Cheap Eats: Curly's Fried Chicken 

Hot and fried on the Westside

Reading the menu at Curly's Fried Chicken is a lot like watching a Grammy winner giving an acceptance speech packed with shout-outs to friends and family. Mama Jean, thank you for your thick and creamy mac and cheese. Steve, without your Cajun rice, I wouldn't know what to do with all that ground beef and salt. Aunt Gail, your famous sweet tea is the light of my life. And Curly, without you, we wouldn't be here in the first place. Yes, Curly's has a familial feel, with at least 18 names mentioned on the menu, from Aleane's coleslaw to Tanisha and her chosen combo of three sides and a drink. I'm not sold, though, that the shout-outs are always a good thing. Judging on her fried okra, I'm guessing Chantel works at Sysco.

Nine months ago, Curly's took over the space that formerly housed LeRoy's Fried Chicken and has been pleasing lines of people eager for hot and crisp fried bird ever since. The stand is still mostly takeout, though a few tables on the often sun-baked patio offer an option to sit down and eat if they're not already occupied. The name-packed menu is a bit more expansive than LeRoy's was, offering fried chicken, fried fish, fried shrimp, a number of fairly traditional sides, and a few desserts (and Kool-Aid) to satisfy sugar cravings. And, oh my, one sip of purple Kool-Aid is all it takes to quickly satisfy a sugar craving.

The chicken is obviously the main event at Curly's. With Star Provisions down the road one way and Carver's Country Kitchen the other, Curly's is in a neighborhood with some fine fried chicken. Curly's doesn't have the technique of Star Provisions or the mutant massive-ness of Carver's big chicken breasts, but Curly's does offer a solid product, not to mention better hours than either of its neighboring competitors. The skin on Curly's fried chicken crackles with crispness, with a thin coating of flour and seasoning that's heavy on the salt. On one visit, I found some of the chicken to be a bit chewy and on the path to tough, but other times it was perfectly juicy inside that crisp exterior.

One unique offering at Curly's is the option to have your chicken "dipped in Buddy's secret sauce." I don't like the sound of it, but the result is not unlike what you get with most hot chicken wings. The sauce burns a bright rust in color, thin and strong, hitting your nose with a healthy dose of vinegar and pepper. The sauce actually lends a pleasing contrast of wet and crunchy as it soaks into the crisp skin. There's a touch of sweetness, too, which keeps things interesting beyond the typical wave of heat in wing sauce. This is no Nashville hot chicken, but it's a welcome change of pace from the usual for those who seek some heat.

Of the seafood options, one works well and one falls flat. White fish (whiting) comes in long, substantial filets that are tender and flaky and nicely fried. The fried filets o' fish are perfect stuffed between slices of the accompanying white bread, with a dousing of tartar sauce and hot sauce. While not unique by any means, it's nice to find some good, simple fried fish on the Westside. The fried shrimp, though, doesn't cut it (did I mention that Star Provisions is just down the street?). These shrimp are tough, a bit on the burnt-tasting side, with the coating too thin and, well, fried chicken-like. Stick with the fish and you'll likely be happy.

As for the sides, I think April's collard greens are the best of the bunch, though they are not always available. (April, get with the program! People want their greens!) Reassuringly firm in texture and well-seasoned, not particularly meaty or smoky, these collards taste (as they should) of bitter greens, accented by pepper that leaves behind a happy burn. Steve's Cajun rice is not far behind, an addictively salt-laden guilty pleasure that may seem familiar to Popeye's fans, almost equal parts rice and small bits of ground beef. Aleane's coleslaw, though, is fairly standard stuff — shredded green cabbage with flecks of carrot and purple cabbage that is creamy, mild, and sweet. And Mama Jean's mac and cheese? Also standard — a thick cheese sauce and thick elbows that thankfully are not overcooked to mush.

My favorite thing on the menu is Aunt Jan's apple fried pie. Now, I'm guessing Aunt Jan isn't actually baking these up in her kitchen and carting them over. I don't know who's actually baking these (they're not made at Curly's proper), but goodness, the apple fried pie is lovely. The long rectangles of crunchy crust come coated in cinnamon sugar, soft in the middle, the perfect-pitch apple filling not cloyingly sweet at all. Best of all, these fried pies show the effects of being fried. "Nicely oily" is not something I often say, but these fried pies are indeed nicely oily. You could venture on to Jerimiyah's fried Oreos, or Susie's red velvet cupcakes, but I'm sticking with Aunt Jan and her fried pies.

Curly's has built up a nice fan base. Heck, the fact that it name-checks half the town on the menu insures a small, steady stream of friends and family. And while the fried chicken may not be quite worth a detour, there's enough good, well-prepared food at a fair price to keep people lining up. That, and the purple Kool-Aid. Hey, Kool-Aid!

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