What is it about fried chicken that’s so irresistible? Could it be the crispy skin and the shattering crunch of biting into a just-out-of-the-fryer drumstick? The tender, juicy meat or the visceral satisfaction of eating with your hands, a pile of crumpled napkins at your side? Maybe, but the fact is, fried chicken has soul. It’s a culinary one-two punch—comfort food and nostalgia wrapped into a messy, golden-brown package.
“Fried chicken’s like red-sauce Italian food,” says Eric Korn, chef and co-owner of Wolfert’s Roost in Irvington. “Someone made it [for you], and you have this expectation about what it is. If it’s not meeting that expectation, no matter how tasty it is, people leave disappointed.” Thankfully, those expectations are being met at a handful of places that are frying up birds with a side of comfort.
At Pik Nik in Tarrytown, fried chicken holds its own against racks of fall-off-the-bone-tender St. Louis Ribs and hefty smoked briskets. The simple recipe starts with antibiotic- and hormone-free chickens (not those super-processed, oversized supermarket birds) that are dry-rubbed with Cajun and East Coast (celery salt, onion powder, and garlic powder) spices for at least 36 hours. From there, the chicken is double-dredged in seasoned flour and fried. It’s a seemingly bare-bones process, but Chef Malcom Sanz insists it allows the flavor of the chicken to really shine. And he’s right: The meat is juicy; the crust isn’t overwhelming; it’s exactly the type of thing you’d expect your grandmother to make.
Maybe that’s because Sanz spent 13 years working in professional kitchens in the South, where generations of tradition imbue the regional classics. “I think Augusta [Georgia] was where I really learned the essence of Southern fare,” he says. “My cooks in the restaurant were old ladies who had been making these recipes since their existence, the way their moms and grandmothers taught them to make it.”
Not everything at Pik Nik is quite as traditional. “The thing with soul food is that it’s not necessarily healthy,” says Sanz. “I try to bring a little balance [with the sides], so you’re not feeling too guilty.” And while you’ll find a classic coleslaw and mayonnaise-based potato salad, there’s also a rotating selection of lighter options, like smoked hearts of palm; watermelon and beets; or a seasonal plum-fennel salad with fresh herbs and feta.
Just one town south, Korn is giving fried chicken his own Southern-inspired twist. “When Jennie [Werts] and I talked about opening the restaurant, the whole thing was food that we want to eat,” he recollects. Their sweet tea-brined fried chicken comes to the table in a silver mixing bowl, drizzled in floral honey and topped with a mess of torn basil leaves and sliced preserved lemons.
Eating it is—and should be—an unapologetically messy and fun experience. The honey coats your fingertips as you rip off pieces of meat and crispy skin to dip in the sweet, lemony juices that pool in the bottom of the bowl. The brine plays off that sweetness, but the herbs and tea add an unexpected Wait, what is that? element to the bowl o’ chicken. “We wanted it to be different,” says Korn, “but we also wanted it to be fried chicken. It comes to the table, and it’s like: ‘I know exactly what I’m eating,’ and at the same time, ‘Oh, this is unique!’”
At Mason Sandwich Co., which opened in Eastchester in March, chef/co-owner Lou Brindley (formerly of Fortina in Armonk and The Cookery’s DoughNation) takes sandwiches seriously. “It’s pretty much a full-out meal on a piece of bread,” he promises. “Everything is scratch-made, from our mayo to all of our sauces.” And while their Chickwich seems like a playful spin on fast-food chicken sandwiches, Brindley gives it “a little extra care.” The massive piece of buttermilk-soaked, white-meat chicken emerges from the fryer with a mahogany crust. It’s sandwiched into a pillowy potato roll with house-made dill pickles and a spicy maple syrup sauce that drips into the nooks and crannies of the chicken’s craggy coating.
It’s one of the most popular items on the menu, says Brindley. “I definitely think it’s comfort food. Every culture does its own type of fried chicken.” You’ll find hot chicken in Nashville, chicken schnitzel in Israel, and light-as-a-feather kara-age in Japan (Mokomiya in White Plains does a stellar rendition).
It’s a sentiment echoed by Chef Nick DiBona at Madison Kitchen in Larchmont. DiBona grew up on his Italian father’s chicken cutlets, not Southern-fried chicken. “The first time I had fried chicken, it was just so good,” he says. “I’m at the restaurant every day, so I get sick of my food, but [fried chicken] is one of the things I’m not actually sick of.” When the menu at Madison Kitchen switched over to small plates in January, DiBona decided to transform chicken and waffles into bite-sized skewers with buttermilk-soaked, buffalo-sauce fried chicken and sharp blue-cheese waffles.
Back to our initial question: What makes fried chicken so irresistible? Chef Matt Kay, of Cedar Street Grill in Dobbs Ferry (where you’ll find sweet-and-spicy maple-sriracha fried chicken), offers his own bottom line: “It’s fried, and I think everyone loves something that’s fried.”
No argument here.