Fried chicken, once the humble staple of dinners at a grandma’s house, has risen to take its place along the likes of bacon and bourbon as a celebrity dish. This comfort food has ridden the wave of all things southern, starring on the pages of glossy magazines and in food porn feeds across Instagram. And here in the land of that giant global brand that has irrevocably made our state synonymous with the dish, we’re clamoring for ever more of the stuff – just not by the bucket, please.
Local restaurateurs are heeding the cry. Some have been here all along, serving up heaping platters to folks who could care less what was trending, and others have cropped up to answer our demands for more fried chicken. We have our bourbon trail and our Hot Brown hop. What this town needs now is a fried chicken victory lap. There are plenty more where these came from, but here’s a good starting point for anyone whose goal it is to eat more chicken.
Hot Chicken? What Hot Chicken?
Yeah, yeah, it’s all hot chicken all the time since the rest of the world picked up on what was going on in Nashville. But while heat-seekers are lining up for Ryan Rogers’ foray into hot chicken at Royals (736 E. Market St.) in NuLu, the traditionalist will find the chicken of their dreams on the menu listed simply as classic.
When you take the meticulous research approach Rogers is known for, his classical training, and appreciation for tradition, you’re bound to get about as close to perfection as can be attained, and with the first bite of his Kentucky pressure fried chicken, you understand how that colonel made a worldwide name for the stuff. Forget the herbs and spices; frying that chicken in a pressure cooker locks the moisture in, tenderizes the chicken, and – key to any lust-worthy fried chicken – crisps up the crust. The result: every bite shatters through a golden crust into a tender, juicy chicken.
The only way it gets any better is to pair it with champagne – yes, yet another trend, but for good reason. The effervescence and crisp minerality of sparkling wine, Rogers explains, cuts through the fattiness and cleanses the palate between bites. With this match made in heaven you pretty much can’t put the fork or glass down till every last crumb and drop is gone.
Fried Chicken After Church Kind of Place
They didn’t set out to be a fried chicken joint, Chef Ethan Ray is quick to point out about the latest addition to New Albany’s hopping culinary scene, Gospel Bird(207 E. Main St.). The name is a nod to the term for going out for fried chicken after church on Sundays in the south, Ray explains. But it took on a life of its own, and when everyone wanted to see fried chicken as a focal point the team quickly ramped up their plans and brought in two fryers instead of the single one they’d initially planned.
Building on the popularity of the rotisserie chicken at Loop 22, the team’s earlier Highlands restaurant, the fried chicken here at Gospel Bird starts out on the rotisserie before being finished up in the fryer. And fans are raving, especially since they launched the surely dangerous all-you-can-eat-fried-chicken Sunday brunch. For $14, diners get a plate loaded with white and dark meat, a housemade sauce and a side (oh, those cauliflower grits give the chicken a run for its money!), with refills as long as you can empty your plate. Judging by their recent noticethat they had to close down till Monday evening to restock and reset, it was a hit. (Better go soon before the voracious appetites around here make them think twice.)
The Real Deal
You know how sometimes you want to trade in the reclaimed/flannelled/curated scene for something comforting and homey, and just stop talking and eat as fast as you can handle the piping hot fried chicken on a Styrofoam plate? Well, you need to get to Shirley Mae’s (802 S. Clay St). Look for the vintage Whiskey by The Drink sign in Smoketown and step past the smoke billowing from the ribs slow-cooking by the front door to enter soul food nirvana.
Someone from Miss Shirley’s family will greet you like the long lost family member you surely must be and get you settled into a rickety table where you can take a look at the to-the-point menu. Sure, you can go for pig’s feet or chitterlings, but look, you’re here for the chicken. It’s wings only, jumbo wings cooked up in possibly the most well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the city where they crackle and sizzle in the hot lard before making their way to you along with that hot water cornbread you won’t be able to stop thinking about, and beans or greens or mac and cheese like your grandma – or the grandma you wish you’d had – made.
If you’re with a group – and Shirley Mae’s is the most fun with a big, rambunctious group of friends or family – be ready to wait. You can’t hurry love or fried chicken, so have some of those ribs while you hang out. Ask Miss Shirley’s son about the time boxer Joe Louis was here, and maybe he’ll pull up a chair and regale you with tales of the building’s storied history.
They’ve got your champagne and fried chicken here, too, by the $3 personal bottle, so sip it from your greasy fingerprint-tracked plastic cup as you tuck into the pile of chicken and give thanks that places like this still exist.
There’s More Than One Way to Fry a Chicken
A world of fried chicken awaits the truly dedicated in Louisville. The hardcore enthusiasts in town swear by the local chain Indi’s (5009 S. 3rd St) while another contingent will insist you need to get out Dixie Highway to Franco’s (3300 Dixie Highway) soul food place for the best. Of course, we can’t have a fried chicken story that doesn’t mention the ubiquitous chicken and waffles: If sweet meets savory is your jam, the version at Silver Dollar, (1761 Frankfort Ave.) is mighty addictive. Meanwhile waffles aren’t the only carb you can combine with a tasty bird. If it’s a food coma you’re after, you’ll need the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and milk gravy sandwich at Le Moo (2300 Lexington Rd.).