When I decided to find the best fried chicken in the East Village, I was listening to my mother on the phone from my parents’ house near Jacksonville, griping about the cold. She had to bring the plants inside, she whined. There was frost on the windshield. For three nights in a row, the temperature had fallen below 40 degrees.
Normally I’d agree — a brutally frigid stretch. But at that moment, 40 degrees sounded downright tropical. I’m a fourth-generation Floridian on both sides, and until that October, I had never owned a scarf. Now, in January, I was headlong into my first real winter.
I had moved to Manhattan for grad school and found it thrilling and disorienting in the usual ways. But the cold made me unbearably homesick, and it threw the more minor differences between New York and northern Florida into sharper relief. Wearing a jacket every day exacerbated the claustrophobia brought on by tightly-packed streets and buildings. I missed Spanish moss and vast, winding oak trees. I missed decent oranges. I missed calling people “ma’am,” and driving on wide, straight roads.
I also missed Southern food. But it occurred to me, as something called “wintry mixNot a delicious ice cream treat, I was sad to learn.” crawled across my TV screen: I was in the self-proclaimed “food capital of the world.” Maybe finding one great plate of fried chicken would anchor me in place, give me something familiar in a sea of newness, help me survive New York.
My love for fried chicken is passed down from my mother, and the two of us are veritable connoisseurs on the matter. We share a set of precise, unflinching criteria:
• Boneless chicken doesn’t count. Chicken nuggets aren’t fried chicken, nor are chicken sandwiches.
• The skin should be crispy, like a first bite of cereal, to provide a proper contrast to the overwhelming juiciness contained within.
• A little spice is crucial; cayenne offers the best flavor.
• It has to be served scalding hot; the average mortal should have to wait at least 2 minutes or so for the chicken to cool to an edible temperature.
At first glance, finding the perfect fried chicken didn’t look like it would be too tough. This was 2009, and Southern-inspired food joints were becoming New York trendy. High-end restaurants like Momofuku and Locanda Verde were booking $50-a-plate fried chicken dinners months in advance.
But in the South, the best and messiest fried chicken tends to come from the most desolate, remote places: roadside stands, the back ends of gas stations, run-down shacks off forgotten highway exits. For that reason, I refused to rely on Yelp!, instead starting with the fried chicken closest to my apartment and working my way out.
The first stop was Kennedy’s, a justifiably obscure fast food chain on 14th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B. Beware of food joints boasting multiple cuisines. Kennedy’s, according to its signage, also served hamburgers, seafood, and ice cream. The chicken was an alarming reddish-brown color, and the meat was completely raw near the bone. A sense of grease-laden regret is part of the fried chicken experience, but fear of salmonella should never enter the picture.
The best and messiest fried chicken comes from the most desolate places: roadside stands, the back ends of gas stations, run-down shacks off forgotten highway exits.
As bad as Kennedy’s was, it didn’t offer up the particular flavor of seasonal affective despair brought on by Mama’s Food Shop on 6th Street and Avenue B. Mama’s menu was full of the New York approximation of soul food that you typically got in those early days of Southern food’s national takeover. The chicken seemed fine at first — temperature, crispiness, juices — but something wasn’t quite right. I realized that the slightly acrid aftertaste I was picking up in the skin was rosemary.
That rosemary threw me into a fit. It was a small thing, but it was everything wrong with Mama’s fried chicken. It was everything wrong with New York. The city felt, in that moment, like a poor imitation of a million places — like Epcot Center at Disney World, with all the little countries lined up on a half-mile loop: Norway next to China, China next to Mexico. A Moroccan walking through Epcot’s Morocco feels farther from home than ever. Mama’s Food Shop’s rosemary fried chicken left me more homesick than no fried chicken at all.
This was the epiphany, the tragedy, of my fried chicken quest: The real existential longing sneaked up in the small stuff. It was in fried chicken dinners served with instant mashed potatoes that (even worse) came without gravy; in “biscuits” that weren’t biscuits at all, but pre-packaged dinner rolls. There wasn’t a drop of sweet tea for miles. More than even the relentless cold, the devil of my missing home was in the details.
Still, my odyssey plodded along through the dirty snow. I visited “home cooking” and “farm to table” restaurants that served breaded, boneless breasts and had the gall to call it fried chicken. I did something that I had long-vowed never to do again, and ate at a KFC.
Happily, after an interminable string of days with temperatures that never climbed above 40 degrees, I ventured out of my own neighborhood and found some fried chicken that, while not the eating experience I was used to, was quite good on its own merits. Pies ’n Thighs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn had the best in the city — scalding hot, crispy, and a little spicy, swerved with sweet tea (gasp) and a scoop of goopy mac and cheese, the jumbo elbow noodles tangled in a net of stringy cheddar. It came on a plate no bigger than a teacup saucer, with no napkins, so my standard of messiness was wildly exceeded.
And back in the East Village, I eventually found The Redhead, a bar that served real Southern fare and had a fried chicken dinner so juicy that I even liked the white meat on the breast, which I usually don’t.
Neither were perfect. The Pies ’n Thighs sweet tea was made by Lipton, with the fake-y added lemon flavor. At the Redhead, the fried chicken was served with (shudder) a salad. But at this point, I was willing to compromise.As I settled into the Northeast, the Southern food improved as chefs moved up from North Carolina and Memphis. But of the restaurants I journeyed to that first Manhattan winter, only Pies ‘n Thighs remains. I had just spent weeks traversing my newly adopted city, learning to sometimes appreciate the cramped sidewalks and endless bustle and the variety in everything — food, people, even seasons — that I never had experienced in Jacksonville. New York had served me a taste of home that would do, for now. Besides, spring was on the way.