It’s kinda hard to believe I’m typing this, but Columbus has become a fried-chicken hotspot. This exploding culinary trend — even an elite pizzeria like Harvest in Clintonville now offers great fried chicken as a recurring special, and a bird-fryer called Double Comfort will be buzzing in the old Knead space soon — is clearly a burgeoning food movement with legs ... thighs and wings. Actually, the craze probably flew in with our not-letting-up wing-eating obsession. Whatever the reason, in just a few years, Columbus has gone from fried chicken-challenged to a golden-brown-crusted/juicy-underneath oasis. And not only is the good stuff suddenly all over — hip eateries, food trucks, plus new menus and chalkboard specials in established restaurants — it also pops up in creative guises, like smoked, coated in tongue-igniting spices and on homemade biscuits with pickled fennel. Here’s a taste of some new and old favorites.
Some Like It Hot
Hot Chicken Takeover: White Meat Dinner, $13.50
Hot Chicken Takeover is a dangerously delicious phenomenon spreading like wildfire. And to its rabid fans — I’ve happily joined their deranged ranks — the wildfire spreads along myriad tongues just dying to burst into blissful flames again on Saturdays and Sundays. Those are the only days you can get these Nashville-inspired meals, because that’s when Joe DeLoss, “head fryer” of the “takeover,” sets up shop in a walk-up window at the Near East Side Cooperative Market. So step in line (on my first visit, I encountered a chef from Rigsby’s and a punk-rock-musician pal both waxing ecstatically about HCT — and both confessing to having eaten it the previous weekend), place your order (get the mammoth breast piece) and heat level (I strongly recommend “hot” — it’s perfectly incendiary; “cold” is unspiced, and HCT’s “holy,” i.e. this-one-goes-to-11, just scares me) then dig in when your name is called (experience seems to have smoothed out HCT’s early-bird wrinkles; my last wait was only 10 minutes). A 12-hour brining guarantees remarkably juicy meat; two-stages of frying ensure an insane crust that still crunches after a night in the fridge; and a slathering with HCT’s salty, garlic-kissed, cayenne-heavy chili paste results in flavor nirvana. The feast comes with slammable sides designed to dampen the hurts-so-good fires: dip-it-like-a-hillbilly homemade Ranch dressing; sweet/tart and celery-seeded no-mayo slaw; super-cheesy mac-n-cheese; plus Nashville-mandatory pickles and white bread. Note: You can consume this mind-blowing dinner at on-site communal tables, or in the goofy-face-making privacy of your own, I-need-a-beer-STAT! home.
Up In Smoke
Bodega: Fried Chicken Plate, $10 (four piece)
Unless you’ve been drinking under a rock lately, you know that Bodega — the epicenter of Short North hip — has undergone drastic cosmetic and menu changes. Food-wise, it’s basically become a chicken specialist. But there’s a huge distinction separating Bodega’s brilliant oil-baptized birds from most other cluckers — prior to hitting the fryer, they undergo four intense hours of in-house applewood smoking that lends them a deep, campfire-like character. You’d hardly expect this wood-vapor flavor based on their beautiful (if kinda oily) red-tinged/golden-brown, light-yet-crackly batters — which result from wet-then-dry dips in buttermilk and seasoned flour. Underneath this toothsome fun, the wildly juicy and clean-eating meat doesn’t come easily. See, Bodega’s chickens are not only free-range and antibiotic-and-hormone-free, but they receive a tenderizing, two-days brining in buttermilk. The “plate” meals come with house-baked cornbread biscuits, richness-cutting pickled onions, a nifty, sweet, spicy and pickle-hinting corn relish, plus a fiery and fruity habanero-based hot sauce that plays wonderfully off the smoke.
Mya’s Fried Chicken: Half bird with two biscuits, $10
In June, Mya’s food truck celebrated its two-year anniversary of serving patrons in a Clintonville convenience store parking lot equipped with three picnic tables. Judging by the wild enthusiasm for Mya’s crunchy-crusted, uncommonly juicy and tender chickens, I expect many more happy returns. Heck, considering its fanbase — one lady recently told me she’d visited three weeks in a row — and Mya’s chalkboard-specials mindset, a brick-and-mortar setup might just be in the works someday. Anyway, Mya’s recipe for rare-depth-of-flavor and succulent chicken begins with Ohio-raised, never-frozen, antibiotic-and-hormone-free birds dunked in buttermilk for 24 hours. Dredging in a secret-ingredient-seasoned flour designed to create addicts is next. That’s followed by, as co-owner Mark Tolentino described (the family business is named after his daughter), “a true Southern-style shallow fry so every piece makes contact with the pan’s bottom to develop a crust.” Mya’s crowning glory is a signature drizzle containing herbed honey (teases out the meat’s sweetness) and vinegar (cuts the sorta greasy crust). Meals only come with homemade biscuits, but the best of Mya’s scratch-made sides ($3-$6) are definitely its fluffy and terrific, sour-cream-tangy smashed potatoes creamed with a viscous and intense chicken gravy.
