When it’s done well, fried chicken can inspire Cronut-grade levels of hype.

By Jordana Rothman
Updated May 23, 2017
© Tristan Mosser

Fried chicken is the little black dress of the American menu—The Fleetwood Mac, The Goonies. It’s classic and reliable and broadly appealing. When it’s done well, fried chicken can inspire Cronut-grade levels of hype and the kind of devotion that can keep a restaurant packed and running on rocket fuel for years. After all, there’s plenty to eat at places like Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco or Buttermilk Channel in Brooklyn—but it’s those restaurants’ cult-inspiring fried chicken that keeps the lights on.

With so much demand for juicy, craggy-crusted, oil-kissed fowl, it’s a good thing we’re living in a golden age of the stuff. The pleasures of even the simplest renditions are universal, but fried chicken can also be an excellent canvas for chefs looking to leave their marks on a well-loved dish. From thighs and drumettes that articulate a chef’s experience straddling Korean and American cultures to squishy sandwiches with more groupies than Frank Zappa, we’ve rounded up the best new and forthcoming places to get your fried chicken fill in 2016.

Succotash Restaurant, National Harbor, Maryland
He was born to a pair of Korean immigrants and raised in a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood, but it was in the South that Ed Lee really found his voice as a chef. The talented cook behind restaurants 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville opened his first restaurant outside of Kentucky in September, laying down roots at Succotash at Maryland’s National Harbor, outside Washington, DC. The choice was deliberate. “The mid-Atlantic area is close enough to the South that people tend to understand its culture in a way that northerners don’t, but it’s far enough away that no one is really prickly about definitions,” says Lee. Lee’s fried chicken at Succotash is already beloved; to make it, he brines thighs and drumsticks in vinegar, soy sauce and spices, then poaches them sous vide just until the meat sets. Next comes a dip in tangy buttermilk and a drag through flour before Lee dunks the pieces in a Winston pressure fryer—the same equipment used at KFC. He serves the chicken two ways: stacked with pickled okra and rosewater-scented waffles, then finished with curls of salty Manchego and a drizzle of maple syrup aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels; and “dirty,” tossed in a funky Korean gochujang tweaked with mustard, coffee and fish sauce then plated with blue cheese, crumbled nori chips and pickled jalapeño. “I never have and never will cook traditional Southern food,” says Lee. “I use Southern food as a reference point to figure out what I want to do; I like being in that liminal space.” succotashrestaurant.com

Federal Donuts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The to-hell-with-it combo of fried chicken and doughnuts has captivated Philadelphia food lovers since chef Mike Solomonov and partners opened the first Federal Donuts location in 2011. The dry-cured, twice-fried fowl here is customizable—get it dusted with seasonings like Middle Eastern za’atar or coconut curry, or have it slicked in Korean-style glazes like chile-garlic or honey-ginger. Diehard FedNuts fans are famously loyal to their orders of choice, so it was all the more surprising when diners wholeheartedly embraced a new menu item this spring. The fried chicken sandwich—seasoned with buttermilk ranch, topped with creamy chipotle mayo and melted American cheese, then wedged into a soft Martin’s potato roll—was an instant hit, drawing destination diners and generating a breathless wave of Instagram posts when it debuted at the Federal Donuts concession in Spruce Street Harbor Park. Observing the frenzy, chef Matt Fein gave his spice vendor a cautionary call; like Roy Schneider sizing up a monster shark in Jaws,he said, “We’re gonna need more ranch.” Today Fein says they go through about 60 pounds of the seasoning each week, and that figure is about to skyrocket again: He recently gave the sandwich permanent residence at all Federal Donuts locations, and Fein says even more experimentation is forthcoming—he plans to debut a new version of the chicken sandwich at Whoopi Goldberg’s Chicken Coupe event during the NYC Wine & Food Festival this fall. federaldonuts.com

Fuku, New York, New York
No one does a blockbuster quite like Dave Chang, who incited a cultural riot when he opened his fried chicken sandwich spot Fuku in the former Momofuku Ko space in New York’s East Village in June. Lines wrapped around the block for the crispy thigh meat, steeped in habanero and buttermilk and stacked in a steamed potato bun with fermented chickpea butter. Chang, who grew up in Chick-fil-A country in Virginia, calls Fuku a nod and retort to the fast food greats, and he could be on his way to joining their ranks. Chang opened a second location, Fuku+, on the upper balcony of his midtown restaurant Má Pêche in September and has hinted at national expansion in the future. eatfuku.com

Hop’s Chicken, Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins made his bones in fine dining at the august Restaurant Eugene, but he proved his middlebrow mettle when he opened Holeman & Finch in 2008, turning out craveable pub food and a prestige burger that spawned its own small empire of H&F Burger spinoffs. In September, Hopkins expanded his comfort food holdings, launching Hop’s Chicken in the new Ponce City Market. “It’s a funny thing playing in the world of fried chicken,” he says. “It’s scary, because you are exploring a big ‘memory food’ and there are a lot of expectations.” In deference to the power of those memories, Hopkins keeps his recipe fairly simple. He preps his Georgia chicken in a simple, salty brine, then dips it in buttermilk and egg and dredges the pieces in White Lily flour, cornstarch and a secret spice mixture. He crisps the chicken in a Henny Penny Velocity pressure fryer—“It’s like a Cadillac,” he says. “I go back there and polish it with my kitchen towel.”—then serves it by the piece, piled between halves of a crumby biscuit or alongside house-made condiments like honey mustard and black pepper gravy. poncecitymarket.com

Crack Shack, San Diego, California
Richard Blais, his partner Mike Rosen and chef de cuisine Jon Sloane plan to launch this fast-casual paean to all things chicken and egg just next door to their San Diego spot Juniper & Ivy this November. The Top Chef star found himself drawn to the simpler narrative of fried chicken, worlds apart from the high-concept cooking for which he’s known. “People aren't as interested in the story of authorship when it comes to a casual restaurant,” he says. “It’s less important to tell the story of the chef, and more about asking the question, ‘what is the most delicious thing we can do today?’” Blais and Sloane will source their birds from a farm in Fresno, and they’ll be doubling down on the chicken flavor, frying both the meat and their french fries in a blend of peanut oil and schmaltz. They’ll also be looking beyond the basic cuts, offering, for example, fried chicken “oysters”—the two small morsels of dark meat found on either side of a chicken’s backbone. The chefs will treat the oysters a bit like the bivalves for which they’re named: brined in pickle juice, deep-fried and served with Meyer lemon tartar sauce. crack-shack.com

Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, Brooklyn, New York
One of F&W’s Most Innovative Women of 2015, Nashville native and Top Chef alum Carla Hall is setting an example with her ingenuity and entrepreneurialism. Thanks in part to funding she earned via a Kickstarter campaign, Hall is opening her first restaurant in Brooklyn with a focus on hot chicken. "My mother always told me it's my job to be happy, not rich," says Hall. "So that's my mantra. I have to like what I do." She does and it shows. 115 Columbia St., Brooklyn.

For more chef-favorite takes on the ultimate comfort food, watch Marcus Samuelsson and Hugh Acheson debate their favorite styles of fried chicken:

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