This guilty pleasure is a Sussex County favorite
Last week I had the pleasure of catching a brilliantly moderated radio interview with “Pinball Charlie” Pollard. Charlie is the founder and operator of Kick n’ Chicken. Like any regional dish (pizza, BBQ or chili, for example), everyone has their favorite. But few would deny that Kick n’ Chicken is one of the Cape Region’s longtime go-to spots for properly crunchy fried bird. In this business of eating, longevity says a lot, and Charlie’s operation can definitely lay claim to that. “Pinball,” you ask? Why yes: Before he started his three-location chicken operation, Charlie worked in the arcade game business. He tells me, “Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball.” (If I know my audience like I think I do, most of you will get that. If not, just keep reading.)
In my kitchen, fried chicken is one of the few dishes good enough to be dubbed guestworthy. My Texas-born mother taught me how to make it, and many years (don’t ask!) have been dedicated to re-creating it. (I won’t say “perfecting” it, for fear of a lightning strike.) In the spirit of the infinite number of monkeys with the infinite number of typewriters, I finally arrived at a recipe I like. In fact, I’m honored to report that a number of local restaurant chefs/owners quietly escape to my kitchen when in need of a flavorful crunch. I even auction off me and my fryer (accompanied by a Touch of Italy in-home feast) for a few local charities. But my chicken is a production! What with the brining, marinating and dredging in … (sorry, that’s classified), I only wish it were as easy as Mr. Pollard makes it look.
Chef Hari Cameron says that Sussex County has more chickens than people, so we need to do something with all those birds! I’ve made it my business to zero in on some of the best fried chicken here at the beach, and interestingly enough, much of that is dished up where you’d least expect it. Catch Gus & Gus’ Place on a good in-season day or a warm winter weekend, and the surprisingly delicate crust can be memorable. A block or so west is the brand- new The Pines restaurant. During our last visit, a platter of fried chicken appeared at the table. I was taken aback by the firm, crackly coating that cradled the moist meat. Chef Dane Wilfong knows his brines, spices and marinades. Head south a couple of blocks for Blue Hen’s very Southern recipe cuddled up to bacon-braised collards and mac and cheese. Drizzled with honey hot sauce. Yes, that’s as good as it sounds.
The spicy crunch of Popeye’s (fresh out of the fryer is a must) has earned legions of loyal fans. One of my funniest food-writer stories is about a few people who scolded me several years ago for reviewing our local Popeye’s on RehobothFoodie.com. “How can you do that,” they whined self-righteously. I admit to a few self-doubts until (and I am NOT making this up!) I caught several of them one night, after dark, backs to the door in a remote corner of Popeye’s, hunched over a couple of thighs, wings and biscuits like it was their last meal. Busted! I stand by my reviews.
Fried chicken lovers (and those who love it in secret - you know who you are!) have taken quiet note of the two Royal Farms stores that have opened on Coastal Highway. In fact, the traditionally levelheaded Food & Wine Magazine recently dubbed RoFo chicken as the best fast-food chicken. Not sure I agree with that (especially after the fact-finding mission that resulted in this article), but it’s still impressive that they even acknowledged the existence of fast food. And what is it with gas stations and fried chicken!?! Part of it could be that in the mid-1930s, string tie-wearing entrepreneur Harland David Sanders (KFC’s Colonel) located his early chicken franchises in gas stations.
Another (relative) newcomer to town is Cooter Brown’s Twisted Southern Kitchen in downtown Rehoboth. Dale and John brine their birds in sweet tea. Out on the highway, Chef Sean Corea at Fork & Flask has made it his business to perfect the perfect pullet. At this point I was going to bring up the fact that late last year I won a fried chicken throwdown against four professional chefs (I am not one of those) at Fork & Flask, but I decided to exercise a little restraint. That notwithstanding, I would have voted for Sean’s entry. Please don’t tell him that.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday night fried chicken at Cottage Café in Bethany Beach (four pieces and two sides only $13!). Good chicken takes time - mine takes three days - and when you taste theirs you’ll know why it’s only tackled once a week. It’s darkly crunchy and moist. By the way, moist does not mean greasy! If your chicken is greasy, blame the cook, not the bird.
Another regional variation is at Matt’s Fish Camp, where a boneless breast is butterflied and battered to a crispy result. Matt Haley loved his with a drizzle of cream gravy, and the SoDel Concepts restaurants that serve fried chicken honor him by keeping that recipe authentic. A dark and crunchy butterflied version is similarly presented at Georgia House in Millsboro. The fun thing about Georgia House is all the sides you can pair with your pullet. I love the cucumber/onion salad and the stewed tomatoes. Back east, the Crab House on Coastal Highway opened in 2014 with a flourish and pretty good fried chicken available by the piece or the platter.
Perfectly fried bird is an art and a science, and not everybody can do it. But when you find somebody who can, you see the wisdom in Charlie Pollard’s continuing efforts to bring consistently good fried chicken into your home. That’s Southern cookin’, and it’s mighty fine.