There are lot of chicken dishes out there and I have only ten slots on this list. So I picked out my faves using my own unscientific criteria of what constitutes a chicken dish, ruling out others because chicken wasn't the star. What remains are dishes where I felt America's favorite poultry got top billing. I did mix in different kinds of prep. There are a few pan-seared birds, a few rotisserie ones, and a whole mess of deep-fried chickens, because, let's face it, some of the best chickens are deep-fried.
10. At Last Cafe's Brick Chicken
The Brick Chicken is the apotheosis of what At Last Café is all about: Take a simple dish, charge a fair value, do it better than anyone else. For his poultry masterpiece, Chef John McLaughlin meticulously debones a half-chicken, cooks it under the weight of a brick, and serves it with smashed potatoes, veggies and pan gravy made from the drippings. The result? A chicken dinner that is one of the best I've ever had: crispy, mahogany skin reminiscent of the best Armenian rotisserie hen and meat so juicy it bursts.
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 I've had. 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.
Pizza & Chicken Lover 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.
At Zankou, you see the twirling birds constantly being basted by the dripping juices of those that rotate above it. And since turnover at Zankou is as continual as train depot, the chicken is always hot, always fresh. The skin, of course, is the best part — so well-rendered, it flakes off by itself in crispy sheets, as if it were trying to shed. The flavor of the skin is of chicken concentrated, but you taste the powdered spices that season the bird. It's like a salty poultry chip with slightly bitter, burnt herb finish. And the chicken itself? Well let's put it this way, pull on the leg bone and the thing slides off clean, leaving the meat behind, steaming and still fuming. Forget about the breast though, as it seems to be dry. The dark meat is the money meat here, moist, juicy, full of chicken-y flavor, ready to slathered in their house garlic paste and then tucked into pita bread.
5. Inka Grill's Rotisserie Chicken
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.
Yakitori is the specialty of the house (as well as its equally excellent sister restaurant Kappo Honda of Fountain Valley), a subset of the kushiyaki that threads onto wooden skewers every part of the chicken, from neck to tail. Gizzards squeak like edible plastic; dark meat is paired with scallions. All are flipped ever-so-carefully just slightly above white-hot coals called bincho tan, a premium fuel that that imprints on the morsels a smoky carbon sweetness.
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.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.