Pan-fried, deep-fried, pressure-fried, white meat or dark, there is something about fried chicken that calls to the hearts of countless Southerners year-round.
An assortment of Austin chefs and restaurants feature signature spins on fried chicken, and in that vein, we decided to highlight a few of our favorites around the city and get the back story behind how these acclaimed chefs mastered their beautiful, grease-laden fowl.
Andrew Francisco, executive chef of Mettle, has wielded one of the newer, more modern interpretations of fried chicken in Austin. And as a former chef at Olivia, Francisco has made his fair share of crispy bird.
The secret: Francisco says successful fried chicken is extremely crispy, slightly spicy, really juicy, well-seasoned and ridiculously tender. "I came up with my chicken recipe through trial and error," he says. "My goal was to make it delicious, use organic chicken, make it a fast pick-up and to not have raw chicken on a station." His tip for the home cook? "If I fry chicken at home, I always pan-fry in a cast iron pan. This technique is far more romantic."
Award-winning chef Kent Rathbun prepares a classic interpretation of fried chicken at his restaurant, frying the lean meat in heavy shortening. While it's undoubtedly a caloric splurge, Rathbun is all about going big or going home. Many chefs could credit their culinary knack to years and years of training, but Rathbun credits his to early food memories, which involved eating plates of his grandmother's hearty fried chicken.
The secret: In addition to preparing a gravy for his dish, Rathbun embraces a key ingredient in his fried chicken: Crisco. "My grandma Minnie and my mother Priscilla were cooking that recipe all my life. It is as home-cooking to me as anything in the world. They both said Crisco is a must. We have it on the menu at Jasper's as Gramma Minnie's Fried Chicken," he says. And when it comes to preparation, Rathbun prefers cast iron over the deep fryer. "It brings me back to memories with my momma."
Lucy's Fried Chicken
Between his two Lucy’s Fried Chicken locations and his flagship restaurant Olivia, James Holmes easily goes through 30,000 chickens a year. And while Holmes loves to pan-fry his chicken, the consumer demand inhibits him from being able to go the cast iron route. "I am a Texas boy. My mom pan-fried us chicken as kids. It is something I have loved my whole life," he says. And just where does the king of local fried chicken go when he’s ready to try somebody else’s amazing creation? "Evangeline. I have always enjoyed that place and their menu."
The secret: Ironically, Holmes had no idea he had such a knack for frying birds until he opened Olivia. "I was dying to find a way to incorporate it into Olivia's style of food, and I realized brunch was the perfect outlet for that. We figured out a great recipe and started to serve picnic-style fried chicken at brunch and could not keep our hands off of it," he says. "At that point, I realized there was not a local joint specifically geared towards fried chicken. That's when the Lucy's concept was born." Holmes believes the secret to Lucy’s signature poultry lies within the skin. "Personally, I think the perfect piece of fried chicken needs to be straight out the fryer, steaming hot, crispy and moist. It’s really important that the crunchy skin has good flavor."
Ms. P's Electric Cock
Ms. P's Electric Cock is one of the most popular trailers in the city. And while owner Perry Jane Rae, Ms. P, will never, ever share the secret behind her rare, rad bird, she credits much of the success to its source. "My Big Momma had a very simple recipe. We raised our own chickens, so it doesn't get any fresher than that. She brined her chicken and dipped it in buttermilk and a simple flour and salt and pepper dredge. I have a palate that demands spice, so I have played with my recipe over many years," she says.
The secret: To prepare her crackling chicken, Rae follows several methodical steps. "The first thing to consider is the bird. You want fresh, never frozen, locally sourced and never genetically engineered chicken. Second, brining your bird. Third, soak the bird in buttermilk, which tenderizes the meat. Fourth, we use a flour-based spice dredge and only the best herbs and spices in that blend. Fifth, knowing how to fry your chicken is an art form. And you have to have an ice cold beer or a glass of Prosecco!"
Little Barrel and Brown
Little Barrel and Brown is relatively new to the Austin dining scene, but Executive Chef Russell Dougherty is already inspiring near cult-like followings with his crunchy, juicy meat. Unlike other mainstream creations, it's the addition of two condiments that really sends this chicken flying high.
The secret: Little Barrel and Brown's chicken came about through an endless series of experiments. "We started off by testing out brine recipes and brine times until we came up with a [formula] that imparted great flavor and kept the meat at the tenderness we desired. After the brine, we soak it in buttermilk," Dougherty says. "There needed to be some spice, so we tried some things and ended up putting Frank's RedHot in the buttermilk soak. But there was still something missing. I personally love grain mustard with fried chicken, so we tried mixing a bunch of it in the buttermilk soak and it turned out awesome."
Is there such thing as fine dining fried chicken? Searsucker has managed to weave together a glossy, glorious protein that flies right out of the kitchen during service. Moreover, when it comes to beverage pairings, Chef Andrew Phillips knows exactly what the dish demands: beer. "Chicken and beer is a classic combination. Tall, cool, light and refreshing beer."
The secret: Many kitchens prefer pan-fried chicken, but Phillips is devoted to deep-frying. "Deep-fried chicken all the way. It's crispier," he says. Phillips draws upon family memories in creating the Southern dish. "I thought long and hard about the best fried chicken I've had and realized my favorite was the fried chicken I grew up on. More specifically, my grandma’s recipe, breaded in Corn Flakes so it's extra crispy every time," he says.
