Fried chicken is complicated.
Then there’s the fraught history of the deceptively simple meal — one complicated by race, gender and economics, as argued by Psyche Williams-Forson in her provocative book “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power,” which asks this question (among others): If African American women invented fried chicken, why are there so many white men hawking it, including one especially famous Kentucky colonel?
But sometimes a drumstick is just a drumstick. Is there a way to uncomplicate one tiny corner of the fried chicken universe?
There’s no shortage of fried chicken from which to choose in the D.C. area, from the high-end offerings of such chefs as David Burke, David Deshaies, Tom Power and Cedric Maupillier, all following in the footsteps of the late Michel Richard, to the down-and-dirty — er, make that delicious — mom-and-pop carryouts such as Crown on H Street NE, where they serve collard greens as a side. Yum. Then there’s hot fried chicken, Korean and Japanese fried chicken, popcorn fried chicken and so on.
Somewhere in the middle lie the chains.
In the DMV, there are six: Bojangles’, KFC, Pollo Campero, Popeyes, Roy Rogers and Royal Farms. And there are more differences between them than the presence of an apostrophe (Bojangles’) or the absence of one (Popeyes). Read on for an opinionated, highly unscientific yet completely true ranking of the area’s best franchises to get whole, cut up, bone-in fried chicken (please, no nuggets, tenders or wingettes).
Rallying cry: Gotta wanna needa getta hava.
Known for: “Legendary” iced tea.
Biscuits are called out in this chain’s full name: Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits . So it’s no surprise that Bo’s version of the biscuit — a floury staple of the fried chicken side game — was among the best of those I sampled: tall and fluffy yet substantial, and nicely buttery.
But the southeastern franchise’s chicken itself, a more mildly spiced answer to Popeyes’s spiciest option, was frustratingly inconsistent from visit to visit, and from store to store. At one meal, I’d find a lightly breaded, beautifully blistered skin that broke, with a quiet but audible crackle — a pleasing counterpoint to the thickly crusted kee-runch of Popeyes — to reveal traces of the marinade still clinging to moist and flavorful flesh. Subsequent visits were met with pieces of breaded bird that were sometimes only partially coated, disappointingly soggy and/or bland.
The iced tea may not be literally legendary (as advertised), but it’s bracing and sweet without being cloying, evoking summertime in the South. As for the Cajun pinto beans? They make for a hearty complement to the main course, delivering a gentle, but needed kick of heat.
Pair with: Sweet tea, Cajun pintos. Food hack: Spice things up with a jar of the chain’s french fry seasoning. It’s not offered as a regular condiment, but they’ll sell it to you if you ask. Keep it on hand at home for the next time you do carryout.
Rallying cry: Finger lickin’ good.
Birthplace: Corbin, Ky.
Known for: Eleven herbs and spices.
The legacy of Harland Sanders, who in 1939 adapted the pressure cooker to quick-fry the chicken he had been slinging out of his filling station/cafe, seems somewhat diminished eight decades later, and not just because KFC — the giant chain whose breezy initialism replaced the name Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1991 — often shares space with its sister restaurant Taco Bell. (Along with Pizza Hut, it’s one of several fast-food business owned by parent company Yum Brands).
It’s just that the chicken itself seems a bit out of step with modern tastes, with a thin, parchment-like crust that is often slightly damp and limp. Yes, there’s an extra crispy option, for those who want more contrast between tender meat and robust, flaky skin, but it’s surprisingly flavorless. The Colonel’s “original recipe” of 11 herbs and spices is what you want. Theorized by sleuths to contain a blend of salt, black pepper, white pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt and ground ginger, it’s still among the best-seasoned fried chicken out there. But that critical mouthfeel — just the right amount of breading giving way, after stiff resistance, to the treasure inside — is lacking.
Pair with: Mountain Dew Sweet Lightning (a sweet tea-esque KFC exclusive), mac and cheese. Food hack: Order something off the Taco Bell menu, like a side of black beans and rice. Go crazy.
4. Pollo Campero
Rallying cry: We’ve got your craving covered.
Known for: Latin American sabor (flavor).
According to legend, before this chain opened its first stateside store in 2002, so many travelers were bringing Pollo Campero back from Central America on the plane — filling the cabin with its intoxicating aroma — that the El Salvador-based Grupo TACA airline inquired as to whether the company could design an odor-free box.
Coated with a notably dark, sometimes faintly oily crust, and seasoned with a marinade that is injected into the skin before breading, this chicken looks and tastes like no other. You won’t find the otherwise ubiquitous biscuits on the menu here, only meh dinner rolls, but Pollo Campero does sell mashed potatoes. (Skip them; they’re vaguely grainy and with an odd aftertaste. Stick with fried yucas.)
