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Sitting at a long, shiny stainless-steel table outside Frenchy's Chicken, my daughter Julia and I juggle three pieces of too-hot-to-eat fried chicken. There aren't any plates, so we have to keep the chicken in the air while we tear up the bag for use as a place mat. It's a sunny and cool fall morning on this part of Scott Street in the shadow of the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium. Families in dressy clothes walk by heading for the church next door.
3919 Scott St.
Houston, TX 77004
Region: Third Ward
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Henderson's Chicken Shack, 3811 Ennis, 713-533-0033. Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.
Three-piece regular order: $3.55
Red beans and rice: $1.15
While the Third Ward goes about its business, we marvel at the mystery of Frenchy's chicken. There isn't any grease dripping from it; there's no greasy shine to it either. The dry, spicy coating is a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and cayenne, as far as I can tell, and they aren't shy with the cayenne. The amazing spicy crust doesn't slip off the chicken with your first bite. It sticks to the skin and the skin sticks to the chicken in a way that allows you to appreciate all three together. Is there a miracle adhesive involved?
"Fried chicken doesn't get any better than this," my daughter sums up as she cleans every morsel of crust off one of Frenchy's thighs. I suspect she's right, but we are about to put it to the test with a Sunday-afternoon drive-by sampling of Third Ward fried chicken stands.
This isn't the first time I've eaten fried chicken in the Third Ward. In fact, it was an ethereal fried chicken experience I had just a couple of weeks ago that got me started on this taste test idea. It was "Blues and Barbecue" night at Miss Ann's Playpen at the corner of Dowling and Alabama. Richard Earle was performing some cuts from his new CD, Greyhound Blues, and owner Bobby Lewis was cooking ribs. Bobby's ribs were excellent, but after many beers and even more blues, I was hungry again on the way home.
"Try the new chicken shack over on Ennis," longshoreman Rory Miggins told me as I left the club. "It's called Henderson's. The chicken is awesome, and it's open late." Miggins has given me some great tips before (see "On the Waterfront: Lunch with Rory Miggins," January 4), so I took his advice.
They don't start frying your chicken until you order it at Henderson's Chicken Shack. It takes about 20 minutes. I ordered a thigh and a breast in a two-piece basket with fries and sat down to wait. There's a jukebox in the little lobby, so I punched in the numbers for "Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, a great song for wasting ti-i-i-i-ime.
I ate most of the great red-peppery fries in the car on the way home. The chicken had a wonderful thick spicy crust, and it came on two slices of white bread to soak up any juice. There were also some pickles and a jalapeño pepper in the basket. It was a great late-night snack, but I couldn't help noticing that the breast was a tiny bit dry in the center.
A few evenings later, I stopped at the legendary Frenchy's and ordered the exact same thing. The Frenchy fries were limp and greasy, but the chicken was stupendous. The crust was thinner and a tad spicier, while the white meat was juicy throughout. The chicken had gotten cold on my drive home, though, so I decided it wasn't a fair comparison. I vowed to start eating chicken all over again.
Fried chicken is more than a food in the South, it's a cultural icon. That's why Jason Alexander, the actor who played George on Seinfeld, seems like such a strange choice as the new spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The bald New Yorker is definitely a departure from the hirsute Southern colonel. In the commercial, Alexander claims that chicken isn't fast food, but rather some order of slow cooking.
Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine had this to say about the campaign: "Deep-frying is slow cooking like rape is seduction. The stuff is tasty, all right, but to suggest that it is somehow morally superior to other fast-food fare more than strains credulity Let's get real here: The paper napkins after a KFC meal look like the gauze dressings at a liposuction."
Evidently the New Yorker is supposed to help KFC make some inroads into regions of the country where whiny and rude is fashionable and fried chicken is not. The "Chicken, it's not fast food and it's not just for Southerners anymore" strategy was devised by KFC's new ad agency, BBDO Worldwide in (who would have guessed?) New York. Divorcing a regional food from the ethos that spawned it and finding a celebrity to "make it more mainstream" is the sort of cultural demolition project that Madison Avenue does best.
But fried chicken has a Southern soul that the marketing geniuses can't deny. Don't take my word for it. Run a search for "fried chicken" on Google. Among the first ten hits you'll find a personal Web site in Dallas called "God made fried chicken" and a Southern literary journal in North Carolina called Lonzie's Fried Chicken.