MY CAR is, now, legally disgusting. Dried Buffalo sauce dots the dash, maple syrup runs down the knee bolster, and the steering wheel has shiny, frictionless handprints at 2 and 10 o'clock. Rancid napkins fill the foot wells; plastic clamshells belch burnt grease. The sad thing is, it should never have been this way. These are all signs that I've been eating a lot of bad fried chicken, which is rampant in this town. Twenty local shacks, joints, dives, and carts into this project, I feel somewhat qualified to make that claim—though I'm sure I have worlds more to learn.
Great fried chicken has a greaseless, crisp, seasoned skin that holds tight. It is cooked on the bone, and eats well—without sog—the next day. It is juicy, yet fried hard enough that unidentifiable bits of caramelized skin and bone have crunch. If the last half of the tip of the wing eats like a Frito, you're in good hands. Bad fried chicken tastes of freezer, or oil, or nothing, and the skin tears away in a single, rubbery sheet upon first bite.
Here are my top five, and I didn't bother with any place where I had to wait in line—if you catch me. I was looking for that undiscovered gem, that hole in the wall, that far-flung mystery bodega with a glowing glass hot-case full of Eureka that could be taken home, taken on a picnic, or just used as walkin'-around chicken. In a couple cases, I actually got close.
1. George's Corner Tavern, 5501 N Interstate
This aesthetically unambitious and decidedly uncool locals' watering hole has made a few other lists, and rightfully so. Fried fresh on the bone, their chicken takes half an hour—ignore any place that takes less. The seasoned, lightly battered skin holds tight to the large pieces, which crunch with a perfection that sinks its claws into your basal nervous system. Though it rarely lasted in its complete form until the next day, overnighted pieces were as good as cold fried chicken gets. Justifiably proud of their little masterpieces, they don't even close the to-go box for travel, so the chicken doesn't steam itself.
2. Reel M Inn, 2430 SE Division
Also thin-crusted, this dive's chicken is more lightly seasoned than George's, and the pieces are larger and juicier. My brother's boyfriend, who grew up on a poultry farm in France, could barely lift his blissed-out face from the massive, tender breast, and only when he was sucking the marrow from the ribs could he spare the breath to say, "Zees ees very good shickon." Fresh, crisp, and tender, Reel delivers pure chicken flavor in large, satisfying quantity. Again, expect that telltale wait.
3. Alberta Street Market, 915 NE Alberta
Call ahead to beg and plead them to cook the whole pieces and not just the wings, which are their standard offering. Addicting and heavily seasoned, Alberta Street Market's chicken is fried hard and dark, so while it is not as juicy as some, it eats beautifully and the skin holds tight. Those twentysomethings by the door with their half-racks of PBR, disinterestedly leafing through the free papers? They're waiting for the next hot batch to come out. Those after-church crowds filling the Sunday morning aisles with rowdy anticipation? They are buying buckets of the stuff. Too bad the whole pieces are such a rarity.
4. Cackalack's Hot Chicken Shack, 4262 SE Belmont
Good, on-the-bone fried chicken can come from a cart. Cackalack's chicken is big, juicy, and liberally treated with strong seasoning and spice. It's a bit pricy, but this buttermilk-soaked meat is unique and satisfying, with a thick, battered skin that gets an optional, but recommended, application of hot sauce (the "hot," their second-hottest option, is respectably fiery, yet doesn't block the meat's flavor). The skin can be a little loose, but it's good enough to eat on its own.
5. Look, I'm Sorry About This, But...
You can't take kids to the first two, the third is a corner store, and the fourth is a cart. Convenience, dependability, and consistency should be factored in here at some point, so I have to hang my head a bit and, with great reservation, recommend the best of the behemoths. The fried chicken at Safeway and Fred Meyer is gross, wet, unctuous stuff and should be avoided. KFC's fried chicken is an infuriating wad of flab and slime, poorly flavored with 11 secret herbs and spices (did you know that one of the spices is bullshit?). That leaves Popeyes. It's fairly greaseless when fresh, if a little heavy on the breading, and the millions they've spent on corporate R&D has to be worth something, right? It doesn't last well, but if you have that kind of time, you don't go to Popeyes. I'm thinking emergency picnic with a minivan full of screaming five-year-olds. (This happens.)