What to do when your state has more chickens than people
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 that a number of local chefs/owners quietly escape to my kitchen when in need of a flavorful crunch. I’ve even won a few fried chicken throwdowns against real, bona fide restaurant chefs (knowing full well that these professionals can whip up hundreds of quality dishes in record time while I’m still hunkered in the corner messing with my spice mix).
In an effort to avoid three days of brining, spicing, marinating, blah, blah, blah every time I want some good chicken, I’ve made it my business to zero in on some of the best fried chicken here at the beach. After a lot of research (see how I suffer for my readers!?), I’ve found tasty crunches where you might not expect them. Catch Gus & Gus’ Place on a good in-season day or a warm winter weekend. The surprisingly delicate crust can be memorable. A block or so west is The Pines. The crackly coating that cradles the moist interior has quickly earned a name for itself. And it’s available for takeout on their “2 for 24” deal Thursday through Monday.
The spicy crunch of Popeye’s has earned legions of loyal fans. One caveat: It’s all about timing! Fresh out of the fryer is a must, and the wait in line will be worth it. One of my funniest food-writer stories is about a few self-righteous site visitors who scolded me for reviewing our local Popeye’s on RehobothFoodie.com. “How can you do that,” they whined. I’ll admit to a few self-doubts until one fateful night … I am NOT making this up … when I caught them in a remote corner, hunched over a couple of thighs, wings and biscuits like it was their last meal. Busted! I stand by my articles.
One of the (VERY) few amusing things about the past year was the back-and-forth between Popeye’s spicy fried chicken sandwich and Chick-fil-A, the chicken-lovers’ drive-through standby. CfA’s sandwich is quite good, with the spice built into the coating. Popeye’s spice is derived from a pepper sauce drizzled on the big crunchy piece. So in spite of their cleverly staged arm-wrestling (which was advertising gold for them both), the sandwiches are quite different from one another.
Speaking of sandwiches, leave it to the Jacona brothers to come up with an off-the-wall angle at their new Bushels Crab House. Their chicken is enrobed in a crunchy condiment crowned with sweet pickles and onion jam. It marches proudly out of the kitchen on a toasted roll.
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 on Coastal Highway. In fact, the traditionally levelheaded Food & Wine Magazine dubbed RoFo chicken as the best fast-food chicken. Not sure I wholeheartedly agree with that, but it’s 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) pressure-cooked and sold his proprietary chicken recipe exclusively in gas stations.
Don’t forget Cooter Brown’s Twisted Southern Kitchen in downtown Rehoboth. Dale and John brine their birds in sweet tea. It’s quite good, as is the selection of sides. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday night fried chicken at Cottage Café in Bethany Beach. 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.
While in Bethany Beach (on a Sunday), don’t miss Patsy Rankin’s just-about-perfect chicken. Patsy’s beachy restaurant is a longtime icon in The Quiet Resorts. When she reopens for 2021, her Sunday fried chicken special will rise again! As if it couldn’t get any better, her summertime pairings include housemade potato salad, grilled asparagus, jalapeno cornbread and a cool chunk of watermelon. Just like a picnic … but with servers and a bar.
Another regional variation is at the Matt’s Fish Camps and Northeast Seafood Kitchen, where a boneless breast is butterflied and battered to a tantalizing crisp.
Founder Matt Haley loved his with a drizzle of cream gravy, and several of the SoDel Concepts restaurants honor him by keeping that recipe authentic. James Beard-honored chef (and SDC VP) Doug Ruley created his own version to crisp up the menu at Thompson Island Brewery. It’s cuddled up to southern-style baked beans and Doug’s signature cornbread drizzled with hot honey.
Nashville-style chicken is definitely a thing, and Chris Parziale’s Full Belly Bistro in Lewes does it up nicely alongside Texas toast and that smoky/sweet Nashville sauce. “Pinball Charlie” Pollard’s Kick n’ Chicken is just around the corner, fryin’ up proprietary pieces from our local Diamond State Meats. A bit farther north is the relatively new Sydney’s restaurant in Paynter’s Mill. Young chef Johnny Harris has put his own cracklin’ twist on their exceptional fried chicken. In fact, you can try it tomorrow (Saturday, Jan. 16) during Sydney’s five-hour musical fundraiser for Mark Gratton, their temporarily out-of-commission piano player. (My jazz trio kicks things off at 2. Hint hint.)
Perfectly fried bird is an art and a science. And not everybody can do it. So there’s definitely wisdom in all the extra effort our eateries bring to this Sussex County staple. That’s Southern cookin’, and it’s mighty fine.