For those who don't live nearby, this is a pilgrimage kind of place: worth the drive from Washington, and well worth the wait while orders are meticulously filled and packaged.
Calling ahead minimizes that wait and is the prudent thing to do, because it's standing room only at this tiny carryout in Columbia's Long Reach Village Center. Chick N' Friends first opened in 1987 but closed a few years later for family reasons. It reopened in 2005 just a short distance from the original spot.
As the name suggests, chicken is the order of the day, but co-owner Rhodney Lloyd is partial to his fried fish: "It's a 60-40 split between the chicken and the fish. People love the fried chicken." And for good reason: It is served piping hot, sporting a highly seasoned coating that cracks on impact to reveal succulent meat within ($1.35 to $2.55 per piece; $4.86 to $7.75 as part of a dinner with two sides). The meat's juiciness suggests a brine is involved, but Lloyd's birds take no salty bath. What gives?
The secret is in the heat source, Lloyd said. He cooks the chicken in pressure-fryers at a precise 326 degrees. Pressure-frying cooks "from the bone out," he said, sealing in juices and resulting in an almost greaseless final product.
Seafood gets the same treatment. Lloyd likes his catfish tenders best, but the fish is also sold by the fillet ($5.28 for one) and as a dinner with two sides ($7.31). Whiting is on the menu by the fillet ($2.97), as a dinner with two sides ($6.79) and in nugget form ($5.25 for five).
A trip to Chick N' Friends wouldn't be complete without a Baltimore regional specialty: lake trout. "It's actually just whiting served whole, with backbone and skin," said Lloyd, who claimed he has debated this distinction countless times with customers. Whatever it is, don't miss it. While the whiting fillet is perfectly fine, the lake trout has a fuller flavor that comes from being cooked with bones and tail intact.
The fried chicken and Belgian waffles ($5.85 to $6.25) are a good bet if you're craving a classic soul-food combo. The waffles, sold individually for $4.25, are served all day.
Those who want to avoid the fryer can have their chicken roasted instead. The thigh we tried ($1.55) was plenty juicy, but the sweet and savory seasoning seemed bland compared with that of its pressure-fried cousins.
Among the soul-food sides, we particularly liked the candied yams and collard greens (small, $1.09; regular, $1.75; large, $2.75). Both are made by Lloyd's wife and business partner, Cassandra. Biscuits, though listed on the menu, aren't available to walk-in customers. So call ahead if you want them.
Chocolate cake, lemon cake and sweet potato pie can tempt even non-dessert-eaters ($2.90 per slice). Cassandra makes the pie, which is based on her mother's Mississippi recipe, and Rhodney gets up early to bake the cakes. Sadly, a customer ahead of us got the last piece of pie, and as we cursed our timing aloud, she advised: "The pie's great, but so is that cake. It's so moist, it tastes like somebody's mother made it."
From behind the counter, Rhodney chimed in, "Actually, like somebody's daddy made it." That works for us, too.
-- Catherine L. Barker (Good to Go, July 1, 2009)