In The Matrix, a character tells Keanu Reeves' Neo that he thinks that everything tastes like chicken because the machines couldn't figure out what to make chicken taste like--so they made everything taste like chicken.
But what if the machines made everything taste like fried chicken? Would Neo and the other humans be happier living inside the Matrix?
Our county has so many great fried chicken dishes, you'd never know we're all just batteries inside a vast computer network constructed by robots. Here are ten of what this human writer thinks is the best; but don't let this alphabetically-ordered list keep you from throwing in your vote in. Let's hear what your favorites are.
Forget the deep-fried Kool Aid or the other gimmicks for which Chicken Charlie is infamous. What you want is the chicken. The regular, plain old chicken drumstick. Despite the press for whatever deep-fried monstrosity they'll introduce as this summer's most-talked-about fair food, they really do know how to fry a chicken. It's greaseless, juicy, tender, cooked perfectly with just the right amount of batter, and imbued with flavor down to the bone.
First and foremost, Crazy Chi Mac is a Korean tavern where Hite, OB and Cass come out in big pitchers and the customers don't get loud until about 9 or 10 p.m. But it is also the first such pub around these parts to specialize in fried chicken. You only need to have been paying attention to the miracles Korean purveyors such as Kyochon and Love Letter have done with fried chicken over the past decade to know that this natural progression of things is very, very good. The restaurant doesn't have just one kind of fried chicken either. There's the base model, golden and crispy battered, the crust similar to the Colonel's, though lighter and not harboring a gallon of grease. From there, there's several different saucing options, ranging from a hot sauce made with red kimchi juice to a sugary soy to something called "Habanero 911 Hot Wings" that has a note underneath it saying, "Caution: Very Very Spicy!!!" With all of the chicken here, there's the unshakable hallmark of the Korean Method, a double-fry that leaves the skin thoroughly rendered of its fat and practically disappearing between the batter and the meat. Another notable feature: even if you ask for a half order, there will be enough equally sized pieces to share with the entire table.
If you're in line for Star Tours or the Astro Orbitor and you suddenly feel hunger pangs creep in, it's because of Plaza Inn. The smell from the fried chicken it cooks permeates the entire area. And if you've tasted it before, you know it's hands-down the best fried chicken not just in the park, but probably the City of Anaheim. Plaza Inn, for the quick, cafeteria-style restaurant that it is, will serve its golden, inexplicably non-greasy chicken with mashed potatoes, loads of gravy, a heap of green beans, and a useless biscuit. It's a monster of a meal. You don't just get one or two pieces of that chicken, you get three--a drumstick, a thigh, and a breast from the Dolly Parton of hens. But you finish every bit, starting with that crunchy rendered skin, and leaving nothing but the bones. This is fried chicken that not only exceeds your expectations of theme park food but also the dish itself--a fried chicken that's arguably better than the one that started Knott's Berry Farm.
A serving of fried chicken at Hungry Bear comes with half the bird disassembled into four parts (wing, thigh, breast and drumstick). Each piece is dusted with nothing more than flour and deep-fried with precision. The result is glorious and greaseless. Without a heavy batter insulating it from the oil, the skin transforms into an unbelievably crunchy, chicken-flavored, kettle-cooked chip. The meat beneath is moist and tangy, most likely because of brining or a long soak in buttermilk. Once you've had it, you won't bother with their country-fried breast of chicken, which is nicely done and smothered in gravy, but lacking in comparison.
Let's be clear, we're talking about Knott's Chicken-to-Go, not the actual Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott's. Mrs. Knott's Chicken-to-Go counter is located mere feet from the restaurant, a tourist trap where people will stand for hours to get a seat. It remains puzzling why anyone bothers with the restaurant when you can conceivably be licking your fingers and rubbing your tummies full from a meal well-eaten while the rest of the schmucks are still waiting in line. People! It's the same chicken! And on top of that, it's less expensive at the Chicken-to-Go counter. A dinner bucket at around $20 can easily feed four people, with nine pieces of hen, two tubs of mashed potatoes, a tub of gravy, an equally tall tub of a side of our choice, plus more biscuits (of the tender and fluffy variety) with boysenberry preserves (a fruit that was popularized by Walter Knott, donchaknow) than you'll know what to do with. You'll even get paper plates and utensils so you can gulp it all down at a nearby picnic table.