1886 Cafe & Bakery
Creative flavor combinations and classic preparation techniques are married in the new fried chicken dish at 1886 Cafe & Bakery at The Driskill Hotel. And the preparation behind the fried fare is no joke. In fact, making this equally sweet and salty treat takes several arduous days.
The secret: It's the time invested in the well-seasoned, crispy fried chicken at 1886 Cafe & Bakery that makes it a new favorite of the kitchen. "It's a three-day process. We do a light salt cure on the chicken on day one, confit the chicken in duck fat for three hours on day two, and on day three we fry it with buttermilk and a chile-flour dredge," Executive Chef Brian Contreras says. For those preparing the dish at home, Contreras recommends using a cast iron skillet, dark meat and a gratuitous spread of sides. "The sides accompanying the chicken can be very versatile. However, I prefer the classics: coleslaw and mashed potatoes or on a waffle. For a beer pairing, I like a good IPA with some bitterness and hops to cut the richness, such as Thirsty Planet Buckethead IPA."
The Scarlet Rabbit
Round Rock bistro The Scarlet Rabbit opened only a few weeks ago, but it's already turning heads with a signature take on Gulf Coast fare — particularly the bold, golden chicken. Executive Chef Rob Snow admits mastering the signature recipe for the dish was a true labor of love. "A great fried chicken hits a lot of different points and balances different flavors and textures. I like to have it crunchy and juicy. A little heat, sweet and salt," he says.
The secret: To get that extra crispness, the restaurant fries the fowl at 325 degrees, which allows the meat to cook properly without burning the crust. "Frying chicken has been a constant learning process over the years," Snow says. For home-fried chicken, Snow offers one of his tricks: "Drip some of the wet soak into the dry dredge and stir it in before adding the chicken," he says. "It will create larger, flakier pieces of golden brown deliciousness!"
MAX's Wine Dive
Perfection. That's how we'd describe the flaky bird at MAX'S Wine Dive. Executive Chef Erica Beneke, a native New Yorker, wasn't terribly familiar with fried chicken when she moved here five years ago. But after serving nearly 200,000 pieces of it every year, she's learned her way around the fryer. "MAX's had been working on perfecting their recipe for a couple of years and we've tweaked it here and there, but it is a damn fine recipe," she says.
The secret: While a crunchy, greasy chicken is served fine on its own, Beneke likes to add a few personal touches: "Spice, honey, good hot sauce for dipping and a glass of Champagne to wash it all down." For those who brave the deep fryer at home, Beneke says it's all about mastering two steps. "Make sure your batter is seasoned well and your oil is at the correct temperature."
24 Diner Executive Chef Andrew Curren is an equal opportunist in preparing fried chicken. "I am an equal opportunity eater: white meat or dark," he says. "They both have their place and make for a fantastic meal. However, I have to admit that the first piece I always grab is a wing. A shallow fried chicken in a large cast iron skillet filled halfway with peanut oil is tough to beat. At the end of the day, pan-fried and deep-fried chicken are two almost completely different dishes, and I can appreciate them both."
The secret: Curren studied the tricks behind fried chicken at a tender, influential age, which subsequently helped him create the chicken he now serves at his famed diner. "I learned to fry chicken from my mother in a cast iron pan. My dad took me to a Southern fast-food chain called Bojangles', and that is where my love for spice on chicken and dirty rice began," he says. "I fried bone-in chicken in a cast iron pan in my New York ventures. It was great, but when it came to the diner, 24-hour marinated, deep-fried boneless breasts and thighs made the most sense because the chicken was going to be on top of a waffle and I wanted it to be easy to eat."
The Hightower’s approach to fried chicken is to always make sure the grease is at a minimum. "There is nothing worse than greasy fried chicken," Executive Chef Chad Dolezal admits. But he also has a word of advice for those hoping to recreate the dish in the home kitchen. "Get your oil hot, around 365-375 degrees, and don't try to church it up too much. It's fried chicken; it's supposed to be fun!"
The secret: "Always go with dark meat," Dolezal says. He also incorporates a rather unconventional ingredient in his breading. "It has to have a good crunch, so we add grits to our dredge for this reason ... At the restaurant, I use a mix of cornstarch, cornmeal and stone ground grits. And the spice blend is important. I want something that will stand out but not overpower, so we use a mix of guajillo and black pepper."
If Salty Sow Executive Chef Harold Marmulstein isn’t dining on Lucy’s or Roaring Fork’s fried chicken, he’s likely hard at work, deep-frying the same dish in numerous batches. "We serve an average of 60 orders a day, seven days a week. The fried chicken is on the happy hour menu and it is by far one of our best sellers," he says.
The secret: It’s not a secret recipe that sets Salty Sow’s fried chicken apart from other local favorites, it’s years of work. "I worked in Atlanta before coming to Austin, and you learn a thing or two about fried chicken after working for a few decades in the deep South," Marmulstein says. "It can’t be great fried chicken without a really nice crispy skin. I would follow that up with moist, tender meat; hearty seasoning; and preferably dark meat because it has more flavor."