When I was very little, maybe 5 or 6, my grandmother would take me out to lunch, mainly to rescue me from the incessant teasing of older siblings. We would go to Marc's Big Boy (it's Marc's in my part of the Midwest, not Bob's) because it featured the only salad bar in our small town—it was the '70s and salad bars were king.
Sadly, I was born into a household of salad eaters, where healthy trumped taste at every meal. The comfort-food junkie buried within me craved rich, soulful meals, and for a time Marc's was my only solace.
My order was always the same: "Dolly's Favorite," or "Dolly Parton," as I called it—fried chicken encased in deep-fried batter, nestled beside silky-smooth mashed potatoes with gravy. Never mind that the gravy probably came out of a can and the potatoes were dehydrated flakes only hours before, it was the only respite from brown rice and grated-carrot salads I was allowed.
Once in a while, when life deals me a bad hand, or I miss the presence of my always-svelte grandmother who passed away some time ago, I go out looking for a good Dolly Parton—that is to say, juicy fried chicken with crisp, peppery batter. A great side of mashed potatoes doesn't hurt, either. After conferring with local chicken lovers and spending a number of grueling days testing and rating local frying outfits (on a tastiness scale of 1 to 5 chickens), this is what I found.
Kenneth, a passionate soul foodie from Virginia, insisted I try the chicken from this mini-mart. He was right; the fried chicken here has a hot, crumbed batter and super-juicy meat. Judging from the signage (the price list includes orders up to 100 pieces), the chicken here is so popular it's always freshly fried—another plus. Alas, they only do wings (three for $2), and a girl needs a thigh now and then, you know?
This place, done up in wood paneled-smoky-old-man-bar style, has been doing chicken for over 40 years and many native Portlanders swear by their birds. The dark-brown batter clinging to the chicken (half a chicken plus jojos and beans for $6.25) had a welcome hint of herbs, but the pieces were so greasy I wanted a body-sized wet nap after I finished.
Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits
Another friend insisted I do the drive-thru thing. "It's the gold standard," he claimed. He was partly right; the batter on Popeyes' chicken ($5.89 for a three-piece dinner) is truly lovely—sweet, spicy and so loud when crunched into that it's difficult to hold a conversation. But once the batter was gone, I found a scary layer of translucent skin between me and my chicken that left me kind of queasy. I was under the impression that the skin was supposed to adhere to the batter, not the roof of my mouth. If they served batter-fried batter, I'd be all over that.
Batter Rating: 4 bowls.
Though Screen Door claims that it's "not a fried chicken emporium," past plates of the Southern house's crispy buttermilk-battered chicken (half-chicken meal for $14.75) had me convinced. Then again, my most recent visit wasn't as stellar. The batter was piled on so thick that every time I took a bite I got a mouthful of crisp, bland batter; another bite was necessary to get at the chicken. It was just OK—no Grail of chickendom. Maybe next visit.
Bernie's Southern Bistro
In the spirit of antebellum gentility, Bernie's fried chicken ($15) is removed from the bone for you. It's skinless, too; ostensibly so you can fit into the teensy waist of your hoop skirt. Though it's got a crackling batter with rich flavor, the meat beneath can be cottonlike, especially the breast. Bernie's chicken is just
, but it comes with wicked-good mashed potatoes and gravy, so I'm still a fan.
Reel M Inn
This is one of those "best-kept secrets." It's a tiny dive bar with goofy tavern paraphernalia—like a plaque with a deer butt on it—and a fryer the size of a small bedside table. Yet somehow the bartender manages to make fried chicken (three pieces with jojos for $6.50) that's juicy and flavorful, with a thick, crispy batter that's so hot they must dip it into the earth's core to cook it. You're forced to drink the better part of a pitcher of beer while you wait for your order, but in this case, anticipation isn't the best part—it's all about the chicken. Maybe I could bring my own mashed potatoes and no one would notice.