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.
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.
Lonzie was the black maid at the childhood home of editor E.H. Goree. "Queen of all Thursday's fragrances was fried chicken, waiting in one of Mother's serving bowls on the yellow linoleum countertop by the stove. It was close to impossible to resist the urge to pick off a piece of crust," Goree says. "In early 1998, when I needed the most descriptive name for a literary magazine of accessible Southern fiction and poetry there was no debate. What other thing in my life was as pleasing, there for the taking, and precious for the moments you savor it?"
I bet Lonzie's fried chicken didn't stain the napkins. Contrary to popular belief, great fried chicken is not greasy. John Martin Taylor, author of Fearless Frying, writes that if the oil is hot enough, a batter-coated food submerged in it should instantly seal itself and not absorb any oil. That's the idea behind deep-frying.
"There are no secrets to fried chicken," Taylor writes. You cut up the chicken, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, dredge it with flour and fry it in very hot deep fat. What about KFC's "11 secret herbs and spices"? That claim was debunked in a 1983 book called Big Secrets by William Poundstone, Taylor says. Poundstone hired a laboratory, which detected only flour, salt, pepper and MSG in the Colonel's chicken.
It's 11:40 a.m. when we finish our Frenchy's taste test. Henderson's Chicken Shack won't be open until noon. So to kill some time, we go eat chicken at Popeyes. I figure Popeyes will serve as a sort of control group in our fried chicken experiment. I suspect that Frenchy's and Henderson's will both get stellar ratings, and I want to put them in perspective with some ordinary fast-food chicken.
I order two thighs and some red beans and rice at the drive-thru window of the Popeyes franchise at the corner of Scott and Holcombe. We pull into the vacant lot behind the restaurant and attempt to eat the chicken. The thighs are very small, dark brown and shiny with grease. Julia's piece is wet with the stuff. After a few bites we throw the chicken away in disgust, but our greasy fingers set off a slapstick routine. I drop my pencil, Julia drops her soft drink, and I drop my pencil again. The paper I'm writing on is spattered with oil, and we have trouble opening the red beans and rice, which is mostly rice and very bland.
I usually like Popeyes chicken. Maybe the fryers weren't up to full steam so early in the day. The franchise chain, which was founded in New Orleans, has spread the Creole version of fried chicken across the South. The difference between Louisiana's Creole fried chicken and the traditional Southern variety is pretty simple. Creole chicken is spicy -- usually adding a touch of cayenne is all there is to it. But Popeyes also has introduced traditional Creole accompaniments like biscuits, red beans and rice, and jalapeño peppers to the rest of the chicken-eating world.
We order two thighs, a breast and some red beans and rice at Henderson's Chicken Shack just after it opens. The little building across the street from the row houses on Alabama is still festooned with colored pennants from its grand opening. You order at a window that looks into the spotlessly clean kitchen.
We're thrown off by Henderson's chicken. There are three pieces, but they look like three breasts. I finally figure out that the thighs are actually bigger than the breast. "Yeah, that's what he said too," the woman in the window says, pointing to the fry cook.
Is it the maturity of the chicken that makes these thighs so huge and the meat so white? Or is it a special breed of bird? I don't know, but we both agree these thighs are better than the ones they use at Frenchy's or Popeyes. The breast is juicy all the way through too. The coating is not as dry and perfect as Frenchy's, but it isn't very greasy either. These three pieces of chicken make a huge portion. The red beans and rice are okay, but I don't taste any pork or sausage in them.
Henderson's Chicken Shack isn't a franchise or a chain. It's owned by a Creole woman named Ann Henderson, who was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. Henderson's Chicken Shack does a lot of things right. Cooking the chicken to order seems like a nuisance when you're waiting, but it's worth it once you bite into the hot, crunchy chicken. And if you're getting your order to go, as most people do, the chicken will cool off in the car, so it's the perfect temperature when you get home. Is it as good as Frenchy's? Well, yes and no.
Frenchy Cruzot, another Louisiana Creole cook, opened Frenchy's in 1969. By now, it has become the most famous chicken stand in a city that is crazy about fried chicken. The chicken here isn't made to order, but it doesn't have to be. The fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer. This creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle: The reason Frenchy's chicken is so popular is that Frenchy's chicken is so popular. The red beans and rice, studded with big chunks of sausage, doesn't hurt their reputation any either.
I highly recommend that you take the Third Ward Creole fried-chicken shack taste test for yourself. As for our results, I'd have to say that for the quality and size of the chicken pieces, the new Third Ward contender, Henderson's Chicken Shack, gets the nod this Sunday. But for the spicy crust, the lack of grease, the overall flavor and the red beans and rice, Frenchy's is the winner and still champion. Popeyes finishes a distant and pathetic third.
And as for KFC -- don't get me started again.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.