It’s lowbrow. It’s messy. It could never be accused of being healthful. But we’d never let those formalities get between us and an order of crispy, crackly, delicious fried chicken. Whether it comes in a bucket or on a bun, or you eat it with your fingers or chopsticks, there’s a surprising variety to the Washington area’s fried chicken offerings. Here are some of the most irresistible.
Forget the cronut. Our newest favorite food chimera is the “rotissi-fried” chicken at the Partisan. Credit goes to chef Nate Anda, who dreamed up the dish: After a 12-hour brine, the chicken is rotisseried for two hours and then fried for two and a half minutes. Why both? “Everything is better once it’s fried in beef fat,” Anda said. We have to agree. Whether white or dark, the meat is succulent throughout. The batter-free frying leaves the simply seasoned skin rendered perfectly crisp, golden and translucent — cracklings, essentially. The sound of it shattering under the knife was music to our ears. And as if the lily needed further gilding, the chicken comes with a generous pour of honey hot sauce. The sauce is hard to resist, but try to reserve a few bites of unadorned chicken so you can fully appreciate this happy marriage of classic preparations.
The Partisan, 709 D St. NW. 202-524-5322. www.thepartisandc.com.
— Becky Krystal
When Bryan Voltaggio started planning the menu for Family Meal, his modern, upscale spin on a diner, his thoughts turned to home and the carryout meal he most enjoyed as a kid: fried chicken. “It was one of our favorite things,” he says. “It just seems like a family dinner.” And if he was creating a restaurant called Family Meal, fried chicken “had to be an important part of it.” But Voltaggio wanted to do it right, and set about testing cooking methods, brines, breadings and fryers. That long process paid off with a home run of a fried chicken dish that’s become the most popular item on Family Meal’s menu. The whole chickens spend 12 hours in a brine of pickle juice and roasted poultry stock before getting dredged, rested and dredged again in a mixture of flour, cornmeal and corn starch. After a dip in the top-of-the-line pressure fryer, the thighs, legs and breasts emerge with a crisp, salty skin that cracks open to reveal wonderfully warm and moist flesh. You don’t even need to dunk it in the house-made hot sauce that accompanies the dish, but really, who can resist?
Family Meal Ashburn, 20462 Exchange St. 703-726-9800; Frederick, 880 N. East St. 301-378-2895; Baltimore, 621 E. Pratt St. 410-601-3242. www.voltfamilymeal.com.
— John Taylor
Although it’s commonly served in Japan at karaoke bars, convenience stores and on street carts, kara age chicken — like most of the country’s food — is held to an extremely high standard. “It’s taken it to the nth degree of obsession and detail,” says Cizuka Seki, who, with her father Hiroshi, owns Izakaya Seki on V Street NW. “Kara age” is used to describe the method for deep-frying bite-size pieces of fish and, more commonly, chicken. Though there are subtle variations on the ubiquitous dish, most recipes call for chicken thighs marinated in soy sauce, coated in flour or corn starch and deep-fried in oil. Izakaya Seki’s version sticks closely to the formula. Probably. “I’m not even quite sure what my dad puts into it, because we don’t have recipes,” Seki says, though she’s certain wheat flour is involved. The result is a thin, tender coating that’s slightly softer than tempura. The accompanying ponzu sauce lends a tartness to the nubs.
Izakaya Seki, 1117 V St. NW. 202-588-5841. www.sekidc.com.
— Holley Simmons
Don’t waste your kimchi-stinking breath asking for more sauce at BonChon. The South Korean fried chicken chain, founded in 2002, is so dedicated to consistency that it doesn’t allow for any modifications. And why would you want to change anything, really? The made-to-order wings, drumsticks and strips are fried twice, resulting in a paper-thin crust that yields the same satisfying crack as shattering crème brulee with a spoon. Founder Jinduk Seh spent two years perfecting his secret sauces, which come in three flavors — soy garlic, hot and a blend of the two — and are brushed on by hand post-fry, piece by piece. True to BonChon’s commitment to uniformity, sauces are made exclusively in South Korea and distributed to all 140-plus BonChon locations, which means the wings you’re chewing on in Arlington are slathered with the same exact stuff as those in the Philippines. Joints like these are so common throughout Korea they’re called “chimeks,” which is a hybrid term that combines “chicken” with the Korean word for beer. Washington should be happy to have 10 BonChons within driving distance, plus a brand new Metro-accessible location near the Navy Yard.
