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Fried and true

We set out to find the crispiest, tastiest, juiciest chicken

Mark Romano of Highland Kitchen in Somerville serves fried chicken with mashed potatoes, collard greens, and a biscuit. Mark Romano of Highland Kitchen in Somerville serves fried chicken with mashed potatoes, collard greens, and a biscuit. (Photos By Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By John Burgess
Globe staff / June 24, 2009
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Think Southern-fried chicken, and chances are the next words that come to mind are “secret herbs and spices.’’ To me, that’s Southern-fried baloney. Prolonged immersion in very hot grease is not a method that coaxes out bouquet; the only elements likely to survive are garlic and cayenne. But spicing aside, the sine qua non of good fried chicken certainly is the crust, the best being a simply seasoned flour- or cornmeal-based coating delicately but thoroughly welded to the skin in a crisp, delicious synthesis. Biting into good fried chicken produces what I call the “howdy moment’’ - mouth greeted by a smooch of warm, clean grease, then toasty-nutty crunch, then mild, ingratiating poultry flavor.

It’s pretty universally agreed that the best means of achieving this is pan-frying. Unhappily, that’s not a commercially viable method - frying a pan of chicken takes 30 to 40 minutes - and it’s not practiced, as far as I can tell, by any restaurants in the Boston area. Deep-frying is the standard here, and though it may not be ideal, some of our restaurateurs are quite handy with the method. And some not. In our quest to find real Southern-fried chicken - a summer staple on many tables - we encounter chicken so botched it looks like an industrial accident. Probably the worst flaw of inept deep-frying is the sludgy institutional flavor of exhausted grease.

For pan-fried, you could head to Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant & Bakery in Staunton, Va., where I usually stop on my way down the Shenandoah Valley to North Carolina. On vacation in the South, I’m on Eastern Slow Time, and can contentedly wait as long as it takes for a fried chicken plate. In times past, it came with real pan gravy, which is a treat you won’t find around here: no frying pan, no pan gravy.

In Boston, we have these faves:

The crust on the fried chicken at Poppa B’s on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester is truly some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Though an unprepossessing monotone tan, it is crackly and succulent both, and each bite produces a heavenly refinement of chicken essence. The meat itself is less impressive than the crust - the flavor is a little dull, though it’s cooked quite expertly and is juicy without greasiness. I have the two-piece (thigh and drumstick) dark-meat dinner ( 1/4 fried chicken plate) and a white-meat sandwich (breast and wing). From the list of familiar sides, I pick collards, which are good, and candied yams, which are excellent. Later, I talk on the phone to one of the owners, Boyce Slayman Sr., and compliment him on the chicken crust. He tells me they make their own batter and “season it ourselves’’ (no, I do not challenge him on the point of seasonings; I may be a maven, but from the evidence, he’s a master). He stresses the role of “fresh grease.’’ And then jovially concludes: “I can’t tell you any more!’’

Summer Shack, a fish house, seems an unlikely destination for fried chicken, but it does a quite creditable job. The tasty crust is thick and crumbly - not my style, but my dining partner praises it. The flavor of the meat itself (four pieces, white and dark) is the best, the fullest of any I have in my rounds, and the chicken is perfectly done. The price includes a generous portion of good, plain potato salad and extraordinary corn bread - earthy and not oversweet, with an inviting coarse crumb.

Look at food websites, and you’ll see many fans of Mrs. Jones, on Dorchester Avenue in the Lower Mills neighborhood. It’s easy to see why. It’s a takeout place but with ambience - screen-door friendly with stirring soul-food smells and a pleasant bustle in the sparkling open kitchen. The fried chicken here is wings only, but there are five to an order and they are not petite. The flavor is lovely - replete with gentle poultry goodness, and the meat is cooked to flawless doneness. For my taste, though, the crust is a little underdone, slightly stretchy rather than totally crisp. Next time, I will ask for extra-crispy pieces. As at Poppa B’s, there’s an extensive list of accompaniments; I particularly like the coleslaw, made with wonderfully sweet cabbage and a creamy but not cloying mayonnaise-based dressing.

Highland Kitchen in Somerville, on Monday nights only, produces buttermilk fried chicken. Definitely worth waiting a week for, this is my all-around favorite fried chicken. It has a dappled golden crust, crunchy and yielding, tasty and a little peppery. The white meat is still juicy, and the dark meat perfectly done - even the drumstick, which in my experience is the piece cooks most often flub. The chicken meat is a little bit shy of flavor but possesses an irresistible succulence I can’t help but pursue down to the bone (that is, I gnaw shamelessly). The dinner is half a chicken, and comes with biscuit, good collards, and somewhat liquidy, slack mashed potatoes.

This town could use a few more places that serve good fried chicken. In a conversation with me, Barry Maiden, chef at Hungry Mother, said he toys with the idea of offering fried chicken as an occasional special but is almost “afraid to release the demons,’’ fearing unrelenting demand. Maiden says that if he did start frying chicken, restaurant exigencies would dictate he use the deep-fryer. (He echoes Slayman in affirming the oil must be “super clean.’’) But who knows, maybe acclamation could persuade Maiden - who is from Virginia - to get out the cast-iron skillets and finally give Boston some pan-fried poultry. With gravy.