Love Letter's "Crispy Fried Chicken" wears a crust more akin to batter than breading. But even here, the bird exhibits the common link to all Korean-style fried chicken: a skin thoroughly rendered of fat to become wisps, and often thoroughly absorbed and fused into the batter. The flavor is concentrated with a light touch of soy sauce, but the meat tastes of pure poultry-ness. Like its competitor BBQ Chicken across the parking lot at Irvine's Diamond Jamboree, Love Letter does not seem to brine their birds, letting the meat become the platform on which the flavored crust and pickles build upon. The chickens are cooked well and juicy, even the white meat. The breast pieces are cut up into smaller segments so that no one person hogs it all...which is not to say it won't still happen.
Ah, Memphis' buttermilk fried chicken! This, ladies and gents, is the way fried chicken should be. There is no bucket, no mascot, and the bird comes practically deboned. But if you think that it's some frou-frou deconstruction of a classic, you'd be wrong. Memphis' fried chicken plate might just make a displaced Southerner weep from his meemaw. What you get is a meal as traditional as it is gigantic. A study of balance and excess, it starts with a flattened, boneless breast covered with a shimmering, crispy, flaky, golden chainmail of breading -- what I consider the "original" original recipe. About the only bone you'll encounter is in the wing drumlet, which is attached as an extra treat to nibble on for dessert. Though there is no dark meat here, every well-cooked molecule of it is moist and juicy. The flavor is slightly tangy from an overnight soak in buttermilk. Then, beneath the swooping shadow of the golden fried breast, there are the sides that complete the dish: a scoop of rustic mashed potato as starch, a heap of pot-stewed mustard greens as a bitter counterbalance, and a lighter, more refined version of country gravy to slather over everything. And when I say more refined, I mean it. Do not expect the standard caramel-colored glop that tastes like it came from a bouillon cube--this is the purest form of poultry-flavored ambrosia.
Mrs. Bea's does ten waffles, including a chocolate cake waffle, a cornbread waffle, and a waffle where bacon and cheese is baked in with the batter. But let's talk about that cornbread waffle, because it's something of a miracle. It possesses a crispness bordering on hush puppy, but when you eat it, the overall experience is like you're eating only the best part of cornbread: the crust. And then there's the perfectly greaseless chicken. Mrs. Bea's chicken is served scorching hot straight out the fryer, often still crackling with heat. It's in those few precious minutes when you can barely hold on to your drumstick without burning off your fingertips that you want to sink your teeth into it, getting into your mouth equal portions of juicy meat and crunchy skin. Afterward, you want to chase it with more of that waffle that you should've already slathered in melted butter and syrup. Then, after that, bite off more chicken doused with hot sauce.
Xoi ga is sticky rice with chicken, a Vietnamese street dish that, if I wanted to oversimplify, closely mirrors Hainan chicken--boiled or steamed hen presented usually shredded or cut-up into pieces over steamed sticky sweet rice. But what Quan Hy serves as xoi ga is not this. The chicken isn't so much "shredded" as it is compressed and fried. Fried to be one of the most delectable, succulent pieces of poultry you'll ever have. In its uniform flatness is a shape as sleek as an iPhone where an entire, intact chicken thigh is squeezed into a compact frame. The flavor is seeped through and through from an aromatic marinade that tastes similar to what's used on traditional Vietnamese fried chicken called ga chien. The meat is well-cooked, crisped to dark brown on the edges exposed to oil, and moist everywhere else. The rendered skin crackles, slit like gills at strategic locations on the patty so that it stays attached during cooking. Then there's the sweet rice, a reinterpretation that has the sticky starch formed into rectangular spears and deep-fried. The eyes expect either a tater tot or a French toast stick; but the mouth experiences something even better: an oily, Rice Krispy-like crunch leading to a soft, rice-pudding-like center. You dip it in the accompanying sweetened soy dipping sauce, which it absorbs like a sponge.
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Roscoe's first OC restaurant serves the same fried chicken and waffles as the others. The waffle, which is as round as an Eggo but with twice as many dimples, comes with a huge ice-cream-sized scoop of butter and isn't so much crisp as it is soft and bread-like--a sponge, really, for the syrup. But there's the slightest hint of cinnamon in it, which, as counterintuitive as it may sound, makes it even work better with the chicken. There's something artisanal and stubbornly Southern in how Roscoe's still insists on frying its chickens in small batches, half-submerged in cast-iron pans. The method can be temperamental and slow, occasionally resulting in a piece of chicken dripping with grease. Yet, you won't encounter any meat that's less than perfectly cooked, with the skin halfway rendered and covered in a thin veneer of its seasoned crust.