We, here at Hams + Yams, love Southern food.
We have a fondness for the way different folks from different regions can take a dish and filter it through their background and it comes out with its own subtle, historical food narrative. Each chef's story coming through in the dish, each bite telling a story.
The story of fried chicken is told many different ways in the South and we wanted to hear some of these myths, legends and even spin some yarns along the way.
After deliberations between Kayak and Airbnb, my wife, Liz, and I were finally mapped out and ready to pick up a rental and make our way through sections of the Southeastern states. We were to try different birds from small counters that have been around the block a time or two to New South up-and-comers to spots making waves on the national food scene.
We weren't trying to find the best chicken. You know how they say the journey is the reward? Well, taking bites of some of the best crispy birds in the South suits to be a grand bounty.
The trail leaves Savannah for Atlanta.
We drive through the side highways of eastern Georgia, making our way while avoiding the banal stretch of asphalt known to many as I-16. This featureless path takes you the relatively humble 165 miles from Savannah to Macon but does it ever have the propensity for inciting major bouts of tunnel vision. While you do save that precious time taking the express route from Savannah to Macon and then on up to Atlanta, the sites and rural beauty of the back routes is a more than fair exchange.
Having only moved from Atlanta within the past year, we were aware of the glut of chicken stands, counters, and general frying palaces this city has to offer. This time around we chose two spots that glean the respect of family, community and history.
Our first stop back home is Home grown.
A few years back, a former school teacher and fine dining chef acted on an idea to create a place where students, doctors, blue collar types, artists and seemingly anyone in between can gather together for locally produced (some items coming from as close as their garden behind the building), relatively healthy for you grub at a decent price. Home grown bridges the demographic gap of the diverse Reynoldstown neighborhood that sits on the north side of the Memorial Drive corridor that runs between Moreland and Boulevard.
As part owner and chef Kevin Clark puts it, good food doesn't have to be expensive.
As such, some call the interior 'no frills,' but we find the beautifully crude folk art decor in this otherwise diner-like atmosphere quite endearing. They even have a heartily stocked 5 and dime full of antique kitchen items and amusing collectibles.
Although the decor can be entertaining, the simple, solid meat and three style menu keeps the folks coming in. Home grown's feature is the Comfy Chicken Biscuit. The construction of this breakfast blanket is pretty straightforward: crispy, golden fried chicken breast layered on an open faced buttery, flaky biscuit and decorated with a hospitable amount of pleasantly peppered white gravy. This plate easily sends many a bruncher back to bed.
And how does the gang at Home grown keep track of all these biscuit sandwiches? A digital counter on the wall, of course.
Our other stop in Atlanta was at a spot that has a heavy base in family, both literally and figuratively. The General Muir is owned by husband and wife, Jennifer and Ben Johnson, Shelley Sweet, and chef Todd Ginsberg. The restaurant adopted its name from the refugee transport ship that brought Jennifer's holocaust surviving mother and grandparents to New York in 1949.
The New American restaurant has a distinctive New York deli appeal. Think a Southern-washed deli that bases its dishes on traditional methods (in house cured and smoked pastrami or hand-prepared bagels) and concentrates on fresh ingredients. The setting takes the idea home.
Although, housed in a faceless, modern shopping center across from the Emory/CDC campus, walking through the doors takes you to welcoming, bustling deli with wall-to-wall white tiles reminiscent of Union Station that are adorned with distressed mirrors and small, framed portraits and clippings much the same as a family would celebrate their members' history on the hallway walls.
The food ranges from a marvelous burger, varying open-faced bagel constructions, a solid poutine, and so many other delicatessen delights. On Fridays, they bring out the bird.
Ginsberg prepares this crispy feast in a slightly unconventional manner by brining, chilling, then coating the chicken in a mix that is heavy on the cornstarch with a bit of flour. He then chills, then the chilly chicken gets a steam. Yep, a steam. You chill one more time, then, it's time for the frying pan.
The long, but simple, process ensures an almost completely cooked bird and, thus, shortens the frying time. The result is a moist, tender meat encased in a brilliant, golden brown coating that breaks like a tempura crust. Paired with a few house pickles, this aromatic fowl is nothing but fantastic. Each bite was a mash of chilly dill and warm, herbaceously perfumed poultry.
From Atlanta, we head through the dazzling mountains and valleys of north Georgia and southern Tennessee on our way to Nashville.
We arrive in the Music City. This is both of ours first time hanging out here. We can already tell we are going to dig this town.
With the sun shining and our bellies still full, we drop off our bags at our rental, a great private apartment in a neighborhood across from the Nashville Farmers Market. We break into our travel provisions. Bourbon and apple cider from one of the first harvests this year.
