Fried + Revived

St. Louis is in love with fried chicken. Sure, the stuff tastes good. Great, even. But there’s a ferocity to people’s yen for poultry that taste alone cannot explain. As with most comfort food, context counts. Many of us learned to love fried chicken at home, surrounded by family. To some diners, nothing will ever compare to the brown-bag recipes our grandmothers made.

It’s the same for chefs. Bob Brazell, chef-owner of forthcoming fast-casual fried chicken restaurant Byrd & Barrel, remembers his St. Louis grandmother cooking the bird in a cast-iron skillet. Josh Galliano, chef and co-owner of The Libertine, ate his grandmother’s chicken as a kid in Louisiana and at annual family reunions in Mississippi. Old Standard Fried Chicken chef-owner Ben Poremba’s German grandmother made a pounded-thin, schnitzel-like variety.

That deeply personal connection makes fried chicken an exciting template for experimentation. But it also sets a high bar for chefs, who have found that when it comes to fried chicken, everyone’s a critic.

“People know what their preference for good fried chicken is, and they tell you,” Poremba said. “Too crunchy, not crunchy enough, too thick, too chewy.”

The standard may be high, but more and more local chefs are embracing the challenge. St. Louis is enjoying a fried chicken renaissance, inspired not only by memories of Grandma’s cooking, but also a desire to free the American favorite from the tyranny of fast-food empires. The renewed popularity of the finger-licking food doesn’t surprise Dave Bailey, owner of Baileys’ Restaurants, who recently added it to the dinner menu at Rooster on South Grand. “The comfort food thing comes and goes pretty regularly,” Bailey said. “As much as people really like very cool and new and innovative dishes, and there’s a huge and very important place for (them) in every city’s culinary scene, there’s going to be this thing you return to. You want that dish, and you want that done well.”

All-American Entree
Universal in appeal but American in essence, fried chicken reflects the country’s motley heritage. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink traces the dish back to both medieval European fricassee recipes and African deep-frying techniques. The intersection of those cultures in the American South, where enslaved blacks did much of the cooking, produced the salty, crunchy, messy entree we crave today.

“We only have fried chicken because of what African slaves brought over,” Galliano said. “It isn’t codified (by) this long line of French chefs.”

The dish has long been a staple of special occasions, a status carried over from West Africa, where chickens connoted ceremonial prestige among the Igbo and other cultures. Many people hailing from the American South and Midwest associate it with important family gatherings and post-church Sunday suppers. But until recently, its down-home reputation kept fried chicken off the menus of many upscale restaurants. Before opening Juniper, owner John Perkins was hesitant to offer the dish, wondering if it was considered a “step down.”

“I had a good deal of reluctance about doing fried chicken years ago because it seemed too pedestrian,” Perkins said.

Thinking back fondly to his childhood, though, when his family ate fried chicken on Sundays either at his grandfather’s house or with their entire church congregation at a gas station restaurant in the Ozarks, made Perkins reconsider. Juniper now sells twice as much fried chicken as anything else, and it’s nearly ubiquitous across St. Louis, with styles ranging from Southern at Sweetie Pie’s to Eastern at Hiro Asian Kitchen to Mexican-inflected at Atomic Cowboy. Perkins even organized a Tour de Poulet in August 2014 (another is scheduled for this summer), encouraging diners to try the fried chicken offerings at six participating restaurants.

Contributing to the fried chicken bounty are several new restaurants devoted almost entirely to the American classic. Since Old Standard opened in Botanical Heights last October, it’s had a wait almost every night, Poremba said. The restaurant’s birds are served with classic sides like mashed potatoes and smothered greens. Poremba’s breading includes self-rising flour, onion and garlic powders, white and cayenne peppers and smoked paprika, yielding fried chicken that is mild on the spice and supple in texture, the crispy skin giving way to the tender meat within.

In January, Leon Braxton Jr. opened Miss Leon’s, a small dining room tucked inside Bombers Hideaway in The Grove. Braxton marinates his chicken overnight, and the restaurant specializes in chicken gizzards and offers all-you-can-eat fried chicken on Sundays. He wants his customers “to feel like they just left their grandmother’s house,” Braxton said.
Inspired both by visits to Nashville’s hot chicken joints and by his experience making fried chicken with Galliano at the now-shuttered Monarch, Brazell plans to celebrate fried chicken in all its forms when Byrd & Barrel opens at 3422 S. Jefferson Ave., near Cherokee Street.

“We’re gonna do the unexpected; we’re not just doing greens and mashed potatoes and gravy,” Brazell said. “We’re doing funky things like a banh mi sandwich that has fried chicken livers.”

Across the board, chefs say there’s room for disagreement about what makes for great fried chicken, and many are loath to share their secret recipes. But they’re passionate enough about the particulars of any fried chicken recipe to divulge a few clues.

