A July 7 Food article gave an inaccurate address for Horace & Dickie's Seafood. It is located at 809 12th St. NE. (Published 7/8/04)

Falls Church restaurant owner Francine Helton grew up in New York, but every summer she'd stay with her grandmother in Arlington, where she learned the secret to making the moist, crunchy fried chicken she sells at Flavors Soul Food Restaurant: enough seasoning, really hot oil and really fresh chicken.

Southern Living Magazine associate editor Cassandra Vanhooser grew up on a farm in Cornersville, Tenn., with four brothers and sisters, 98 hens and two roosters. Every Friday, she helped her mother make fried chicken for dinner, so she knows the secret to perfect fried chicken: Soak the chicken in salt water, dredge it in flour and "don't pester it" while it's frying, as her mother would continually tell her.

Southern food expert John Edge lives in Oxford, Miss., and recently spent a year traveling across the country sampling fried chicken for his upcoming "Fried Chicken: An American Story" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004). His secret to the best fried chicken: There is no secret because there's not just one best fried chicken.

Everyone has his own take on fried chicken, which is why pinning down the "best" constitutes one of those endless, enjoyable debates among people passionate about a particular food.

"Across this country, there are myriad styles of fried chicken," Edge says. "It's unfair to compare the heavily breaded chicken of Ohio to something with a parchment crust in Virginia."

To Vanhooser, "Fried chicken is the taste of everything that's good in life." It's the reason she volunteered -- no, insisted, badgered and unashamedly pleaded with her editors -- for the chance to drive 10,000 miles to verify what she considers the best fried chicken in the South. Her article, in this month's Southern Living, lists seven best places and seven honorable mentions, including Washington's venerable Horace & Dickie's Seafood Restaurant in Northeast.

Edge would argue that this best-of quest is beside the point. Who's to say that the way your mama made it, or the way your favorite local restaurant makes it, isn't the best in the world to you? "It's like asking, 'Who's got the prettiest baby?' " says Edge, who nevertheless reluctantly joins in with a list he calls "My Little Black Book of Favorite Chicken Houses" at the back of his book.

As for Helton, she and her son, Tyrone (whom everyone calls Troy), work six days a week frying up chicken to order as customers stream in for lunch and dinner. (A second son, Richard, helps out with the crowd on Saturdays.) Their chicken is dredged in seasoned flour and fried in vegetable oil for exactly 20 minutes. When it's placed on the plate, you can break off a piece of that thin, golden crust with a snap like a potato chip. The meat underneath (even the white meat, which can dry out if it's cooked just a minute too long) is moist and juicy. People may argue about where the best fried chicken is, but Helton's pretty sure she knows. It's on the plate her son is handing over the counter to yet another customer.

Fried chicken, as Edge argues in his book, is an icon of American food. Not Southern food -- American food. In fact, he begins his book by chiding fellow southern author James Villas for his hidebound pronouncement that "to know fried chicken, you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Period."

Not true, says Edge. The South has a long, fine history of excellent fried chicken and an even finer reputation for bragging about it. But fried chicken transcends regional lines. Visit the places where fried chicken is famous and you'll get a literal taste of American history -- from the freed slaves who sold fried chicken to hungry train passengers, to the waves of immigrants who fashioned their own versions with new seasonings, to the fast-food entrepreneurs who made millions off our appetite for a version that was cheap, fast and bland.

"Fried chicken represents the story of America. It's a way to talk about race, class and ethnic assimilation," says Edge, who is also director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and the author of several books on Southern food and culture.

In his entertaining pilgrimage in search of "America's greasy grail," Edge meanders all over the country, looking for the places where the fried chicken is not just good but where its particular style teaches something about our food history.

That means places like Chicago, where garlicky Italian-American fried chicken is king. Or Nashville, where chicken is marinated in enough hot sauce to make you "grab a first-aid manual, thumbing wildly for a passage that differentiates between second- and third-degree burns," as Edge wryly puts it.

Although he's careful not to play favorites -- regionally or otherwise -- Edge allows that there are some basic qualities to be found in really good fried chicken, no matter where it's from. "One of the absolutes is a fusion of skin and crust. Those benighted souls who want to peel off the skin and leave the crust won't be able to do it" if the chicken's done right, he says.

He also wants to be able to taste the seasoning in both the crust and the meat, and to hear that all-important crunch: "Some fried chicken that's been held a while goes soft. I want the texture of a crunch. I want to bite through a mantle of crust into the flesh."

Warming to the subject, he goes on. "And you can't overcook the white meat or you end up with balsa wood. I'm a big advocate of brining to carry flavor and juiciness to the bird."

Oh, and one more thing: Fried chicken has to have a bone. Those nuggets, those fused chicken finger things, that's not real fried chicken.

While Edge is careful not to give the South more than its due in talking about fried chicken, Vanhooser has no such compunction.

