illustrations by anna rose
Once upon a time in Memphis, a chance encounter with fried chicken at a traditional Italian restaurant started a culinary free-for-all that spanned three weeks, half a dozen friends, and 15 meals out — all centered around the iconic fried food.
Sounds like a food writer’s fairytale assignment, right? Only the story is true, the food writer is me — now five pounds heavier — and the fried chicken at Pete and Sam’s is a menu staple, not a novelty. Surprisingly compatible with pizzas and pastas, the fried chicken entrée was both excellent and inspiring, jumpstarting my celebratory approach to July’s National Fried Chicken Day: Rediscover Memphis fried chicken in new places and new ways.
My criteria were simple: No celebrity chicken (sorry Gus’s); no soul food chicken (we love you Uncle Lou’s), and no chicken chains (Pirtle’s still rocks). Beyond these rules, my wanderings were diverse, but not inclusive. The more I looked, the more I found, confirming that Memphis fried chicken in its countless incarnations is the city’s go-to comfort food for dinner, lunch, and brunch.
A favorite trio showcases tradition and invention.
Fried chicken biscuit at Porcellino’s Craft Butcher ($6)
Hearty and deconstructed, Porcellino’s chicken biscuit is a riotous cultural mash-up starting with the bird (a heritage French farm breed), the brine (a mix of kimchi, Sriracha, fish sauce, and pickle juice), and the biscuit’s spicy honey made with Gochujang, a hot pepper paste from Korea. The chicken’s fry technique, however, is decidedly Southern: double-dredged in seasoned flour, dipped in buttermilk, deep-fried in soybean oil, and nestled in a buttermilk biscuit, warm, flakey, and sliced in half. “We also spray a little pickle brine on the chicken right at the end,” explains sous chef Michael Holland. “It’s the spicy honey and the pickle taste — inside and outside the chicken — that makes the biscuit so good.”
711 W. Brookhaven Circle (901-762-6656)
Half a fried chicken dinner at Pete and Sam’s ($14)
In the entryway to Pete and Sam’s hangs a framed menu from 1960, the year the popular Italian restaurant moved to its longstanding location on Park. Stained and charming, the menu lists foods still served at the restaurant today, including fried chicken dinners for just under $2. “I can’t tell you why, but fried chicken has always been on the menu,” says owner Sammy Bomarito, explaining the restaurant’s deceptively simple recipe: Dredge chicken in seasoned floor and deep-fry to order. Amen. Plated with cabbage and carrot slaw, the four fragrant pieces fried extra-crispy are so steaming hot that you will start to eat with a knife and fork before blissfully abandoning tableware in favor of your fingers.
3886 Park Ave. (901-456-0694)
Southern fried chicken taco at El Mero Taco ($4)
Chefs Clarissa and Jacob Dries met in Austin while attending Le Cordon Bleu, and the food they make together blends Clarissa’s Mexican heritage with Jacob’s Memphis roots. Since September, the couple has collaborated for their food truck El Mero, which means “the best,” an apt description also for the couple’s fried chicken taco. “Our marriage is in the taco,” Clarissa says. “Jacob’s from Memphis, so that’s the fried chicken. I’m from Mexico, so that’s the jalapeños.” More specifically, the chefs pickle jalapeños for a perky addition to the taco’s queso, cilantro, diced tomatoes, and buttermilk chicken brined overnight. Paired with chilled and spicy corn salad (so good!),
the taco reinvigorates lunch on the Ridgeway Loop, where El Mero frequently parks on Tuesdays.
Global flare reinvents a Southern classic.
Watermelon and Wings at the Beauty Shop ($13.75)
In 2002, when Karen Carrier opened the Beauty Shop, she experimented with Szechuan pepper dust for a Caribbean twist on wings. “I made it too hot, so I sat down to a large chunk of watermelon to cool me off,” Carrier said about the recipe’s summertime inception. On the menu ever since, her signature dish combines six deep-fried wings — plump with meat and glistening with sweet chili lime sauce — with toasted cashews and Maytag blue cheese crumbled into chunks. Watermelon offers a cool palate respite or a tangy surprise, depending on where the slices land on the plate.
966 S. Cooper St. (901-272-7111)
Kentucky Roll at Red Koi Japanese Cuisine ($6.75)
Tucked inside the Ridgeway Trace shopping center, Red Koi is the kind of Japanese restaurant people in Memphis love. The menu is far-reaching and includes dozens of specialty rolls like the Kentucky, a roll with a heart of chicken katsu, or Japanese fried chicken. To make katsu, chefs dip cutlets into seasoned flour, egg, and Panko and deep-fry. For Kentucky Rolls, sushi chefs roll together chicken katsu, avocado, and cream cheese and zigzag honey/mayo across the top. The eight-piece roll is particularly good at happy hour, when generous pours of wine are a dollar off.
