The task was to set up a test. Me, and my fat ladies would scatter, to 6 separate geographic points across NY to pick up the best, most coveted fried chicken, at exactly the same time. Then, rendezvous back at my place for a taste-testing. The idea was to taste them all at once, so this way we could do our comparison directly. Bite from one... put it down. Bite from another. "No, that crust really did taste better, let me go back and try that again." Rather than taste each, consecutively, over several hours, or even several days. (Let's face it, I can barely remember my first name some days, let alone chicken I tasted two days ago.)
How did we decide on which ones to test? Through hard scientific facts and research, that's how. A friend of a friend, who had gotten hammered at the old Black Betty the other night, noted (albeit from the floor) that the chicken was Darn Good. A photographer from the deep South, who'd spent maybe 60, or 70 minutes in New York, only, on a quick stop-over, claimed that the Brooklyn Bowl Fried Chicken was the crunchiest there was.
It was also based on location. If you look at the places we compiled, this might seem a very Williamsburg-based test, and you would be right. We wanted to include Amy Ruth's or Charles Gabriel, both in Harlem, but because of the distance to my apartment from there, the quality of the chicken would have been severely compromised. (Same with Peaches Hothouse, in Bed Sty, which was also on our wish list.)
I wore my Army fatigues. I was on a mission. We split up. Synchronized our watches. Knotted cab fare neatly, tightly, into the outer reaches of crisply ironed handkerchiefs, something a small child might do, in hopeful fashion, when they were intent on running away. We set out.
To make it work, we had to be at our designated food places, our orders in, and ready to leave with hot luscious chicken, on the dot of 6.30pm. No later. That would give each of us 10 minutes to get to my place. Maybe 8, if we sprinted. (or found a Cab that would actually take us to Brooklyn). There, a hot oven was waiting to blast all the chickens, together, for 5 minutes if need be, a precaution in case any of the chicken happened to sit longer than the others on the trip back. Was it a perfect situation? Not nearly. But with a compass, a hot/cold insulation pack, lunch money and comfortable shoes, it was the best we could do.
THE RULES OF JUDGING: Were Side dishes important to the test? Not really. When a chicken came with Sides, we definitely tried them, and they were delicious. (Especially the biscuits from The Commodore, and the Mac -n- Cheese from Pie's n Thighs—which uses Frank's RedHot sauce) And when a chicken came accompanied by sauce (hot sauce or honey, for instance) we applied them. But this was a test for fried chicken and so we wanted to just focus on the bird itself.
THE FRIED CHICKEN WE TASTED:
BROOKLYN BOWL (Blue Ribbon; Eric and Bruce Bromberg) The Cajun-spiced chicken is soaked in Egg Whites. Secret ingredient: Matzoh-Meal coating.
PIES -N- THIGHS (Carolyn Bane and Erika Geldzahler) Their Murray's chicken sits for 24 hr, in a brine of salt/sugar, with paprika, cayenne and black pepper. No buttermilk dips. Then they fry their chicken in Canola Oil.
THE COMMODORE (Stephen Tanner) Apparently he brine's his chicken in Salt and Sugar, let's it sit, then puts it in Flour, then fries it. But there's also a rumor that he mixes Seltzer in with his Flour, which would explain the light crispy crust.
DIRTY BIRD (Joseph Ciriello) An Amish bird in a 2-part soak: 24 hr brining (where the secret weapon is Dijon Mustard), as well as a Buttermilk bath.
HILL COUNTRY CHICKEN (Elizabeth Karmel) Hill Country offers two kinds of fried chicken. The Classic and Mama El's. One has skin, one is without. We tried them both.
POPEYES (The wild card) A friend suggested we add this mass-market competitor, based on the theory that the best chicken was possibly just ordinary fast food fried chicken. Popeye's brine their chicken for 12 hrs. That's not exactly 24. But then again, it is fast food fried chicken.
THE CRITERIA WE TESTED FOR: 1) Crunch and crispness. 2) Moistness and juiciness of the meat. 3) Flavor, how well seasoned, and overall taste.
HOW THEY STACKED UP: BROOKLYN BOWL: The Cayenne on the skin of this bird makes for a super flavorful, not-too-spicy kick. The Maztzoh-meal makes the skin texture finer, making the oil-to-grain ration smaller, thus giving the chicken a fantastic crunch.
PIES -N- THIGHS: The group didn't fall madly in love with the breast meat portion from the fried chicken box, but gave props to the much heralded thighs, which were moist, crunchy and the seasoning was right on.
THE COMMODORE: The lightest in color of all the chicken. We didn't think the seasoning was as flavorful as Pies n Thighs', but in terms of the skin, we loved the waves of ridiculously crunchy curls.
DIRTY BIRD: This is a darker bird. Most of our group thought the skin was not as crispy as the others, but everyone agreed the overall flavor of the skin (and the chicken) was really fantastic.
HILL COUNTRY CHICKEN: Has two styles: Skin on and skin off. We tried them both. We were a tad confused as to why someone would take the skin off a fried chicken. (Kind of like those cats that naturally don't have fur, they're probably just as great as regular cats, better even! But well, it seems we like our chicken, and our cats, with a warm outer layer) In the skin's place was a coating of crumbs. Much like a schnitzel. "The Classic", though, with skin-on was better. It's skin was seasoned much sweeter than all the other chickens we tasted, and was a hit with one of our tasters from Georgia, who likes her chicken salty, and sweet.
POPEYES: Was perfectly pleasant. The crunch, the taste, were perfectly... well, just... fine. How to say this eloquently? It wasn't bad, at all. In fact it seemed like someone, had spent a lot of time making sure it hit all the notes. It just didn't move us.
AND THE WINNERS WERE:
CRISPNESS AND CRUNCHINESS > The Commodore (We could not get past the ridiculously crispy crust)
MOISTNESS AND JUICINESS > Pies -n- Thighs (The thighs were succulent)
FLAVOR, HOW WELL SEASONED, TASTE OVERALL > Brooklyn Bowl (The Cajun flavor that penetrates into it's crunchy skin is right on) > Dirty Bird (It's brine with Dijon Mustard makes for a tasty bite)
OVERALL WINNER: When we tallied up the scores, the fried chicken that hit all the notes, most consistently, and was most authentic to a classic Southern style chicken was... (drum roll...)
Thanks to all who contributed time and energy to hard eating (a little hard drinking!) and a little fast sprinting. So, who's up for burgers?