You Know I Like My Chicken Fried
On an abridged food tour I taste a classic, an upstart, and the origins of a chain. One of them turns out to be the best fried chicken I've ever had...
“Just like Grandma used to make,” is among the highest praise Americans bestow upon restaurant food, particularly staples of home cooking. My grandma isn’t much of a cook – sorry, Grams – but I think this compliment has always been more of a thing stateside than it is in the UK anyway.
If I had to guess?
I might put that down to the contrast between the bold, sometimes adventurous, flavours of the “old country” – brought over by, or passed down to, Italian Nonnas, Indian Nanis, Kenyan Bibis etc. – and plainer, safer “American” food.
*insert joke about white people and seasoning here*
In 2019 I found myself on an impromptu fried chicken tour of the South, some highlights of which are featured below. All judged with a clear head, but less clear arteries, and unsullied by the yardstick of dinner at Grandma’s.
I ended the tour by tasting the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, somewhere I would never have predicted in a million years.
Hot Chicken in Music City
I have no doubt that I’ll be maligned for not getting hot chicken at Prince’s or Bolton’s, and I don’t disagree. I should have. And I will. I did try (and enjoy) Party Fowl but, party foul, I was too inebriated to accurately judge it.
It felt like the world wanted me not to try Hattie B’s. Every time I passed this place, day or night, there was a line down the block. Seven years after the place first opened. A ringing endorsement, and what became a personal challenge.
I know the stereotype: Brits know how to queue. And it’s true, we do. Most of us don’t, however, do well queueing in 90 degree (which I’d call 32 Celsius) heat on a side street with absolutely no shade. I finally bit the bullet and did it anyway.
My meal – 1/2 bird, Hot! and a Shut The Cluck Up!!! tender, with Southern Greens and crinkle cut fries – was outstanding. Watching the line grow while I ate served as a reminder: sometimes good things do come to those who wait.
Everything was seasoned to perfection but, even though I love spice, the tender was too much for me. Coupled with the absence of air conditioning, it had me sweating enough that some concerned diners actually asked if I was ok.
I was about two full cups of water away from being able to answer using words.
In a 2019 episode of the Doughboys podcast, the incomparable Carl Tart said that “I gotta give my praises to Miss Hattie, whoever that may be. Whoever those two white guys made up, whoever this woman is.” A light-hearted remark about cultural appropriation that’s probably rooted in the truth. Most good jokes are.
He’s referencing the fact that Hattie B is a composite character, named by founders Nick Bishop Jr. and Sr. for three women in the Bishop (see also Bishop’s Meat & Three in Nashville) family.
But, composite or not, she makes damn good chicken.
A World Famous Memphis Tradition
If you don’t arrive early at what many think of as the original Gus’s – the true OG is a shack in Mason TN, population 1,600ish – in Memphis, you don’t eat. That’s what a local told me, and I took his advice at face value.
I got there early, the second person through the door, and watched the place just get busier and busier while I sat there. Which isn’t surprising, since this place is about as renowned as it gets.
Adam Richman sung its praises on the second ever episode of Man Vs Food. The Mason location was featured on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. GQ called Gus’s the best fried chicken in the world. I could go on, but I won’t.
The meal itself was fantastic. This might be the crispiest chicken I’ve ever had, yet somehow also moist and tender. Collard greens (which I’ve never been able to replicate in the UK), fried pickles, and plenty of Louisiana rounded things out.
I also appreciated the whole jalapeño on the side, which reminded me of Papa John’s trademark pepperoncini, more than the guy in the photo above.
The place opened at 11 and I was done by half past, a testament to how delicious the food is and an occupational hazard of trying to beat the lunchtime rush.
Gus’s World Famous has been frying up chicken for more than sixty years. That’s about a quarter of the time America has been a country. When spots have been around for this long in the US, it’s almost always for a good reason.
It sure is here.
My Dinner with the Colonel
I wish the best fried chicken dinner I’ve ever eaten wasn't at a KFC. I really do.
To be more accurate, it was at the Sanders Cafe. There’s a billboard set back from the road but, if you were looking the other way, you could easily pass by* without realising the significance of this place. The first Kentucky Fried Chicken.
* This is how it was in 2019, though I gather they’ve upped the stakes since.
The irony isn’t lost on me that, in later years, Colonel Sanders and KFC had a very public falling out. Sanders was always proud of his gravy. So proud that he bragged “it’ll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.”
Even after selling the company, Sanders would travel to different KFC branches armed with a spoon. He’d saunter behind the counter and begin sampling food, starting with the gravy. And if he wasn’t impressed, he’d let staff know about it.
I got a combo meal with a perfect scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens with garlic, a biscuit (which, yes, means something very different back home), and a then brand new variation of Mountain Dew called Sweet Lightning.
And truthfully, my expectations were low.
The staff seemed harassed, the place felt a little dirty, and orders coming out didn’t look like anything special. That evening I would be eating at my favourite pizza place in the world – more on that another day – and it was already heading towards mid-afternoon. Was filling up on KFC a mistake?
In a word, no.
This was not just the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, but one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Which got me thinking about environment’s role in the way we experience food. Would you rather, for example, eat an incredible dinner in a place with no atmosphere or a decent meal in a place that was hopping with life?
Eating this meal feet away from Sanders’ original kitchen must have impacted my enjoyment to some degree. Can I trust my memory? Can you ever trust a memory?
The Colonel’s final resting place is Cave Hill Cemetery (where you’ll also find Muhammad Ali’s grave) in Louisville, KY. A long way from his birthplace of Henryville, IN, and a long way – about 150 miles – from the Sanders Cafe too.
Behind his grave there sits a copper bust of Sanders, surrounded by columns that resemble the exterior of a Greek or Roman temple. But it’s just a frontage – there’s no mausoleum behind it.
In some ways, that’s what the Sanders Cafe feels like; a mausoleum, or a shrine perhaps, where people go to pay their respects to the legend. To see the humble spot that launched an empire of more than 25,000 restaurants in 140 countries. Tangible proof of the American Dream.
And maybe, just maybe, to eat the best fried chicken of their lives.
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