Bebe at Hey Hey: Chicken Biscuit, $8
Newsflash: You needn’t visit Brooklyn to get innovative cooking from a talented chef working out of a dive bar. Nope, just head to Merion Village and say “Hey” twice. Bebe’s fantastic fried bird — it’s served regular (read spicy) or HOT (read HOT!) — arrives in sorta slider form. From top to bottom, this devour-able and totally homemade sandwich-ette shows off the impressive skill-set of chef Matthew Heaggans. It all starts with a thigh deboned and brined in a pickle juice/buttermilk slurry; HOT gets a “habanero mash” added. Then comes seasoned flour tickled with a bit of brown sugar (HOT receives bonus cayenne pepper). After frying this into a crispy block of phenomenally moist meat, it’s drizzled with a honeyed chile sauce (HOT’s gifted with a vinegar-detonated, extra-hot-sauce) and placed onto a hefty but proportional homemade and buttery toasted biscuit with arugula leaves. The piece de resistance is a garnishing with killer housemade fennel and cucumber pickles. Eaten all together, it’s a whizz-bang, yin-yang, sweet-tart, bitter-and-spicy little tour de force. Epilogue: Any non-sissy will love Bebe’s “regular,” but Bebe’s HOT is NOT for amateurs.
Smokehouse Brewing Company: Double Dip Buttermilk Fried Chicken, $14
When this masterful microbrewery and smoked-meat specialist recently rebranded (it used to be a Barley’s), it redrew its menu and made sure to include fried chicken on that new food list. But not just any fried chicken. No, chef Wolfgang Huddleston — who hails from the Lone Star State — endows his birds with a Texas-sized crust whose crunch practically resounds from here to Amarillo. To accomplish this, Huddleston brines partially deboned breast/wing quarters (Smokehouse touts Ohio Proud sourcing) in buttermilk laced with spices, plus house hot sauce. It marinates for, well, “the longer the better.” Then comes a wet-dry dip back through the brine followed by seasoned flour. That process gets repeated to complete the “double dip” and build up a hefty shell. Served with grilled corn and dense mashers crowned with a peppery and excellent chicken-fried-steak-style “real white gravy” thick as Huddleston’s accent, this is a rib-sticking meal you won’t soon forget.
Wildflower Cafe: Famous Southern Fried Chicken, $10.50 (available only on Saturdays)
For a long time, Wildflower was the only reliable answer to the frustrating and frustrated question: “Is there any good fried chicken in town?” Well, “Old Reliable” is still one of the best. And maybe the least greasy. In fact, I was surprised to find Wildflower’s Amish-raised birds (from Gerber Farms) are deep-fried instead of cooked in a pan because they’re so refreshingly easy-on-the-oil. What’s also easy is ripping through their simple but un-improvable crusts — they’re light, crispy and golden-brown — to reach the impressively juicy meat of the breast and leg pieces that star in this Southern-style country dinner. In supporting roles are fresh and homey coleslaw, some of the best flaky and buttery homemade biscuits in Columbus, plus fluffy and light, honest whipped potatoes anointed with creamy chicken gravy. P.S. Eating this comfort food beauty after consuming a zesty Bloody Mary here almost makes having a hangover fun.
Cook’s IGA: 8-piece bucket, $10
I was at a party once where high-decibel chomping broke out because someone suddenly popular there had brought in a bucket of this thick-battered, crunch-tastic chicken. Everyone asked where it came from, and the unexpected answer was “The IGA near Oakland Nursery.” I filed that info away. But when another IGA chicken incident occurred at a different soiree, I went to investigate. Turns out, that old-timey, small-town-like grocer offers the fried-on-premises product of “Charley Biggs.” A quick internet search taught me this was franchised-out, fast food-type stuff based outta Indianapolis. So no, this super-cheap, old-fashioned and good-eatin’ chicken doesn’t come with an intriguing drizzle or proprietary spice blend — hell, I don’t know how it’s made, and maybe don’t wanna know. What I do know is this: When you bring it to a potluck, picnic or TV-watching party, and people start swarming all over it, tell them the truth: It’s popular in Kentucky. Only maybe leave out the fact that sometimes people buy it there at a gas station. Or just tell them: “It’s IGA chicken.” Bonus: It’s sold alongside those giant battered French fries called Jo Jo potatoes (3/$1). Tip: If buying later in the day, opt for never-dry-out thigh pieces. Reassuring information: To guarantee you’re purchasing fresh chicken, IGA’s entire supply is thrown out every evening around 7 p.m.