After a few sloshy ciders, we cab it over to a newer spot in town that has converted the entire 13,000 sqft space of an old trolley barn into an adult social oasis. If their intent is to create a gathering space, then Pinewood Social has figured out how to do it morning, noon and night.
The folks who produced The Catbird Seat have created a space that is at the same time a hip work space with coffee bar, casual lunch spot, place to meet friends over prodigious cocktails, a dinner date local or somewhere to grab a craft beer and entertain yourself with anything from bowling to bocce to a dip in one of their swimming pools.
We came for the cocktails. In this case, the Marathon Manhattan. This excellently balanced blend of Corsair Tripple Smoke Small Batch Whiskey, James E Pepper 1776 Rye, Carpano Antica and Regan's Orange Bitters was spicy and mildly sweet. A proper take on the classic.
We also came for the fried chicken. Pinewood's take is simple. Chef Josh Habiger brings a liberal half bird that is tender and mellow on the inside. The crust is a pleasant amber color and retains a shattering crispiness. Paired with the cauliflower hash, some hot sauce, a Manhattan and the brilliance of a brimming Friday afternoon during happy hour in Nashville, I was a pretty pleased guy.
As the sun set and clouds rolled in, we made our way to a washed out Broadway for an outing to Robert's Western World and a rainy trip to our temporary homestead for a nightcap and some relief from this burning heart.
Our second day here introduced us to a hometown original: Nashville hot chicken.
Hot chicken isn't what you may think. As opposed to a buffalo chicken, this bird is not doused in a buttery, spicy sauce. Rather, it is coated in a lardy, searing paste that somehow seeps into every inner crevice of the chicken.
Generally speaking, hot chicken is prepared by bathing the breast or thigh quarter in buttermilk then pan frying to finish. The only differing factor is when the paste, made up of a three-to-one ratio of cayenne pepper and lard, is smeared onto the chicken: before or after the frying. Sometimes both, depending on your demands of pain.
Stories propose that people have been eating this exceptionally hot treat for decades. The generally believed account is that of the Prince family, owners of Prince's Hot Chicken.
Current owner, Andre Prince Jefferies, tells the accidental genesis of this local food addiction like this:
Her uncle, and former owner, Thorton Prince, was allegedly quite a womanizer. This, obviously, didn't sit well with his steady girl at the time. After one late night out too many, she decided to cook Thorton a fried chicken breakfast for her man. What she didn't tell him was that she added a secret side of hot peppers in with his chicken with hopes to burn him like he burned her. Trouble was, he liked it. So much so that soon he and his brothers had opened up BBQ Chicken Shack Café to serve up the hot dish.
Several decades later and they are still fielding lines from lunch to late nights.
You can get the fried chicken four ways. Mild is anything but, it packs a spicy punch. Medium ups the peppery ante and hot supposedly puts a fiery hair on your chest.
All of these are respectfully hot, but I want extra hot.
The inside of this small, spare space is already warm and sticky from the midday Nashville sun. One lone oscillating fan offers a few seconds of relief as it slowly pans by. If you wait to think about your order, you risk being swept by to the line. Not too much to think about here. Chicken, as hot as you've got.
Andre summons us to the ordering window with a short bit of cordialness and sets us up. The basket comes simple. We got the breast quarter. The hot, glistening bird sits atop two slices of Colonial bread sopped in a molten concoction of lard and schmaltz and comes with a generous side of pickles. These two additions will serve as brief reliefs from the fire as we eat, the bread struggling to soak up the fiery oils and the crisp bite of the pickle shortly taking me to cooler mental places. The first bite was tender and then came the heat. Immediately, thoughts of gentler times rush my mind as tears and sweat begin to flow at their own accord. My nasal cavities clear. Just don't touch your face, I thought, just don't touch your face. The burn is immediate and forever lingering.
Despite the internal spasming, this is so worth it.
After checking out the originator, we wanted to see what one of the new hot chicken joints is doing. We catch up with the folks at Hattie B's Hot Chicken. This newer spot on the block has already taken off in the hot chicken scene. Since opening in midtown Nashville in 2012, owners Nick Bishop and Nick Bishop, Jr. are slinging some really tasty fried chicken and some astonishing house made sides like Southern greens, pimento mac & cheese, and black eyed pea salad.
Hattie B's chicken can be served in many heat levels from the flavorful but unhot Southern style, Liz's choice, on up through mild, medium, hot, damn hot, and, ultimately, the burn variety I have chosen, Shut the Cluck Up!!!.
Seating is spare in this local, as their newer location in west Nashville can fit a solid 100 guests. There are a few smaller tables in the bustling counter area but outside is all family style picnic tables. Get in where you can.
