If you want to pick a fight, there are worse ways to go than talking chicken. Fried chicken, that is. Atlanta loves fried chicken, and also loves to fight over the merits of the many (many, many) places that serve it up around town. Some of our city's most long-lived restaurants (like the Colonnade) prominently feature it on their menus, as do many of the newest high-profile places (like Southern Art or Cardamom Hill). Fried chicken is an equal-opportunity artery clogger, beloved by senior citizens and kindergartners alike, no matter skin color or ethnicity, social standing or stance on the Tea Party.
To perform an exhaustive survey of the city's fried chicken battlefields would take years of (mostly) happy, diligent eating, so we set out to pit some of the city's best fried birds against each other in a focused smackdown. Of course, many folks profess the superiority of their momma's or grandma's fried chicken, refusing to dignify that any restaurant or market could possibly match the magic of homemade. There's no arguing with that; everyone loves their momma. And many swear by the heat-lamped heaps of chicken at their local Publix or Kroger, or the fast-food fix of Popeyes or Church's. There is plenty of arguing about that. Let's just say that we focused our fried chicken attention on local, independent places of business.
Before you get all worked up that this place or that didn't make the cut for the fried chicken smackdown, we reassure you that, yes, you are right, there are other great plates of fried chicken out there. There is Greenwoods and Box Chicken, Agave and South City Kitchen, Gladys and Ron's, and ... you get the point. Maybe they'll make the cut next go-round. So, without further ado, here are our smackdown contenders, along with their vitals and performance, followed by a verdict on the smackdown winners and losers.
The Old-Timer: The Colonnade
84 years old, serving up four pieces and two sides for $14
Befitting its age and its old-school ambience, the Colonnade takes its time. The classic Southern fried chicken is cooked to order, letting your anticipation build over yeast rolls, cornbread muffins, and sweet tea. It comes out HOT, a moderately thick crunchy skin encasing incredibly juicy, tender meat. There are plenty of crags of crunch around the edges, those extra bites that make you wonder if you could (just maybe) skip the actual chicken meat and stick with just the skin. Seasoning is straightforward with a healthy dose of salt. If bone-in chicken isn't your thing, try the chicken fried chicken with a thicker, softer batter coating; all the better to soak in some peppery white gravy. 1879 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-874-5642. www.colonnadeatl.com.
The Soul Survivor: Busy Bee Cafe
64 years old, serving up two pieces and two sides for $12
While not quite as old as the Colonnade, Busy Bee still lets you know that it holds a hallowed place in Atlanta dining history, and fried chicken is a big part of that history. After a 12-hour marinade, Busy Bee's chicken gets a quick, light toss in flour that produces a crisp, thin crust. It's fried in peanut oil, which provides a pleasant presence in the crust — you can taste the peanut oil, in a good way. The seasoning is simple, not too much salt, no distraction. The meat can range from perfectly moist to sometimes a bit dry around the edges, especially on the breast. But the superbly sugary sweet tea will wash down anything that gets in its way. Hankering for something with even more soul? Go for the wonderfully soggy "smothered" chicken tossed in pan gravy. 810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. 404-525-9212. www.thebusybeecafe.com.
The Country Cousin: Carver's Country Kitchen
36 years old, serving up two BIG breasts and two sides for $12
Carver's isn't quite in the country, but the feeling is right. Walk through the line to order up the "Dolly Pardon" double breasts and you will be handed a plate that is both daunting and awe-inspiring in its girth. Thanks to a quick egg wash before being hit with self-rising flour and some Creole spices, the skin here is a touch breadier, a bit crumblier, and maybe a smidge greasier than most, but it all works. The meat stays juicy and moist (there is an overnight salt and sugar brine), and the seasoning is right on the high side of nice and salty. Tip: pass on the cheaper thigh and drumstick combo, the big breasts are the way to go. 1118 W. Marietta St. 404-794-4410. www.carverscountrykitchen.com.
