The promise of crispy, crunchy, finger-lickin’ goodness causes the sheer mention of fried chicken to elicit a Pavlovian response. Rooted in the heart of Southern cuisine and beloved by denizens of Asia and the Caribbean, the humble favorite is catching like wildfire on restaurant menus.
Like most nostalgia-based trends, it’s easy to argue that fried chicken has never come close to the edge of extinction. So why is fried bird suddenly the word when it comes to trendy menus? The catalyst lies in its pillowy partners biscuits and waffles, which have been the culprits pushing fried chicken onto menus. Datassential reported a 400 percent growth in menus offering fried chicken with waffles and a 20 percent menu growth of fried chicken with biscuits from 2011 to 2013.
"An inexpensive (fried) chicken dish will help bring down the average from the higher-end proteins such as beef."
-Chef Chris Ross of The Bristol Bar and Grille
Fried chicken makes a cameo on 74 percent of American and Southern menus, 80 percent of Chinese menus and 61 percent of Caribbean menus, according to Chicago-based research firm Datassential. Leaving the confines of the extra-value meal bucket, it’s popping up everywhere from midscale mom-and-pops to white tablecloth concepts.
“There’s an increased interest in high-end Southern fare, as well as the growth of upscale diners who focus on those types of comfort foods,” Datassential Senior Director Maeve Webster says of fried chicken and waffles’ popularity. “You also see operators experimenting with that type of combo for appetizers, sandwiches and less common formats that (are) helping to move the needle.”
A standout carb boat is just as important as the clucker, demonstrated by the popularity of the sweet potato or cornmeal waffles ($9.79 to $12.59) at Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles in San Francisco and the game-changing fried chicken doughnut ($5.50) at Gourdough’s in Austin, Texas.
But it’s the batter and brine that really make a famous fry.
In New York, the matzo meal-coated fried chicken with Mexican honey dipping sauce at Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill was so popular it became an offshoot casual concept, Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken($9.75 to $16.50). Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Miss., makes the Southern classic shine with a Coca-Cola brine and sides of potato salad and coleslaw ($10.50).
Its variations are endless, making fried chicken at home on virtually every menu. No matter how you spin it, diners—and their dollars—agree that fried chicken is just freakin’ delicious.
A Food Cost Winner
Chicken and waffles have become a restaurant mainstay thanks to the dish’s low food cost. Executive Chef Chris Ross sells a 4-ounce portion of fried chicken, cornbread waffle, bacon-braised collard greens, honey-Tabasco syrup and feta-watermelon relish for $14 at his restaurant, The Bristol Bar and Grille in Louisville, Ky. With raw ingredients totaling $2.32, the menu item enjoys a 16.6 percent food cost.
“Having an inexpensive chicken dish will help bring down the average from the higher-end proteins such as beef,” Ross says. He also suggests pulling the meat from fried chicken leftovers for a special, such as chicken and dumplings.
“People have a high perceived value for chicken, especially if you can do it well,” Ross adds. “For the price one pays for chicken, with some creativity and skill, a chef can offer an affordable product to their clientele.”
Four Ways To Fry Crispy
Want to show your fry's got game? Making a buzzworthy bird comes down to a perfected combination of batter, brine, spices and fry technique. Here's how four fried chicken approaches rule the roost.
Toss with Sauce
Dish: Fried chicken wings, honey, butter and red harissa served with a Moroccan berghir pancake, $12
Secret weapon: Tossing fried chicken with a sauce of harissa, honey, butter and lime puts the dish over the top.
Spike then Smoke
Sugar and Plumm, New York
Dish: Chicken and waffles, $17
Secret weapon: Brined overnight with seasonings such as coriander, mustard seed and thyme, this fried chicken is then smoked with apple-and cherrywood for two hours before it hits the fryer.
Bay Street Biergarten, Charleston, S.C.
Dish: Chicken and waffle sammy, $11
Secret weapon: A marinade of yellow mustard, Sriracha and Worcestershire sauce, and a batter of flour, eggs and Cajun seasoning makes this bird soar the flavor heights.
All In the Brine
CHAYA Downtown, Los Angeles
Dish: Soy fried chicken “Karaage,” $8
Secret weapon: Sake, mirin, soy sauce, shichimi pepper and sesame seeds create a Japanese-inspired brine packed with umami.