5847 Poplar Ave., Suite 101 (901-767-3456)
Milanesa de pollo torta at Los Comales Restaurant ($7)
Although the red and green salsas and the basket of crispy chips are tempting at Los Comales, try to wait until after the Milanese de pollo torta comes to the table. Served inside a football-shaped bolillo about eight inches long, the light, chewy bread complements the sandwich’s many fillings — tomatoes, avocados, shredded iceberg, pickled jalapeños, refried beans, and mayonnaise — mashed together as a sandwich spread and crumb-coated chicken breast, butterflied and fried. Although other Mexican restaurants along Summer likely serve something similar, fresh ingredients and fast, affable service help the hearty torta at Los Comales stand out.
4774 Summer Ave. (901-683-9530)
KFC at Local ($12)
The ongoing national craze for Korean food gets a man-sized Southern spin at Local with a fried chicken sandwich so magnificent it needs a cocktail pick to hold it together and two hands to eat. Before getting started, ask for more napkins and then dig in. Korean barbecue sauce — sticky, sweet, and not too spicy — drapes over two pieces of chicken breast, deep-fried in seasoned flour and layered inside a soft brioche bun. Sweet pickles made in-house add a fresh taste of summer to a heap of shoestring fries fragrant with rosemary and malt vinegar aioli, served alongside.
95 S. Main St. (901-473-9573)
2126 Madison Ave. (901-725-1845)
Weekday specials perk up lunch and dinner menus.
Tuesday lunch special at Mortimer’s ($9)
The secret to Mortimer’s fried chicken is a cast-iron skillet and 80-year-old Evalina Edwards, who started cooking in 1956 for Vernon Bell when he owned the Little Tea Shop downtown. When Bell’s daughter, Sara, opened Mortimer’s in 1981, Edwards came along, and today her fried chicken (two pieces of dark meat, or white meat, or one of both) still rules Tuesday lunch. Her technique? “Mix the chicken in flour and seasoning and fry it when the oil gets hot,” Edwards says. And how does she know the chicken is done? “By looking. When it comes to the top of the oil, I know it’s crispy and ready to eat.”
Suggested sides: sweet tea, deviled eggs, and turnip greens.
590 N. Perkins Rd. (901-761-9321)
Wednesday lunch special at Capriccio Grill ($13)
Served in a peach-colored pasta bowl, the chicken special at Capriccio Grill is a lapidary presentation with rustic roots. Locally sourced collard greens build a base for the dish after six hours on the stovetop cooked with garlic powder, onion powder, and seasoned salt. Some fat helps out, too. “We save bacon fat from breakfast and add a little to our greens, just like our moms did,” explains chef Derek Smith. Two legs and a thigh, marinated in buttermilk and Sriracha, dunked in flour, and deep-fried to order finish the dish, along with a splash of vinegar sauce, house-made.
Suggested sides: lemonade, pimento cheese,
and cheddar cheese-topped rolls.
Inside The Peabody, 149 Union Ave. (901-529-4000)
Friday night special at Heritage Tavern & Kitchen ($10)
Mike Miller spent years mastering fried chicken at Patrick’s, and he happily uses the recipe on Friday nights at Heritage Tavern, his second restaurant in East Memphis. Chicken prep begins overnight with a dry marinade in the restaurant’s seasoning blend. The next day, cooks dunk legs and breasts in buttermilk and hot sauce, dredge the pieces in seasoned flour, deep-fry them to a dark golden brown, and finish the chicken in the oven. Says Miller about the oven technique: “We spread out the
pieces on a grated sheet pan to cut down on the grease and to give the chicken its nice juicy texture.”
Suggested sides: local draft beer, white
onion slaw, and wilted garlic spinach
6150 Poplar Ave., Suite 122 (901-761-8855)
Do you know the history of chicken and waffles?
The most popular British cookbook in colonial America, The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, featured a “Brown Fricasey” recipe that fried breaded chicken pieces in butter and then stewed the chicken in pickles and mushroom gravy.
Dutch immigrants in Pennsylvania popularized waffles in America during the 1600s, pairing waffles with pulled chicken and gravy. So did Thomas Jefferson when he returned from France during the 1790s with a waffle iron.
Chicken and waffles became a staple in soul food restaurants during the Harlem Renaissance when the Wells Super Club put the pairing on its late-night menu to attract musicians and revelers. The craze spread to Hollywood, where the first Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles opened in 1976. The restaurant still has several locations in California.
And what about fat and fluffy Belgium waffles, a favorite mate for fried chicken today? They were introduced to Americans at the 1964 Worlds Fair in
New York City.
Tennessee Fried Chicken
(From Mrs. John M. McGregor)
Home-cooked fried chicken is a point of pride for people who make their own cut-up fryer in a treasured cast-iron skillet. While fry techniques differ in subtle ways, most Southern recipes — like this one from the first Woman’s Exchange cookbook published in 1964 — combine varying amounts of flour, seasoning, buttermilk, and oil for frying.
2 and a half lbs. fryer
1 qt. buttermilk
Salt and pepper
2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. paprika
3 c. shortening
1 c. salad oil
Cut up chicken. Soak in buttermilk. Drain off buttermilk. Mix salt, flour, pepper, baking powder, and paprika. Place in bowl, add chicken, work dry ingredients into chicken with hands. Put shortening and oil in skillet; heat well. Drop in chicken; turn often to brown. Frying time: 15-20 minutes.
(Reprinted with permission from the Woman’s Exchange of Memphis.)