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Our Apologies Colonel Sanders

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Our Apologies Colonel Sanders
Monkey Wrench Cast Iron Fried Chicken / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

There’s More than One Way to Fry the Bird

Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about Southern country cooking called Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken. In it I cheekily pointed out that I, not Hoosier Harland Sanders, was born in Corbin, Kentucky, so I was the person who could tell you what “Honest Fried Chicken” was all about. Then I declared that it sure didn’t come “tricked out with countless herbs and spices.”

Ah, but that was before I met Atlanta restaurateur Asha Gomez. At the Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, Asha served a stunningly delicious meal combining the flavors of her native Kerala, India, with the techniques and products of her adopted American South. As I swooned over a bite of jaggery, gingery, peach fried pie, a friend who knows said, “You should taste her spicy Southern fried chicken.”

Spicy Southern fried chicken? And that’s how I ended up in the soothing brown and gold dining room of Cardamom Hill* while Bill Withers crooned, “Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone…” on the sound system. A long, narrow platter of copper-colored crispy thighs were laid before me. I picked up the first just a little skeptically, took a bite, and thought, “Bill Withers could have found a cure for his lightless heart right here.”

Unlike the incendiary hot chicken that has been all the rage of late, Asha’s (and all the chicken that follows here) is all about the bird. The first taste that filled my mouth was the tender umami of excellent boneless, skinless thighs surrounded by crisp crust. Only then did the spices chime in, a fine, enriching harmony. The housemade garam masala is at once both bright and dusky with a distinct flowery sweetness in the mouth. You have a moment to savor it completely before the heat of Kashmiri chile makes itself known. That heat never rises higher than a firm warm glow, one that brings out the sweetness of the subtle coconut oil used to finish and the drizzle of mango, ginger, and green chile sauce that becomes the final note. Only not so final as it’s impossible not to take another bite, and then another until all the chicken is gone.

Kerala Fried Chicken
from Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill*, Atlanta, Georgia

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Kerala Fried Chicken

I was converted. Next thing I knew I was in West Asheville’s brand-new King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffles, ordering Korean-style fried chicken with great anticipation—and a side of cracklin waffles. In a high, narrow, historic building nicely accented with aluminum and chrome, King Daddy’s is the latest venture of John and Julie Stehling, owners of the popular downtown Asheville’s Early Girl Eatery. John says they’d always meant to do chicken and waffles, but back when Early Girl opened in 2001, they discovered the electrical wiring in their beautiful building couldn’t handle the charge of multiple waffle irons.

“That’s okay,” John says with his easy going grin. “It gave me a while to work out some variations.”

I think it’s better than okay since one of those variations is the spicily delightful Korean fried chicken. John uses frenched thighs with a small bone still in to expedite finger picking and subsequent licking. Super crisped from his special gluten-free dredge and a double frying, the chicken is tossed in a soy ginger sauce and dredged again to finish with a signature spice rub that mixes sweet, sharp, salty, and hot. John serves it with housemade Korean pickle. There’s a little burn in the mouth on first bite, but again, not so much that you don’t get the full succulent flavor of chicken and crust. You can order this with any waffle on the menu or no waffle at all, but the waffle studded with plenty of pork cracklin pieces is a combination made in heaven.

Korean-Style Fried Chicken with Ginger Sauce
from John Sterling of King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffle, Asheville, North Carolina

Korean-Style Fried Chicken with Ginger Sauce

Of the belief that you cannot talk fried chicken without saying Kentucky, I next landed on the shady, bustling upstairs deck of The Monkey Wrench in Louisville. Downstairs, Chef Dustin Staggers was marinating chickens in the juice from jars of dill pickle and pickled banana pepper overnight. It’s buttermilk dipped and flour dredged before he fries it up the classical way, in cast iron skillets. His crunchy chicken is stratified with whispers of hot and sour savors. It’s served atop squiggles of local sweet sorghum syrup and banana pepper aioli for customized dipping. It washes down perfectly with a cold PBR or one of the many local brews that grace the bar menu and delight the young diners who pack this place. Dustin can barely keep enough cast iron skillets going to stay apace with customer demand.

Monkey Wrench Cast Iron Fried Chicken
from Chef Dustin Staggers of The Monkey Wrench in Louisville, Kentucky

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Monkey Wrench Cast Iron Fried Chicken

Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 in Greensboro, North Carolina, has solved that skillet riddle with wider flat pans of near-industrial girth that produce skillet chicken that would make your Mamaw cry with envy. The last stop on my chicken run, Jay’s chicken was the closest to the tradition I remember. A place at once both lovely and casual, Lucky 32 is exactly where you’d expect to find the signature Southern fried chicken paradox of a crust that is both tender and crispy at once. It belongs as it’s served, on the plate with his velvety collard greens, genuine mashed potatoes, biscuit, and gravy. But once you get past that first “mmmm, mmmm, just-like-Mamaw’s” bite, Jay’s subtle take on spice makes itself known. Smoked Spanish paprika in the dry rub underscores the rich essence that comes from frying in lard and bacon grease combined. And in the background, humming with a Louisiana drawl, you can taste the Creole seasoning Jay adds judiciously to the flour dredge. It’s just a little hot and just a little herbed, but just enough to change an old-school chicken purist’s mind. This spice? It plays nice. I’m in!

Skillet Fried Chicken
from Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro, North Carolina

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Skillet Fried Chicken

*Editor’s Note: Asha Gomez recently closed Cardamom Hill to focus on her new venture, Spice to Table, a wonderful Indian patisserie in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mentioned in this post:
Andrew Cebulka, Jay Pierce, Asha Gomez