"What's your favorite fried chicken in Houston?" I asked my mother a few days ago over the phone, curious to see if I'd overlooked any old favorites on the top 10 list I was compiling. A sixth generation Texan, my mother has lived here for more than three decades and cooks for a living. Needless to say, she's very often my point person for Texan and Southern staples such as fried chicken.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. I could imagine her face in my mind, looking at me as if I'd asked for directions to Jupiter. And then, finally: "You know I only make fried chicken at home. I don't eat that stuff out."
Fair point. And true. Her fried chicken is the stuff of legend, cooked in my great-grandmother's cast-iron skillet, the batter crunchy for only the first bite and then melting on your tongue like a pat of butter. If you're lucky, she'll make white gravy out of the drippings that are left in the skillet, although she's been too health-conscious the last 10 years or so to entertain such fatty indulgences.
"I'm too crazy about hormones and antibiotics in the meat anyway," she demurred, her 70's-era hippie side battling it out -- as ever -- with her deeply Texan roots. "You can't trust some of that stuff."
In the end, though, she conceded one single restaurant: "I like Haven. Their fried chicken is good. And you can trust Randy Evans."
"Well, they're already on the list," I grumbled. She knew I was smiling over the phone when I told her, jokingly, "You're no help."
But it was heartening to hear that my mother -- protector, guardian, supplier and connoisseur of fried chicken -- was as big a fan of Haven's fried chicken as I am. And along with chef Evans' spin on the Southern staple, here are the nine other joints that offer the best fried chicken in Houston.
10. Zelko Bistro
Zelko Bistro is the only place in town where I'll order a fried chicken breast, and that's because the chicken breast at Zelko is plump and juicy beyond compare. Pair that impossibly moist flesh with a crispy, barely sweet crust made with -- what else? -- Captain Crunch cereal, and you have a winning textural combination. The darkly sweet and tangy shallot jam on top keeps what could be a kitschy dish elegant, as do the tender pea shoots. I love the chicken here so much, in fact, that it's the rare restaurant where I don't fill up on the buttery mashed potatoes first.
When the very first Max's Wine Dive first opened in Houston in 2007, it led a wave of upscale-downmarket dining -- or the more commonly seen moniker: "upscale comfort food" -- with its famous offer of fried chicken paired with champagne. (Which is a great idea, if you ask me; a nice, dry bottle of bubbly is almost ideal with a greasy bucket of chicken.) The chicken gets its signature kick from a jalapeño-buttermilk marinade and is still fried to order at Max's Wine Dives across the state.
How can anyone not love a chicken joint whose motto is "Chicken & Joy"? Toreore -- located inside the Super H-Mart food court -- offers both in spades. The famously fiery fried chicken isn't for the faint of tongue, however. The sweet-and-spicy chicken delivers a delicately crispy exterior that gives way to a dark rumble of spiciness, which doesn't fully hit you until around a minute after you've taken a bite. In keeping with the general wackiness found around every corner at Super H-Mart, the take-out containers of Toreore chicken appear to be giant pizza boxes.
I am far from the first person to rave about the surprisingly terrific fried chicken from Randall's. Our own Jason Kerr -- professional chef and former EOW columnist -- is a fan of the stuff, and we even gave it the Best of Houston® award for Best Fried Chicken in 2010 despite a city full of serious contenders. Of the deep-fried drumsticks and wings we wrote: "You might expect the fried chicken at Randalls to be mediocre, but someone there has a love for crispy, golden-brown, juicy country-fried bliss that cannot be denied."
It's almost blasphemy to eat the fried chicken at the breakfast klub on its own, so twinned is it in the Houston collective subconscious with either waffles or grits. But the wings are what makes the breakfast klub one of the city's favorite breakfast spots, and deserve highlighting on their own individual merits. The batter is supremely crunchy, the chicken brined and juicy, the seasoning lip-smackingly salty and good.
The Golden Doomba is named for owner John Peterson, whose Twitter handle is -- you guessed it -- @goldendoomba. It was his idea to add fried chicken to an otherwise American-Chinese menu onboard the popular food truck. "When I first opened," Peterson says, "there were quite a few people that were always asking for no pork in anything. So I decided to make it easy." At first, the drumsticks were battered and fried using potato starch -- it lent them a distinctly crunchy texture -- but these days, Peterson says, plain old cornstarch is employed instead. Regardless, the drumsticks still taste as good as ever: wonderfully, arm-drippingly juicy inside and crispy, crackly crunchy on the outside.
Chef Randy Evans's buttermilk-fried chicken is quickly becoming the stuff of Houston legend, and with good reason. It's crispy and savory without being too greasy -- this ain't a ten-piece bucket from KFC. (The herb-roasted version is no sad second: It's just as moist and flavorful, albeit with a little less guilt.) And because this is Haven we're talking about, the chicken is both free-range and organic, which means that all of the calories are rendered moot. (Right? Isn't that how this works?)
3. Al Aseel
There's more than just the famed "Palestinian chicken" to be found at Al Aseel. Asked former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh on his blog after a recent meal there: "Did you know that the best fried chicken in Houston is served at a mom and pop Middle Eastern restaurant on Richmond called Al Aseel Grill & Cafe, 'The Taste of Bethlehem?'" We had a pretty good idea after tasting the standard grilled chicken here; the fried chicken with a za'atar-enhanced batter is -- amazingly -- a step up even from mouthwatering Palestinian chicken.
"Don't complain about the long lines -- 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," wrote Robb Walsh when he listed Frenchy's chicken as his No. 12 favorite dish in Houston. "Since 1969, Frenchy Creuzot has been consistently supplying the best Creole fried chicken in Houston. He has also been turning out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known -- all sold in Styrofoam "to go" containers for a veritable pittance." The original Frenchy's location on Scott Street is still the best -- and it's still open until 3 a.m. on the weekends.
1. Barbecue Inn
Food & Wine called it some of the best fried chicken in America this year, and former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh placed the stuff at No. 5 on his own 100 Favorite Dishes list before retiring in 2010. We've even given Barbecue Inn plenty of awards of our own over the years: Best Comfort Food in 2009, Best Fried Chicken in 2007 and an award in a category I'm still trying to understand: Best Vintage Fried Chicken in 2005. (I'm guessing that "vintage" fried chicken would exclude modern concoctions like the Captain Crunch-battered chicken at Zelko Bistro.)
It's this "vintage" fried chicken that makes Barbecue Inn a standout, though. It's been serving its fried chicken the same way -- always cooked to order -- since opening in 1946. Robb Walsh described it 64 years later as simply "amazing."
"The crust doesn't flake away -- it sticks to the bird like it was glued on, and the tender white meat of the breast is so juicy, it literally drips," he wrote. The juicy bird is served with a simple house salad (go for the Ranch or blue cheese, which are made in-house) and a baked potato that includes a tower of condiments delivered to your table, like a Christmas tree made of sour cream and green onions.
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The chicken has received praise even from John T. Edge, the paragon of Southern food writers and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance. And that praise was for something fried chicken isn't often associated with -- an attribute that makes Barbecue Inn's chicken all the more crave-able.
"Of course, all fried chicken comes with grease. The question is how much," Edge told Walsh. "The chicken at Barbecue Inn is pretty damn greaseless."