Drive-By Chicken

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris July 06, 2021 09:52 in Dining Diary

Before adding a crunchy crust to poor tasty birds became the domain of restaurants handing food out a window, regular restaurants served fried chicken. Rather good fried chicken. It didn’t have the really crunchy crust that our own Al Copeland perfected to start perhaps the most famous New Orleans export, Popeye’s Fried Chicken. But it was good, with a lighter coating and still plenty enough crunch. Neighborhood restaurant fried chicken tended to feature smaller birds, making for better fried chicken. And rather than use the complicated spice blends of formulaic chicken, restaurant fried chicken did it the way Mama did it, with a light dusting of flour seasoned with only the “boring” basics that have stood humans in good stead throughout human history, good old salt and pepper.

When Colonel Sanders concocted his magic chicken batter and special pressure-cooking process, it spread across the nation, promoting imitators whose brands spread across the nation, and restaurant fried chicken  tended to fade away. Why order something in a restaurant you can get in minutes driving through?

Because fried chicken is sort of a quintessential dish, always delicious, and definitely worthy of a restaurant experience.

So on this day, National Fried Chicken Day, we rounded up a dozen fried chicken dinners all around town. What I noticed in trying all of these is that truthfully, there is not a great deal of difference between them. According to Tom, the criteria for great fried chicken are:

Hot and greaseless

Crispy but not necessarily crunchy

Interesting herbs in the batter, pepper in the background

Add to this a general rule Tom has espoused about chicken, which was proven true here: smaller birds are definitely better.

Tom had an automatic recall of every restaurant and their menus, but we had to do a little legwork for this piece. I did what I call the Great Fried Chicken Drive-By. I ordered chicken dinners from the following places, picked them up and sampled them against each other, so all would be fresh in my mind. 

But first, a little grouping of some standouts:

Extra spicy:

Carl’s Fried Chicken at the Roosevelt Hotel, Mandina’s, Liuzza’s, Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop, Dooky Chase.

Extra crunchy:

Carl’s Fried chicken at the Roosevelt, Mandina’s, Liuzza’s.

Like Mama’s:

Riccobono’s Peppermill, Joey K’s, Fury’s.

My personal favorite of all of these was Joey K’s, which was smaller pieces from a smaller bird, crispy and greaseless, with a mild flavor but abundant flavor. This is drained on the old-fashioned throwaway white toast, and served with two sides, both of which were excellent, in that old-fashioned way. The green beans could have come from my mother's gigantic pot with the hambone in it (though my mom’s were better) and the most delicately delicious rotini macaroni and cheese. Nothing to it, just creamy and cheesy simplicity. I couldn’t stop eating this, and believe me, I tried.

Much has been said about the clientele at the Peppermill. It’s definitely an older crowd. This may have something to do with the blandness of the food. That sounds like a complaint, but I liked their fried chicken very much. It was smaller, blonder, and seasoned as my mom would have - simple salt and pepper. It allowed for the flavor of the chicken to come through, and it was a refreshing surprise. There was no excessiveness of any kind, as we tend to have locally with fried chicken.

Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop is a curious little place in Metairie, located practically under the overpass at the Causeway/I-10 crossroads. The decor is quirky and the owner is from out of town, but the food here seems to be spot on. This fried chicken tended toward the spicier end, but it was not really spicy, just flavorful. The crunch level was perfect. The jambalaya I ordered with it was a red one, extra-spicy, and not really to my liking.

But the most well-known fried chicken in Metairie is Porter and Luke’s, one of our absolute favorite neighborhood places in general. It tends to be on the crispier, slightly crunchier side, with the saltier/pepper component rather than assertive spices. The red beans are also good here and make a nice side.

Also on the crunchier end of the spectrum but not overwhelming spice is Cafe 615, da Wabbit in Gretna. This is a bustling and delicious neighborhood cafe with all the local specialties, plus dozens more.  Sides are surprisingly limited in this large menu, but the coleslaw or potato salad are good choices.

Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette, and DiChristina’s in Covington are separated by the city, but are united by family ties, and their fried chicken is similar. It is not excessively battered, but crispy with a light spice and more salt and pepper. Old-fashioned and good. And here, there is no other side to consider but the macaroni and cheese. It is legendary.

Also legendary is perhaps the most famous fried chicken from New Orleans with a national reputation. Dooky Chase was run by the “queen of Creole cuisine,” Ms. Leah Chase, who presided over a kitchen known for all their delicious local dishes, but the fried chicken may be the most famous. Grandson Dook runs the operation now, which has expanded to the New Orleans airport. The chicken is not overly breaded, but just so, with a spice component to match. Worthy of its reputation.

Moving into heavier everything, Liuzza’s has a thick coating with a lot of crunch and a lot of salt and spice. Here is a good representation of what people think of New Orleans food, but happily not all of it is like this. But it is crispy, from a much larger bird, and very tasty if you are looking for more. And they are doing fries here the old-fashioned way, with fresh cut potatoes. Extra points for that, always.

The best example of overdone everything in the New Orleans way is at Mandina’s, with an extra crunchy and extra crispy batter and heavy spice everything. It’s perfect if you are looking for that. The red beans and rice make a nice side.

The ultimate fried chicken experience in town is also the ultimate in overkill. But it is still unforgettable, and it is a phenom since it arrived on the scene in 2018. Carl has been cooking his fried chicken for the staff at the Roosevelt Hotel for 40 years, and thankfully someone finally had the idea to introduce it to the public. With some publicity Carl became a star overnight, receiving the acclaim due him all these years. Carl’s Fried Chicken is served only on Monday nights at the Sazerac and Fountain Lounges at the Fairmont. It is glamorous in its surroundings, but quaint in its presentation, served family style in a basket with a checkered paper lining that can be refilled, along with red beans and rice I consider too creamy, spicy coleslaw, and flaky-yet-cakey biscuits with a honey drizzle. Mind-blowingly spicy, loudly crunchy, this is definitely an over-the-top fried chicken experience not to be missed.

But the fried chicken at Fury’s in Metairie was a local phenom long before Carl’s, and it was this chicken that started the discussion, at least in this forum, of fried chicken in restaurants. They started advertising on the Food Show with just one spot a week from the beginning of the show, creating a buzz. They always said they could tell when their advertisement lapsed because people stopped asking about the fried chicken. It was strictly old-fashioned, like everything else at Fury’s. Crispy but light, with mild coating and flavoring, exactly what would please Mama in a night out from the kitchen.

What struck me most about this project was how lucky we are to have such a bounty of delicious food here. All of these were similar in presentation, accompaniments, taste, and value. And all of them started at a goodness level unique to this city, elevated, in our opinion, above all others.