This isn’t American Southern-fried chicken, unless you mean south of the border. Pollo Campero is a zesty, nicely crispy — if sometimes also a bit chewy — addition to the fried chicken landscape.
Pair with: Horchata (a sweet, cinnamon-scented rice milk concoction), plantains. Food hack: The corn salad — a colorful mix of roasted corn, peppers, cherry tomatoes, pepitas and cotija cheese — is one of the best sides you’ll find in any fried-chicken joint. But it’s served with too much slippery, sweet dressing that tastes little of the advertised cilantro. Drain some of it off, and you’ll be a lot happier.
3. Roy Rogers
Rallying cry: Our chicken is addictive.
Birthplace: Falls Church.
Known for: The Fixin’s Bar.
As a native Washingtonian, I grew up with Roy’s chicken, a descendant of the Pappy Parker’s variety once available at the defunct Hot Shoppes. It was my reward for cleaning my room as a child, and the franchise’s many branches helped get me through college and early adulthood, before the company largely abandoned D.C. and the close-in ’burbs for the boondocks and highway rest stops. Which is just a way of saying: Full disclosure, I’m biased, but it’s also been a while.
The good news is that Roy Rogers still exists, and its chicken doesn’t disappoint, with a stellar crust that makes up for a somewhat fungible seasoning. (Mostly, it tastes of salt and pepper. But really, who needs more than that?) The pieces are generously proportioned, the mashed potatoes are served under a piquant gravy, the biscuits are fluffy yet substantial, and it’s the only chain that offers a real salad as a side (no, coleslaw doesn’t count). That’s a plus, for a dish that ain’t exactly health food.
Great customer service is also surprising: At most places, a three-piece box means a breast and two wings, or a thigh and two legs. Roy’s gives you a choice of two breasts or two thighs — at no additional charge for the larger pieces.
Pair with: Chocolate milkshake (made with Edy’s ice cream), side salad. Food hack: If you’re a cheapskate — guilty — you can cobble together a free salad from the ingredients at the Fixin’s Bar: iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions (white and red) and peppers. It isn’t pretty, and there’s no dressing (or bowl; use the chicken box). If you ask nicely, they’ll probably give you a packet of salad dressing.
2. Royal Farms
Known for: Also being a gas station.
I was skeptical, despite Food & Wine magazine’s declaration that this filling-station-cum-7-Eleven-knockoff made the best “fast-food fried chicken a la gas station.” But Royal Farms has won me over. I like the touch screen ordering and that they’re open 24 hours. And you can fill up your tank at the same time, while on the way to the beach. What’s not to love?
But it’s the chicken that sealed the deal: fresh, hot, moist, flavorful — if not quite seasoned to the bone like Popeyes — and with a beautifully golden, assertive, if slightly yielding, crust. It’s also unusually well-suited for reheating as leftovers, if there are any. A lot of fried chicken doesn’t hold up well in the fridge the next day; this did. Now what to do about the fact that they’re all at least 45 minutes away from my house?
Pair with: Orange crème Slushee, western fries. Food hack: If you want an extra kick of flavor — and you’re a rulebreaker — order Chesapeake (i.e., crab seasoned) dipping sauce from a menu that includes the usual suspects: honey mustard, barbecue, sweet and sour, ranch. It’s intended for chicken tenders, but who’s to say you can’t use it to perk up bone-in chicken or fries?
Rallying cry: Love that chicken from Popeyes.
Birthplace: Arabi, La.
Known for: Twelve-hour marinade.
You can tell a piece of Popeyes fried chicken from across the room. Distinctly orange-hued, and with a uniquely craggy crust, it’s almost — for lack of a better word — petaled, like a flower. But close your eyes. When you fracture that gorgeous surface by biting into it, the music it makes is equally unmistakable, halfway between a corn flake cookie and the crust of a good French baguette. Inside, if you’ve ordered spicy — and why anyone would select mild is beyond me — you’ll see flecks of red clinging to the moist meat, the peppery residue of the Cajun marinade it bathes in before hitting the deep fryer.
Popeyes is the Holy Grail of fast-food fried chicken: a nearly perfect trifecta of crispy crust, juicy meat and fiery heat. In a fast-food world where most mashed potatoes taste more like they came from a tube than a tuber, these are as close to homemade as you’re going to get, and the green beans come in a thick pork gravy that’s great to dip a biscuit in.
About those biscuits: They’re unfortunately Popeyes’s Achilles’ heel. Roy Rogers, Bojangles’, KFC and Royal Farms all served up golden-brown discs that were taller, fluffier and more consistent than those from Popeyes. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.
Pair with: Sweet tea, mashed potatoes. Food hack: The sweet tea here is a little too sweet, compared with Bojangles’. Since it’s self-serve, mix half sweet, half unsweetened, or to your taste.