenings. “We soak the chicken in a salt water brine for two days and then in a buttermilk bath for another 24 hours,” he says. The chicken is then lightly dusted with a mixture of flour, salt and pepper and pan-fried in a hot bubbly brew of ham, butter and lard. The legendary results are whisked to the table while piping hot and served alongside biscuits that manage to be both crispy and fluffy.
At Rosebud, Chef Ron Eyester also reveals that time is an essential ingredient in his recipe. “Our chicken requires a lot of preparation,” he says. Using only boneless breasts from Springer Mountain, “we brine the chicken in salt water for 24 hours and then in a seasoned buttermilk brine—using local buttermilk from Johnston Dairy—for an additional 36 hours.” The fine texture of his coating may be explained by his use of what he calls “seasoned White Lily flour.”
But chefs won’t spill all their secrets.
“I like to use a large breast with a wing, sometimes referred to as a Coleman cut,” says Chef Alison Lueker of Sun In My Belly. “I soak my chicken in a buttermilk brine for two days, dredge it in some seasoned flour and fry it in canola oil.” She admits to using a mix of spices, but smiles and says, “Feel free to guess, but I’m going to keep my cards close to my chest on this one.” Each bite of the sublime combination of her flaky coating and juicy meat make for a delicious investigation.
While many different methods and techniques can yield tasty fried chicken, “what I think makes our fried chicken consistently moist and flavorful is our marinating procedure,” says Chef Justin Keith of Food 101. “We use boneless, skinless chicken breasts and marinate them first in a simple brine solution for a minimum of 24 hours and then in second marinade of seasoned buttermilk for a minimum of 24 hours.”
Brine and buttermilk may be essential elements of many Atlanta chefs’ recipes for fried chicken, but Georgia can’t lay exclusive claim to the processes. “In my reading and research regarding fried chicken, I haven’t come across any distinctive differences among various regions of the country,” says Keith.
Lueker agrees: “I’m not sure if there is a ‘Georgia style’ of fried chicken, but I do admit that many Georgian chefs hold the brine that the chicken is soaked in prior to breading and frying is sacred and sometimes secret.”
Some tricks of the trade can be sussed out. “Southern style fried chicken is all about the batter, the crust and the cast iron skillet,” says Chef Alex Friedman of P’cheen International Bistro and Pub. Before it’s plated with garlic mashed potatoes and topped with local pepper gravy, Friedman breads “boneless organic chicken about 12 hours before frying, which allows the chicken’s natural juices to mix with our seasoned flour to create a batter over the entire breast and leg quarters. A quick dredging of seasoned flour creates a thin yet perfectly coated crust.” Every bite confirms the claim.
Infusing fried chicken with international flavors can yield some mouthwatering results. The dish gets an exciting South Indian-inspired twist at Cardamom Hill. Chef Asha Gomez presents her award-winning Kerala‐style fried chicken as a thali (think Indian tapas) on her lunch menu and as a generous entrée at dinner. And she recently announced a gluten-free version of the popular dish.
Fried chicken isn’t officially on the menu at Wrecking Bar Brewpub. But order the “Secret Schnitzel Salad” anyway; it’s available for those in the know. A large, thick German-inspired breaded, fried cutlet is topped with a fried egg and served atop a salad of baby spinach, golden raisins, mushrooms and balsamic. Like any juicy bit of gossip, it’s hard not to devour.
Atlantans also adore the fried chicken at these restaurants:
The famed duo of chicken and waffles is served at Chicken and The Egg with braised greens, whipped sorghum butter and house-made hot sauce.
Served with sea island red peas and seasonal local greens, the fried chicken at JCT Kitchen is in limited quantities so come early.
Chef Joey Riley serves his scrumptious skillet-fried chicken breast at Kaleidoscope with collards and baked mac-n-cheese.
Any paparazzi zoom lenses spotted at South City Kitchen may be aimed at a celebrity or at the fried chicken.
Chef Art Smith’s recipe on the menu at Southern Art has been served to President Obama, Oprah, Nelson Mandela, Lady Gaga and more.
The generous serving of fried chicken at Table & Main includes the leg, thigh and breast so comes with an extra plate for sufficient space.
-Photo Credits: Top, Food 101, Photo by Lauren Rubenstein; Watershed on Peachtree courtesy Watershed on Peachtree; Rosebud courtesy Green Olive Media; Sun In My Belly by Amber Fouts; P’cheen by Teodora Nicolae; Cardamom Hill by Chris Hornaday; Wrecking Bar Brewpub by Greg Scott with Picture This! Photography.
Link to more reviews of these featured restaurants on Urbanspoon:
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. A version of this article was also published in Where Atlanta magazine.