Sacramentans who used to go nuts over bone marrow and uni have a new food obsession these days: fried chicken. It’s the dish of the moment, seemingly everywhere, popping up on menus all over the region.
When N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian opened South late last year, they had a certifiable hit on their hands, thanks largely to the popularity of the fried chicken. In March, after arguments started breaking out over the restaurant’s limited seating, N’Gina took to Facebook to jokingly admonish patrons. “Yes,” she wrote, “we do put crack in the chicken to make you crave it like Tyrone Biggums. That being said, it is not an excuse for inappropriate behavior and bad manners when dining out. You need to monitor your addiction to this chicken better!!!”
Of course, it’s not crack that makes fried chicken so damn craveable. Fried chicken is the perfect delivery system for salt and crunch, two of the most addictive food experiences known to man. To maximize both, Kavookjian soaks the chicken for a day and a half in a salt-and-sugar brine, then gives it a “hard fry” at high temperature. It’s a technique she learned from her mom. “You have to do a hard fry to get a hard crunch. That’s what my mother taught me,” says Kavookjian, who serves the chicken on a bed of sauteed kale along with a buttermilk biscuit.
Like snowflakes, no two fried chicken recipes are exactly the same. It’s a regional thing. For her recipe, Kavookjian credits her mom’s Gulf Coast upbringing in Mississippi. A few blocks away, at The Porch in midtown, chef/owner Jon Clemons serves a Lowcountry version of the dish. Before opening the restaurant in 2011, he traveled extensively through South Carolina to conduct research. His fried chicken has two hallmarks of its Lowcountry roots: the use of a salt rub instead of a water brine, and a dry breading instead of a wet batter. Chicken parts spend 12 hours in a mixture of kosher salt, brown sugar, dried thyme and cayenne pepper before going into a buttermilk bath for 12 to 24 hours. Then, Clemons dredges each piece in a mix of seasoned flour and panko breadcrumbs before throwing it into the deep fryer. Right before serving, Clemons tops the crispy pieces with big flakes of kosher salt and chopped parsley or thyme.
It’s no surprise to find fried chicken at soul food restaurants Sticky Gator and Sandra Dee’s. But even elegant Hawks in Granite Bay and downtown’s Ella have jumped on the fried chicken bandwagon. At Hawks, it’s a once-every-30-day treat, served the last Sunday of the month as part of the restaurant’s Sunday Supper series. At Ella, owners Randall Selland and Nancy Zimmer added fried chicken to the menu because they were tired of hearing people refer to Ella as a special-occasion restaurant. “To me, the simplest foods, done well, are the best,” says Selland, whose favorite meal at Ella is fried chicken and a green salad.
A few months ago, Sacramento got its first fried chicken food truck: Cluck N Chuck, which serves fried chicken wings outside local businesses and at SactoMoFo gatherings. And Empress Tavern, the highly anticipated K Street restaurant from the folks behind Mother, plans to offer hot fried chicken, a spicy Southern specialty served with pickles and white bread.