Who makes the best fried chicken? We put the fried chicken dinner from five hip restos to the test, but with an added twist - how do they stand up to the fast food version?
Why It may be an urban legend, but there’s a story that at a party in NYC, everyone raved about the chicken. Guests pestered the host for the details: Was it from some cool new spot in Brooklyn? Some local chef adding it to his repertoire? She opened her garbage can to reveal the KFC packaging. So I’ve always wondered – how does the cheap and cheerful stuff hold up to the gourmet version?
Objective Compare fried chicken from several restaurants in a blind taste test, pitting respected products against each other and a fast food version.
Qualifying criteria We only tested chicken that came in a dinner format, with a mix of dark and white meat and additional sides. They all had to be regular items on the restaurant’s menu, not a weekly or occasional special. Sandwiches, boneless chicken and chicken atop waffles were disqualified. From there we narrowed it down to six restaurants, mostly based on the logistics of getting all the food to one spot at the same time (via TTC) in a comparable state. (Sorry, east-enders, we’ll get you next time!)
Tasters Our tasters are all people who understand the tasting and judging process. And we all love food. Suzanne organizes heirloom-apple-tasting events at Wychwood Barns and Spadina House. Karen, Jeremy and Harry are members of RateBeer who have a great deal of experience tasting and analyzing rare craft beer, skills they apply to judging chicken. Greg is a well-known Toronto beer and food writer, plus he lives at my house and picked up most of the chicken. And me: I’ve trained at George Brown College’s chef school, written about food and drink since 2006 and judged such notorious food competitions as Battle Haggis at the restaurant Pangaea, Caplansky’s Gefilte Fish Smackdown and a sticky toffee pudding and beer contest at the Monk’s Table.
Methodology Restaurants did not know their food was part of this test. Everything was prepared and picked up as a takeout order no more than two hours before tasting. All of it was reheated in a medium oven to ensure the food was a consistent temperature and safe for consumption.
While two of the tasters helped pick up chicken and therefore knew at least one of the restaurants being tested, all tasting was done blind. The chicken from each restaurant was placed on a numbered platter, and tasters identified each sample by number. Side dishes were presented separately, also identified by number only.
Tasting criteria We judged the chicken on visual appeal, greasiness, crunchiness and flavour of coating, smell, moistness and flavour of chicken. While side dishes were included, they did not affect the final score.
THE DIRTY BIRD, $9, 3 pieces
The something special that put this newcomer in first place – with half our panel (including me) voting it their favourite – might have something to do with the philosophy behind its “northern fried chicken” product. Tasters guessed the dark, crispy, sweetish coating contained everything from brown sugar to curry, and were pleasantly surprised when told it was maple sugar. Dark meat was juicy and flavoursome, but white meat might not be worth the extra $1 upgrade, since all tasters found it dry. While we were split on the creamy purple slaw flavoured with vanilla (“Tastes like ice cream!”), chicken fiends with a sweet tooth will definitely dig the Dirty Bird.
79 Kensington, at Baldwin, 647-345-2473, thedirtybird.ca
BAR FANCY, $18, 4 pieces
Bar Fancy almost tied the winner. Tasters said it looked “crunchy and fierce!” while one compared its crispy coating to that of fried fish. The meat was juicy and flavourful, and the coating shattered to the bite, with just the right amount of greasiness. Our tasters parted ways on the flavour of the coating, which is full of Chinese five-spice powder, and most were disappointed by the single side: slices of white bread. But Bar Fancy offers its fried chicken for $2 a piece from 5 to 7 pm every night, so some failings can be forgiven.
LUTHER’S CHICKEN (INSIDE CHURCHILL), $17, 4 pieces
The buttermilk-braised bird at Luther’s Chicken, the concession inside neighbourhood bar Churchill on Dundas West, was the one our tasters voted most likely to be our fast food ringer. Which wasn’t a bad thing, as they praised its consistently golden colour with flecks of pepper, juicy meat and delicate “chicken soup” smell. We all thought this was the most nicely balanced product in terms of coating versus meat. The sides (crisp fries, tart, slightly dry slaw and a buttery herbed biscuit) were everyone’s favourite, and more than one person wanted to know if Luther’s sells the biscuits separately.
STOCKYARDS SMOKEHOUSE AND LARDER, $15, 4 pieces
The overall assessment of our Stockyards sample was “Yeah, this is pretty good.” While it didn’t wow our tasters like the other samples, they liked the dark colour and slightly sweet flavour of the coating (one taster said it was reminiscent of a waffle cone, while another mentioned graham crackers) and consistent moistness of the chicken. Fries were greasy even after reheating, and the slaw was a bit too vinegary for some of us. But the sizable portion of chicken disappeared by the end of the tasting, so it wasn’t as if anybody hated it.
POPEYE’S, $8.79, 4 pieces
Our fast food entry is my personal go-to chicken joint (specifically this location) when I want some cheap, non-fancy fried chicken, but I wasn’t surprised to see it end up near the bottom of the list. While the tasters complimented the consistent golden colour and crispness of the coating, almost everyone pegged it as bland. With comments like “middle of the road,” “not very spicy,” and a very polite “gentle,” it couldn’t compete with the rock stars at the top of the list. Personally, I found the coating vaguely chemical-tasting, something I never noticed when I had no better-quality chicken to compare it to.
PATOIS, $18, 6 pieces
A note about Patois: I did a research visit to Patois the night before our tasting and had a completely different product than what we got for our test. The OG chicken I had in the restaurant was pleasantly spiced and scented, the coating dark brown, the meat moist. Even accounting for travel time and reheating, the product we tested was distinctly different: heavy – even chunky – with cornmeal, gritty and unpleasantly greasy. The product we tried deserved to come last compared to the others, but I’d go back to the restaurant for the chicken I ate there. The flavourful accompaniments of pickled watermelon, daikon radish and Sriracha maple sauce also impressed us.