The Market: Star Provisions
12 years old, serving up by weight, $8 per pound
Star Provisions isn't quite famous for its fried chicken, but it's a darn good option when you're there, especially when you compute for relative value — a combo of breast, thigh, and leg will set you back about $6.50. That's a true bargain at Star Provisions. You can eat at one of the tables nearby, or take your chicken to go. Star uses a double brine: first salt water, then buttermilk. What really distinguishes them, though, is that the frying is done in rendered pork fat, in small batches in a cast-iron skillet. You'll notice a bit of char in their crust. And this char is good. Star's fried chicken is also the most aggressively seasoned of these contenders, very flavorful, though not spicy by any means — the lip-smacking touch of Cajun seasoning definitely stays with you after each bite. And the quality of the meat seems a breed apart as well, making up for somewhat smaller pieces. 1198 Howell Mill Road. 404-365-0410. www.starprovisions.com.
The New Southern: JCT. Kitchen
5 years old, serving up a breast, wing, and two sides for $13
JCT. Kitchen has won many accolades for its fried chicken. It's sure to note on the menu that it's only available in limited quantities. JCT uses Springer Mountain Farms chicken, also noted on the menu, which in theory is supposed to be better (all natural, humane certified, in cahoots with Paula Deen ... wait, what!? It's true! "Paula Deen chicken by Springer Mountain Farms" is in stores now!). But JCT's chicken had far and away the least flavorful meat of any of the contenders. While the delightfully crunchy skin has a nice touch of cayenne, the meat itself was watery and bland, and the overall impression is that it's in desperate need of ... something. JCT does a seasoned brine overnight, and cooks to order in cast-iron skillets, which should both benefit the chicken — but the results on multiple visits simply didn't stack up. 1198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18. 404-355-2252. www.jctkitchen.com.
The Judges: Brad Kaplan, Cheap Eats columnist, and Jimmy Sobeck, ruler of the roost at EatItAtlanta.com
Four of these five fried chicken contenders fought fiercely, so choosing a victor was not an easy task. JCT was knocked out, pure and simple, but certainly has the potential for a comeback in future rounds. Here are the results from the judges:
Smackdown Winner: The Colonnade
This "Old-Timer" knows his stuff. The Colonnade's plate of fried chicken is just about perfect, from the level of salt and seasoning to the juiciness of the meat to the crunch of the skin. Not too greasy, light and crunchy, not too healthy — just what you want in fried chicken. And the ability to order a stiff drink to accompany your chow doesn't hurt, either. All hail the Colonnade, our smackdown victor.
In a shocking tie for second place, there was "the Market" and "the Country Cousin." Situated a mere mile apart, Star Provisions and Carver's Country Kitchen offer vastly different experiences. Star Provisions has by far the most unique fried chicken among the contenders — the stronger seasoning, the flavor from the pork, and the brining technique clearly make this something special. But in the end, those strong points were knocked down to earth by the bird being just a touch greasy and a bit soggy in between the meat and the crust (these are, after all, sitting in a fridge case, ready to go, rather than fried to order). On the other end of the spectrum, Carver's churns out massive plates of mutant chicken. Damn good chicken. If you like a crowded communal table and pure calorie count (along with scary-large pieces of poultry), Carver's is the place to go.
Busy Bee fell just a bit short of these others, knocked down by some dry meat that couldn't quite match the juiciness of the competitors. The real distinction among all of these contenders, though, is what kind of environment and ambience you're looking for when you eat your fried chicken. If you're in the mood for experiencing a lively Atlanta institution of Southern food, Busy Bee is hard to beat. And its smothered fried chicken really does have soul.
Meanwhile, JCT was our sole smackdown knockout. The bar is great. The view off the deck is lovely. But the chicken needs to get back in the gym and get back into shape. After all, the competition in the battle for Atlanta fried chicken supremacy is fierce and without mercy. If you're not in fighting shape, you might as well not even show up, chicken.
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