As we sit down to an empty table, a few fellow fowl fiends take seat and I warn them of the probable body fluid exodus that will be taking place soon. They are actually game to watch me torture myself in the name of food.
The chicken comes out with a stable of sides and accoutrements. Nothing special, just the usual suspects of pickles and honey. I bypass these for the bird. Remembering the experience I endured only hours ago, I take a deep breath and pull a first bite. The spicy paste has seeped deeply into this guy, too. Rad.
Whether you want to try the originator or check out a new spot, these two do not disappoint. Folks from the area claim to be addicted to this hot chicken and I can kind of see why. It's juicy, tender and relentlessly hot. A gentleman in line before me at Prince's very proudly proclaimed to everyone how he drives two hours weekly to pick up an order of hot chicken wings. Heat, to some, is a religion worthy of a frequent pilgrimage.
Our next stop is St. Louis.
While some may not consider St. Louis to be a part of the South, this city just east of the Ozark region has long been a cultural fence rider of the Mason Dixon line.
This point along the trail was a great one as we have many close friends and family in the area and we get to spend a few days working with our pal, chef John Perkins. Perkins is doing downright impressive work with Southern food at his latest offering, Juniper.
As Juniper streaks towards its one year anniversary, this is by far Perkins longest stand with a culinary focus. He started with the popular supper club and catering service, entre. This gave way to an event space turn pop up restaurant space with seasonal name, concept, and menu changes. First was the chicken centric Le Coq. After, came his first full excursion into Southern food, A Good Man is Hard to Find (any person who names their restaurant after a Flannery O'Connor piece is OK by me). The summer vegetable bounty brought The Agrarian, his vegetarian heavy bill of fare. After issues of traction and the lack of sanity that changing a major part of your operation frequently must bring, he decided to settle on Southern.
Juniper's roomy, exposed brick space in the Central West End neighborhood is welcoming and full of treats from the kitchen and the bar. The menu is simple and thoughtful presenting remarkable small snackies and plates from the field as well as hearty main attractions.
While we did try a large list of his dishes over the weekend, he does fried chicken three ways and we wanted all three of them.
The 'Nashville Hot' Chicken Skins is a clever take on the fiery feast I had only yesterday. People come for the skin, which contains so much of that molten goodness, and is what folks ultimately want anyway, right? I was understandably apprehensive of getting burned again. No insane burn here; a nicely spiced and crisped chicken skin comes with a side jar of a sublime strawberry buttermilk sauce.
The other chicken snack is Juniper's Wings & Waffles. Perkins spin on the classic sweet and savory dish is adding a charmoula sauce that is used in regions of north Africa to spice meats. The sauce, consisting of oil, coriander, garlic, lemons, and other various spices depending on who you ask, give bites a fragrant uplift from the typical syrupy, greasy pedestrian chicken and waffles plate. The toasted benne seeds add a nice touch of detail, too.
The main attraction bird here is the gold standard: poultry, potatoes, and pickles. The creamy potato salad and house pickles are just the prefect partners for this brined bird that has a precise integration of meat and crust. Nothing more to say really. I was full of bird, booze, and enjoying some great company.
Oh, and get the full bread basket. It's a murder's row of Southern savory breads including the likes of Fritz Hollings’ Carolina biscuits, angel biscuits, Cornbread, Hushpuppies, and Gullah biscuits. Good grief.
Heading east out of St. Louis and watching the Arch, a monument to expansion, I could only think of how this constant parade of fried chicken was affecting my interior. I was happy for a break from the grease as we stopped in Ashley, Illinois to see Liz's parents, her sister, and our firecracker of a little niece.
Ashley is a farming community an hour outside of St. Louis and is home of the Lantern Pub. It comes from good authority that they serve up a pretty tasty bird on Sundays, but this time, it's not in the cards.
My father-in-law's garden was pushing out some of the last harvest of tomatoes. This was to be my main diet during our stay. Tomato sandwiches and eggs and tomato slices, please.
Our next stop on the trail takes us back to a place we visited last winter.
Asheville has some new crispy chicken contenders in its culinary hot bed. While we heard Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack is doing some pretty great stuff, my stomach lining needed a rest. We, instead, opt to revisit a favorite chicken biscuit of ours and see another take on breakfast with a bird. Biscuit Head opened last year in West Asheville to plenty of acclaim and the results were lines forming early almost daily for owners Carolyn and Jason Roy's temple to the cat head biscuit. Their large biscuits become the vessel for gravies, jams and locally sourced ingredients.
We checked out both of their fried chicken biscuit creations.
The Mimosa Chicken Biscuit is a towering cat head biscuit sandwich layered with mimosa fried chicken, sriracha slaw, sweet potato butter and capped off with a fried egg. The glorious giant becomes a blend of luxurious eggy contentment soon after the yolk breaks.
