A piece of chicken breaded and fried—what could be simpler? But in the hands of good Southern cooks, fried chicken is sublime. For folks who grew up in the country, Sunday’s chicken dinner was often wandering in the backyard on Saturday. Today, people don’t have that kind of time—or that kind of yard. Now almost everyone heads to the local shack, joint, or diner for a fried chicken fix.
And good fried chicken has migrated beyond the South. As people move, they take their favorite foods with them. More than that, though, fried chicken is landing on white tablecloths in some of the country’s finest restaurants. Fried chicken might not be the sole property of the South anymore, but it’s still home to the best. Here are our top picks around the South to get unique tastes of a simple bird made divine.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
New Orleans, Louisiana
Willie Mae’s Scotch House was almost a casualty of Hurricane Katrina. But when a group of folks from the Southern Foodways Alliance heard how close this treasure was to disappearing, they showed up to help rebuild what could have been lost. And there are no words to thank them enough. Crispy isn’t really a good enough word to describe the skin on the chicken at Willie Mae’s. It’s paper thin, light but well seasoned, and it clings to the juicy meat beneath it like a cloak. Yes, there are sides, and you can’t go wrong with any of them, but the chicken is what you’re there for. Just be prepared for a wait. Willie Mae’s is a chicken destination.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
“World famous” is a pretty big claim to make, but Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken can do it. When visitors to Memphis are taken out for fried chicken, odds are they’re going to Gus’s. Mason, about 20 miles east of Memphis, is the original (but not only) location for this unique fried chicken. The coating on the skin is light but salty, spicy, and incredibly crisp. The secret? No one knows because at Gus’s, it really is a secret. Your options for sides are limited, but that’s OK since you’re there for the chicken.
Seafood & Chicken Box
You might not expect to find great fried chicken in a strip mall, but that’s exactly what you’ll get at Seafood & Chicken Box near Birmingham. Of course, that’s because the folks here take their chicken seriously. They don’t fry until you order, so you’ll wait a bit. Take advantage of the seafood side of the menu by ordering an appetizer to keep you going. The fried crab claws are especially tasty. The view out the windows might not be impressive, but when your chicken hits the table, you’ll see all you need to see anyway. It’s all about the skin here. It’s crispy, light, and well seasoned, keeping the meat inside nice and juicy.
Monte Ne Inn Chicken
Country charm fills the atmosphere of Monte Ne Inn, but if you don’t want fried chicken, this isn’t the place for you. Dinner here is family style and all-you-can-eat, with fried chicken as the star. The skin is crisp and lightly seasoned, and the meat is juicy and tender. But don’t overlook the sides, especially the homemade bread with picture-perfect pots of apple butter on each table. Dessert is included in the dinner price, but don’t expect to have room for it.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room
There’s a lot of history at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, and you feel it as soon as you walk in. So much more than a chicken shack, Southern hospitality and white tablecloths abound. As for the chicken, simple salt and pepper is all that it takes to make the fried chicken at Mary Mac’s something special. A double coating of batter makes for an intense crunch and juicy interior. Of course, the fact that you’re enjoying your chicken at an Atlanta legend doesn’t hurt. While you’re there, try the classic sides and sweet tea. And don’t miss the pecan pie for dessert.
The fried chicken at Franco’s Restaurant is just one of the options on the cafeteria line at this local soul food gem in the Shively area of Louisville, but this should be the fried chicken that made Kentucky famous. Here, you’ll get a thick crust that stands up to sides like hearty pork-seasoned greens (with optional pig foot meat), pinto beans, and macaroni and cheese that definitely does not come from a box. And don’t miss out on Franco’s renowned cobbler for dessert. While all of them are excellent, word on the street is that you should grab the cherry if it’s available.
Old Country Store
The Old Country Store might not be much to look at from the outside. Originally a general store, the building has been around for a long time, and it shows. But this place serves up amazing fried chicken on its buffet line. It’s crispy and perfectly seasoned, and, if you’re lucky, it’ll even come with a song from proprietor Arthur Davis. Fill your plate with sides like greens, sweet potatoes, and dirty rice, but don’t expect them to be the same every time you visit. Mr. Davis likes to serve what’s in season, so you might find watermelon and sweet corn at the peak of summer and perfect apple pie in the fall.
Mama Dip’s Country Cooking
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Mama Dip’s Country Cooking is a legend in Southern cooking and deservedly so. Going to eat here is more like going to Grandma’s than going to a restaurant. Wide porches with rocking chairs and big windows are just the start of a great meal. The chicken here is encased in a rich, well-seasoned batter that’s both crisp and moist. Maybe that’s because this is pan-fried chicken the way your grandmother did it. The options for sides are almost overwhelming, but while you can’t go wrong with any of them, Mama Dip is almost as famous for her greens as she is for her chicken. And you’ll regret it if you skip dessert.
Charleston, South Carolina
While there’s plenty of great food to choose from in downtown Charleston, Jestine’s Kitchen offers wonderful home-style cooking. You’ll find perfect fried chicken here with a light, crunchy batter and juicy meat. Try it with okra (fried or in gumbo) and classic Charleston red rice. Be careful not to fill up on the homemade pickles or the cornbread and honey butter that start your meal, though, because you want to be sure to have room for one of Jestine’s famous desserts.
Price’s Chicken Coop
Charlotte, North Carolina
There are no frills at Price’s Chicken Coop. A visit to their website will set you straight on that right away. It’s just the menu and a message that they don’t take checks, credit cards, or debit cards, but once you have the chicken here, you won’t mind that it’s a cash-only, carry-out-only operation. You might make it to your car before you dig in, and you might even make it to the park a few blocks down the street. But once you bite into this crispy, salty chicken, you’ll understand why there’s always a line here. The folks at Price’s have a system to keep that line moving—know what you intend to order before you join the line. And know that any extras you want will cost, well, extra.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
The word to pay attention to at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is hot. When you order drinks, get spares because when they say the chicken is hot here, they mean it. Sure you can order mild or medium, but those are relative terms. They’re still hot, just not as
much as hot or extra-hot. This isn’t chicken that tries to fool you about that, though.
It practically glows a bright orange-red that dares you to take a bite. It double-dog dares you. And you know you want to.
By Paul and Angela Knipple