One of them is brining. Many chefs insist on the importance of soaking raw chicken before breading and frying it, but the ingredients they use for the brine vary and can include buttermilk, hot sauce, even sweet tea, plus a blend of spices. Brazell soaks his chicken in a buttermilk-based brine for three to four days.

Another is frying oil. Bailey uses rice bran oil for its high smoke point, while Poremba prefers the clean taste of blended grapeseed-canola.

High-quality meat is essential, too. Poremba sources his from Miller Poultry in Indiana. Bailey buys chickens whole from Buttonwood Farm in California, Missouri. “If I’m not excited about eating that particular chicken, the rest falls to the wayside,” he said. “That’s one of the magical things about fried chicken: If you cook it right, and you put some decent breading on it, and it’s good chicken, it’s going to be delicious.”

White and dark meat require different cooking times and temperatures, according to Galliano, who cooks his dark meat to the point that it doesn’t hang onto the bone. He also strives to integrate the crispy exterior with the juicy interior.

“The beauty moment, the spot-on moment for fried chicken is when the batter or crust you have cooks at the same exact time as the skin rendering out, and they fuse together,” Galliano said. Perkins agreed.
“The fusion between the crust and the meat: That’s the glory of fried chicken.”

A Backward Glance
Some longtime St. Louisans may cry foul about all this newfangled fowl. And indeed, it would be overreaching to claim the new generation of high-profile chefs is truly resurrecting fried chicken, when some of the most venerated specimens have been around for decades.

Kevin Seltzer, one half of St. Louis dining duo Gentlemen of Chicken, has good things to say about the city’s traditional purveyors of fried chicken. Once a month, he and buddy Derek Coleman break from their day jobs to sample the offerings at establishments ranging from Krispy Krunchy Chicken (franchised inside convenience stores and food courts) to The Libertine. Some of his favorite chicken is found at Friendly’s Sports Bar & Grill, Frank and Helen’s Pizzeria, Smitty’s Food & Drink and The Original Crusoe’s.

“I don’t generally experience much of a difference in quality from the family place and the gourmet one,” Seltzer said.

His introduction to fried chicken – family eating contests during which legs, wings, thighs and breasts were each assigned point values – underscores the friendly competition the food elicits, especially among St. Louisans, who aren’t shy about their poultry pride.

“There’s only one legendary fried chicken in St. Louis, and of course, that’s Hodak’s,” said Steve Connors, who’s been bartending at that Benton Park icon for a quarter of a century.

The menu at Crusoe’s, meanwhile, calls its fried chicken the “Best in all of St. Louis.”

“I do have a petition here saying we have better chicken than Hodak’s,” said Chad Schluter, Crusoe’s general and kitchen manager. “Couple of thousand signatures on it. They sell more chicken than I do, but we think ours is the best.”

While the classic joints crow about their chicken, chefs at the newer restaurants have adopted a humbler approach.

“We never make claims to be your grandma’s fried chicken,” Poremba said. “We never make claims that this is a life-changing experience.” Galliano credits the old-timers for laying the foundation upon which he and his contemporaries build.

“We’re standing on their shoulders,” he said.

The Old (and New) Standards
Despite their differences, restaurants new and old have formed a united front in the fight to take fried chicken back from the fast-food giants. The greatest innovation of the fried chicken renaissance is reaching back into the past to recapture what made us fall in love with the dish in the first place. The difference is in small details, such as the traditional cast-iron skillet Three Flags Tavern uses to cook its fried chicken, and large ones, like offering full or half-chicken portions that acknowledge chickens as animals rather than assemblages of parts. A conversation Braxton recently overheard on the bus about bad service at KFC convinced him that a new era of fried chicken had arrived.

“People are tired of fast-food fried chicken, and they want good, home-cooked fried chicken,” he said. “I think that’s why fried chicken is making a resurgence. People are getting back to their roots.”

Restoring fried chicken’s status as a food for special occasions is one way St. Louis chefs are pushing back against mass production. Farmhaus serves fried chicken as a blue-plate lunch special on Mondays; Smitty’s, as a dinner special on Wednesdays. The Libertine offers it only once a month at a $30 three-course dinner every second Sunday.

Some chefs are even co-opting the tools of fast-food restaurants. At The Libertine, Galliano uses a CVap, a specialized oven originally designed for KFC to keep food moist.
“This piece of equipment was designed to mass-produce fried chicken,” Galliano explained. “We’re all now using the same equipment, same technology, to retake this item that has been fast-food-ized, reclaiming this food that is so quintessentially American.”

And one new restaurant is taking back ground quite literally. When Byrd & Barrel starts dishing out fried chicken in the coming weeks, it will do so in a former Popeyes.