BonChon, 1015 Half St. SE and nine other locations in Maryland and Virginia. www.bonchon.com.
— Holley Simmons
There’s not much agreement on what constitutes Maryland fried chicken. Some say it’s just a fresh Maryland chicken that’s pan-fried; others say it should be topped with white gravy, almost like a chicken-fried steak. The pan-fried chicken platter at
Crisfield Seafood is a perfect example of the former style. Half of a chicken is dredged in flour, dusted with salt and pepper, and fried in a cast-iron pan. This preparation lends a snap and crunch to the exterior, and while the meat falls off the bone, the well-seasoned breading holds on. (The chicken is available only Friday through Sunday, and frequently sells out.) The Chesapeake fried chicken at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill is plumper than Crisfield’s version and seasoned with Old Bay, black pepper and cayenne, but the breading is softer and less crispy. It’s brined for 24 hours and deep-fried, rather than pan-fried, and it’s served only on Sunday.
Crisfield Seafood, 8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-589-1306. www.crisfieldseafood.com. Hank’s Oyster Bar, 1624 Q St. NW. 202-462-4265; 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-733-1971. www.hanksoysterbar.com.
— Fritz Hahn
Self-consciousness may prevent you from ordering fried chicken in a white-tablecloth restaurant. It feels incongruous — gauche, almost — to dig into picnic fare at the kind of place where you should be ordering risotto or tartare or something that comes with mousse, gelee or foam. But you have to override that adult voice in the back of your head, because if you don’t, you’ll miss out on Central Michel Richard’s famed fried chicken plate ($24 at lunch, $25 for dinner), which remains as good as ever. Though it’s no longer sold by the bucket to go, Michel Richard’s KFC-inspired crispy breast and thigh come stacked atop a pool of the butteriest mashed potatoes you’ll ever taste. It’s such a dignified presentation that this most American of dishes almost could pass as (gasp!) French. Self-consciousness should, however, steer you toward using a knife and fork — not your fingers — to eat the chicken. It is, after all, that kind of a place.
Central Michel Richard, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-626-0015. www.centralmichelrichard.com .
— Maura Judkis
If you believe the lore, Nashville hot chicken was basically a crime of passion, created as a blistering rebuke to a no-account Romeo who couldn’t keep his hands off other women. Alas, this wolf was also a chili head who found pleasure, not pain, in this dish of revenge served hot. Decades later, chefs are latching onto this addictive form of punishment. Aaron Silverman served an ultra-refined version at Rose’s Luxury for months, and now Eric Reid, chef and co-owner of Reserve 2216 in Del Ray, has developed his own take on hot chicken, even if he’s never actually enjoyed it in Nashville. He marinates an airline cut (boneless breast with the drumette wing attached) in buttermilk and Crystal hot sauce before dredging the chicken in seasoned flour and frying it. Reid ditches the traditional white bread base in favor of collards and a side of corn bread waffles. He finishes the dish with a combination of Cajun seasonings and more Crystal hot sauce for a moist, crispy bird that bites back. But not too hard. This is Alexandria, after all.
Reserve 2216, 2216 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-549-2889. www.drpreserve.com.
— Tim Carman
The sole virtue of most fast-food operations is consistency. Whether you bite into a Big Mac in Bethesda or Beijing, the sandwich should taste the same. The menu at Popeyes follows suit, but it deviates from the brand-name competition in an important respect: The signature at Popeyes could pass for home cooking (well, if your home had a vat of clean, hot oil and a person with a Southern accent tending the meal). Maybe that accounts for my occasional forays to the chicken fryer after a bum restaurant-review excursion. No matter where I eat my order, inevitably “spicy,” I know I can count on a coating that smacks of cayenne, paprika and even crushed cornflakes, and chicken that spurts with juice. The shatter is audible; the golden crumbs fly everywhere, but end up on my tongue. No one-trick pony, Popeyes has hot and tender buttermilk biscuits that bolster my favorite excuse to snack low on the food chain. Once, I got home to discover a clerk had forgotten to pack bread in my bag. I almost cried. Instead, I consoled myself with another piece of chicken.
