Updated 8 months ago
Get all those hogs, pigs and piglets out of here. They’ve had their day on top of restaurant names and menus. There’s a new star critter on Florida shingles.
Not boneless, skinless, diet-food bird, but good ol’ fried chicken — red hot, honey-drizzled or doubledipped in plain batter.
Some of the state’s smartest restaurateurs and imaginative chefs have opened a flock of chick-centered restaurants, from Spring Chicken in south Florida to Better Byrd in St. Petersburg, all offering lusty, good-time eating — chicken that’s crispy, crunchy, crusty and greasy. And a perfect vehicle for thick, creamy gravy.
Creating perfect fried chicken takes more than adding exotic spices and spiked sauces. Great fried chicken is complicated: Brined, battered, breaded, floured, dipped once or twice? Fried how long? At what temperature? Pressure cooker? Deep fat fryer? Cast iron skillet?
Barbecue king John Rivers opened The Coop in Winter Park to re-create the fried chicken of the legendary Beach Road Chicken Suppers in Jacksonville (since 1938).
Rivers, who now has 4 Rivers Smokehouses in 14 locations, says fried chicken took him much longer, and he has only one Coop, in Winter Park. He conducted hundreds of trials over two years, each photographed and carefully annotated. After one trial, he thought he had the formula until a chef pal, also from Jacksonville, called him short: Too many herbs and chef tricks.
Now with a special machine that steams and cooks, no brining, and a breading made with a wheat product he found in Spain, he’s got a bird that’s Jax-juicy inside and crispy. And it cooks faster.
That chicken is the center of a groaning table of homey favorites of fried green tomatoes, catfish and grits, deviled eggs and okra. Come early and get your choice of biscuits, French toast and waffles (Benedict!).
Chicken and waffles and pancakes. Why not chicken and more than a dozen mini-doughnuts? Just one idea at Better Byrd in St. Petersburg, from the anything-goes crew of the Ciccio’s group from Tampa (13 labels from Fresh Kitchen to Green Lemon and a fitness camp).
The menu’s crazy fun starts at breakfast/brunch with fried chicken or chicken sausage, eggs over easy and sweet potato tots in maple dip.
The rest of the time, buttermilk fried chicken (roasted for the timid) comes on potato bun or wheat wraps (with fries or jalapeno bacon mac and cheese between the slices). Or maybe in tacos, with goat cheese or jumbo wings with truffle garlic parmesan. Or stir it all in a ramen bowl: Pulled chicken, greens, kale, watermelon, mint and quinoa.
Yardbird in South Beach was probably the first millennial chicken. Today, owners at 50 Egg group spun off Spring Chicken in south Florida.
Their chickens are natural, brined 27 hours, then grilled or dredged and pressure-fried. Order up by the pieces, biscuit sandwiches or heartier blue plates. House pickles, red velvet cupcakes and a passel o’ sides.
The tender is a legitimate slice of the chicken tenderloin at the Tampa-based PDQ chain.
Getting it right at PDQ takes a Sriracha-savvy brain trust headed by Outback founder Bob Basham, his former teammates and Nick Reader, former financial whiz at the Tampa Bay Bucs.
PDQ also boasts a heck of an open R&D kitchen. In an office park atrium, it feeds hundreds of tech workers a day testing PDQ staples, tweaks and specials.
Sweet potato fries failed, but zucchini fries were a winner. And when someone in the kitchen added blueberries to cole slaw, it became a signature item.
The new star came from a search for a sweeter sandwich. The answer was a chicken breast dipped in honey butter piled with pickles. Specifically, PDQ chose the trendy Grillo’s pickles from Boston in its bread and butter flavor.
Bird & Bone
The most uptown fried chicken in Florida is at the Confidante hotel in Miami Beach, already home to Asianslick Talde. The hotel has brought in chef Richard Hales of Black Brick Chinese to serve up fried chicken in its newest flavor, Nashville hot (even the colonel’s doing this), at Bird & Bone.
Hales prefers mixing chili pepper with frying oil rather than traditional lard. Still, he gives a strong Southern accent to a ritzy menu. That means Nashville-hot sweetbreads and quail as well as jarred egg salad, scallops and grits plus Bone of the Day (e.g. tomahawk pork chop) and bourbon chocolate cake.
Plenty of nice wine, too, from which Hales picks white, Burgundy and a surprising pair for fried chicken: Champagne.
Wherever Hales, Rivers and other chefs dig into fried chicken, their favorite piece is … the thigh.