"Yes, it is an American food, but I don't think other parts of the country think about it in the same way we do in the South," she says.

To her, fried chicken is the Sunday picnic after church, the Friday night dinner with the family, the food you serve after a funeral. "It's what I always wanted for my birthday dinner. It's comfort food."

As associate travel editor for Southern Living, she spends three-quarters of her time driving throughout the South in search of stories. It was while she was driving, telling her photographer tales of her childhood, that she got the idea for finding the region's best fried chicken.

"And then I panicked. How does one find the best fried chicken?" she wondered. The answer, she decided, was to ask the magazine's readers for recommendations. Some 350 readers responded and Vanhooser drew up a list of more than 150 places to try. With that in hand, she hit the road, at one point eating three fried chicken dinners in Kentucky and then two more in Nashville in a single day. To come up with her seven best places, Vanhooser had certain rigid criteria. The chicken had to be cooked fresh to order -- no chicken sitting on a buffet or under a heat lamp for three hours or cooked in the morning and then served throughout the afternoon.

It also had to be a regular item on the menu. "None of this once-a-week specials," she says, although it meant that one of her favorite chefs, Scott Peacock at the Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Ga., couldn't be included.

The quality of the chicken had to be consistent, which is difficult, she acknowledges. "Fried chicken can be good one day, bad another." When she was trying out Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles Restaurant in Atlanta, she stood in the rain waiting to get in when the restaurant first opened for the day, then returned at 9 p.m. to try it again.

And then, of course, there's the flavor and texture.

"The first thing I'd do, I'd pull off a piece of skin to taste. It had to be crispy. If the grease is not hot enough, the skin will be limp. If the grease is too hot, the skin will be scorched and the meat won't be fully cooked," she explains. She knows this all too well, she says, "because I've made all the mistakes to be made when frying chicken."

Her search took about a year. By the end, she says she could walk into a place and tell whether it would be good just by smelling the grease in the air.

She realizes there are places she didn't get to visit that might have warranted a place on the list. "Since the story ran, I've eaten at Tammy & Johnny's in Melfa [on Virginia's Eastern Shore], and it was very good." Although she loved Horace & Dickie's in D.C., she hadn't known about Flavors.

"Doing this story renewed my faith that the South is still its own unique region," Vanhooser says. "I had been lamenting that the South was becoming so homogenized, but I've decided we're more like pieces of a quilt with fried chicken the great, golden thread that stitches it all together."

Flavors Soul Food Restaurant, tucked away on a shady side street near Baileys Crossroads, opened in April 1997 in a place that had been home to four restaurants before Helton and her sons took it over. The most recent tenant had been a pizza place and before that it was a Peruvian rotisserie chicken restaurant. A big metal hood where the large rotisserie stood is still in place.

The restaurant decor is no-frills, but comfortable. Groups of government office workers push together tables at lunch. Mothers and their toddlers take up the booths along the wall. Televisions mounted on the wall play sports and soap operas. In perhaps a subtle message, there's a selection of health magazines to read while you wonder if ordering the smothered pork chop special and pie for dessert is really a good idea.

Helton's son Troy and an assistant do all the frying, while she cooks everything else from scratch -- including the daily special, the seven side dishes plus cornbread, rolls, cobbler or pie for dessert and, if there's time, a couple of pitchers of sweet tea. People often call in the morning to find out the daily special, which can be anything from turkey wings to curried chicken.

Most of the fried entrees on Flavors' menu are fish -- croaker, catfish, whiting, trout -- but chicken connoisseurs who don't have time to wait can call ahead and order the fried chicken, which is cooked fresh and takes 20 minutes. Customers have a choice of white meat chicken dinner with two sides for $8.95 (a sandwich is $5.75), or dark meat dinner for $8.50 ($5.25 for a sandwich).

Helton says she follows her grandmother's simple rules for frying: fresh chicken, fresh grease, season the chicken as well as the flour and don't let it sit. Fry it and eat it.

The crust is the key to great fried chicken, Helton says. "If the coating is thick and cracked, it's been pre-coated before frying." She likes the thin, Virginia-style crust made with flour. "You want to taste the chicken, not bread," she says.

Although her restaurant can't compete pricewise with the nearby fast-food fried chicken outlets, Helton says her customers come because they want real food. "I just had some people from Tennessee tell me, 'I haven't had this kind of food since I left home.' That makes me feel really good."

Flavors Soul Food Restaurant, 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church 703-379-4411; Horace & Dickie's Seafood, 809 12th St. NW; 202-397-6040.

The quest for fried chicken perfection is the subject of John Edge's upcoming book and an article in this month's Southern Living Magazine. At right, Troy and Francine Helton fry chicken to order, served with homemade side dishes, in their Flavors Soul Food Restaurant in Falls Church.Deonta Palmer works on an order at Flavors Soul Food Restaurant in Falls Church.