Popeyes has locations throughout the D.C. metro area. www.popeyes.com.
— Tom Sietsema
The fried chicken sandwich hasn’t been the same since KFC’s Double Down turned a guilty pleasure into an outright farce, using crispy white-meat fillets as both the sandwich’s primary protein and the oily handles by which you eat the monstrosity. Leave it to Rob Sonderman, pitmaster and co-owner of DCity Smokehouse, to bring dignity back to the bite. His Den-Den — named for co-creator and pitmaster-in-training
Dennis Geddie — begins with boneless thighs marinated in buttermilk, hot sauce and honey. Sonderman then dredges the meat in seasoned flour before dropping the thighs into the fryer. Generously stuffed into a grilled hoagie roll with lettuce, tomato and crispy onions, the chicken is finished with two sauces, including a house-made cilantro ranch. Technically, the Den-Den ($9.25) is one of the few smokeless items on DCity’s menu (unless you count the chipotle peppers in the hot sauce). No matter. You won’t care the minute you sink your teeth into that heaping hoagie of spicy thigh meat.
DCity Smokehouse, 8 Florida Ave. NW. 202-733-1919. www.dcitysmokehouse.com.
— Tim Carman
Hearty is the appetite that can handle Oohh’s and Aahh’s chef-owner Oji Abbott’s boneless fried chicken breast without taking home leftovers. He buys local — from Hartman Meat Co. in Northeast Washington — and butterflies each 14-ounce portion ($12.95), which results in a lot of real estate for the crispy, well-seasoned coating. Abbott chalks up the consistently moist meat to proper cooking time and temperature, and to the recipe he learned from his grandmother.
Oohh’s and Aahh’s, 1005 U St. NW. 202-667-7142. www.oohhsnaahhs.com.
— Bonnie S. Benwick
It’s all too easy to chomp through an order of Boardwalk Chicken at the shore-happy Pop’s Sea Bar in Adams Morgan. The bite-size pieces of dark-meat-only bird are brined for two hours, then treated to a buttermilk bath until they are coated with plain flour and flash-fried to order. A generous hand with salt and pepper just before serving means the effect of that seasoning builds as you empty the single-serving basket ($8.99). Ask for two portions of the accompanying Jersey sauce so you’ll have enough of its horseradish-y, kitchen-sink blend for every bite.
Pop’s Sea Bar, 1817 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-534-3933. www.popsseabar.com.
— Bonnie S. Benwick
Chicken tenders are often relegated to the children’s menu, but the chicken Tendies at GBD are a fine meal for adults and children alike. Each white-meat tender comes with a dark, crispy outer layer with a heavy dose of salt and spice. But the best part about chicken tenders is the dipping, and GBD offers nine sauces, including a take on D.C.’s own mumbo sauce, buttermilk ranch, chipotle barbecue and Frankenbutter, which combines Frank’s RedHot sauce with butter. Ask for the $5.50 Saucetown option to try all nine.
GBD, 1323 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-524-5210. www.gbdchickendoughnuts.com.
— Margaret Ely
Fried chicken fans can argue the merits of white meat vs. dark meat, or whether it’s better to chow down on a drumstick or the breast. But one thing we all can agree on is that the outer layer — the breading and the skin — is the most important element of a memorable piece of fried chicken. And sometimes you just want to savor the flavor of the skin — deeply spiced, perfect crunch — without filling up on meat or having to deal with bones. And that is when you grab one of the bar stools at R.J. Cooper’s Gypsy Soul in Fairfax’s Mosaic District. Cooper’s chicken skins ($9) are twisted slivers and shards, decadently salty and crackling with paprika, cayenne pepper and garlic. The dish arrives with a house-made “roof top honey-snake oil,” but it’s best to let these beauties shine on their own.
Gypsy Soul, 8296 Glass Alley, Fairfax. 703-992-0933. www.gypsysoul-va.com.
— Fritz Hahn