The cooking technique was brought to America by enslaved persons from coastal West Africa. Applied to chicken, it became the cornerstone of the cuisine called Southern cooking. When African Americans, principally from Georgia and the Carolinas, streamed into New York City in the 1920s, fleeing lynch mobs and other forms of state-sanctioned racism, fried chicken came along with them. And the crisp well-browned bird quickly became an important feature of the dining landscape in neighborhoods like Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights. But now accelerating gentrification and misplaced health concerns have shuttered many of the old fried-chicken joints. The chains have taken their terrible toll too, with KFC and its ilk driving the authentic product to the verge of extinction. Here are three overlooked places that still do chicken right.
While franchises smear their birds with thick starchy coatings and spices, real soul food fried chicken is streamlined and elegant. The cut-up parts are simply dusted with flour, salt, and pepper. Great care is required to keep the skin intact, which preserves the juiciness and provides the crunch. At Ruthie’s, near Fort Greene Park, the fried chicken is available in breast or thigh-leg portions, with the latter preferred. Rather than being stockpiled in a steam cabinet, the bird is fried to order. The pieces are not large, but the $8.75 portion comes with a pair of sides and a big square of delicious cornbread. The sides are terrific too, including cheddary mac and cheese, plainish collard greens, and mayo potato salad.
Another place that time forgot is Mitchell’s, in the heart of Prospect Heights. With chi-chi boutiques and trendy restaurants infilling along Vanderbilt Avenue, how long can it endure? Like Ruthie’s, Mitchell’s fried chicken (half-chicken with sides and cornbread, $9.50; leg “sandwich” on Wonder Bread, $3.50) is also made from scratch, so it may take 20 minutes for the bird to arrive. It’s well worth the wait. Cooked a little longer than Ruthie’s, the skin is rendered darker and crisper. On my last visit, one of the sides was a sweet succotash made from fresh corn, okra, and tomatoes. It was so good I almost fainted with pleasure.
Besides possessing excellent punctuation skills, Les’ makes superb fried chicken, somewhat meatier than the specimens at Ruthie’s and Mitchell’s. There’s a faint garlic taste in the gossamer coating. Located in an ungentrified part of Bed-Stuy, the restaurant offers prices a dollar or so lower than the other establishments, and the chicken-plus-two-sides feast in its leg-thigh manifestation is $7.95. Across the street from the gloomy 79th Precinct police station, the wood-clad room is also a bit more spacious. Noteworthy sides include pleasantly bitter turnip greens flavored with smoked turkey and a potato salad kissed with mustard.
Which is the best? It depends on what you’re looking for in fried chicken. If New York had a Slow Food guide like the one in Italy, these three small restaurants would merit at least one or two snails. But until we develop our own system for landmarking and preserving our culinary heritage, unpretentious places like Ruthie’s, Mitchell’s, and Les’ will be in peril.