The fried chicken gravy was just that. One of their flaky, buttery biscuits floating in a sea of velvety gravy swimming with pieces of pulled fried chicken breast. Coma in a bowl.
This high traffic home for all things biscuits is worth the wait, just grab a coffee and wait it out.
Asheville, I'd love to stay, but trip time is running short and the trail called. With full stomachs and the fresh, cool mountain air breezing in through the car windows, Liz and I make our way down through the hills and into South Carolina. Several hours and several episodes of Car Talk later, we make it to the coast. The Lowcountry. Charleston.
One of our two spots we checked is a new take on an established Southern classic: the chicken sandwich.
Boxcar Betty's opened this summer to fill a need. Owners Ian MacBryde and Roth Scott thought their town needed a casual place to get a chicken sandwich using local, responsibly produced ingredients. Their menu has a few other offerings, but the sandwich is king here.
There are only three predesigned sandwiches on the board. The Boxcar combines their golden, crispy, hormone-free, veg fed chicken breast with pimento cheese, peach slaw, spicy mayo and house pickles. The Chicken & Not So Waffle adds up pimiento cheese, bacon jam, tomato, maple bacon sauce, and maple syrup to get a take on the vintage, peculiar Southern mash up that you can eat with your hands. Lastly, the Buffalo is a straight forward take on a standard. Buffalo sauce, bleu cheese, lettuce, tomato. Nothing special but when all the ingredients are coming from the farm, food just shines.
If these creations don't do it for you, you can always design your own sandwich selecting from their laundry list of cheeses, spreads, sauces and veggies.
These are solid sandwiches. So, as to be expected, get there early or bring a friend to talk with in the inevitable line you are going to wait in.
Liz and I spent the afternoon collecting Southern staples from Caviar & Bananas. The small, bright cafe come market come bakery is a haven for gourmets in Charleston. This little spot right off the busy King Street district has an array of coffees, sandwiches, wines, sweets and pantry supplies.
The 5 o'clock hour struck and we greeted the afternoon opening of Chef Sean Brock's award winning Husk. Brock's lab for exploring Southern food is nestled on a fully restored Victorian property dating to the 1800s that includes the restaurant in the main house and an adjacent structure that houses the bar in a cozy two story setting of exposed brick and dark stained wood accents.
The afternoon sunlight falls across our table as our server brings a couple of Four Roses Single Barrel pours and several slices of thin, glistening Surryano ham, Virginia's dry-aged and smoked answer to proscuitto, served up on a barrel plank. These hams were aging all around, just hanging from the ceiling as if they were just another period detail in the decor. This place is so legit.
Brock is a bastion for heirloom ingredients and a hoarder of seeds. He is a Lowcountry culinary historian. He is constantly perfecting his kitchen.
His fried chicken is no different. Brock spent a year honing his fried chicken recipe and uses a fusion of butter, chicken fat, bacon fat and country ham fat to pan fry them.
Today, he is offering up the wings and drums. These guys are the product of a persistent chase of the perfect fried chicken. The deep, golden crunch of the exterior crust melds well with the steamy, perfumed meat inside. These wings and legs are made for the provided accoutrements of hot sauce and honey, and my bourbon. I had a few of these combos this evening.
The only expanse of our trail left to be covered as we awoke with a slight painful reminder of our bourbon excursion yesterday is the short trip down I-95 and back across the Talmadge Bridge into Savannah. Before we head home, we stop for a final lunch at B. Tillman.
B. Tillman is the casual, upscale home to Southern comfort housed inside the Byrd's Famous Cookie factory along with their Cookie Shop. The kitchen, lead by the tag team duo of Megan Wallace and Stacey Weatherly, puts out a solid menu highlighted by a Braised Pork Shank from Savannah River Farms or two takes on a Hunter Cattle burger. I sought out their Fried Airline Chicken due to its turn on the dumpling pairing with fried chicken. The chicken was moist, pleasingly pungent and the crust was flakey and melted into the white gravy that adorned the herbed dumplings. This final chicken comfort on this trip was satisfying without being over-the-top glutinous.
This trip showed me that a simple dish like fried chicken is a golden brown crowning achievement to be refined and chased for that perfect blend of meat and crust. The art form of frying poultry transcends class and collar color; chef's coat or greased t shirt, it doesn't matter. People flock for it and be it between a bun or a biscuit, swimming in gravy, honey or hot sauce, maybe just simply as naked as it came out of the frying pan, chicken seems to be the king bird in the South.
We found some great places this time. We met some super nice folks and had a few laughs. I'm sure there are plenty of places we missed along the way. What are some of your favorite places? Share them with us, that way we have an excuse to go on a new trail.