Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

The Best Fried Chicken In The World, Galaxy, Universe

I have a recommendation as to where you should go for lunch: Charleston, South Carolina. Now, unless you're in Hanahan or Folly Beach or Mt. Pleasant, it could take you a long time to get there. So you might want to leave soon. But you really should go, because Charleston has some of the very best food you will ever eat anywhere. There is a place there called Jestine's Kitchen, which has become quite famous, and so often has a line of people waiting outside, and so also has lots of people who like to talk about food on the internet dismissing it as a "tourist trap" and inferior to other restaurants of its kind in the area, but you should go there if you like fried chicken, because I went there last Thursday, and it has the best fried chicken I have ever eaten in my life.

Maybe some other area restaurants of Jestine's kind are in fact superior, I don't know. I ate at as many places in Charleston as I could—in fact, my weeklong visit to the city was something like that movie Leaving Las Vegas, but with food—but, of course, there are more restaurants in Charleston than there are meals in a week. I couldn't try them all. But even if there are some better places, I can not imagine they have better fried chicken. Before I tried the fried chicken at Jestine's Kitchen, I could not have imagined fried chicken could taste this good.

I've eaten lots of fried chicken in my life. Some from the red-and-white striped buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken—including one time during the summer after first grade, when my cousins from Israel came and borrowed my parent's van and took me driving all around the country for a month. I don't remember what state we were in, but we had gone to Kentucky Fried Chicken and gotten a bucket to go, and found a picnic table near a stream in the woods, and gotten out and spread out our camping plates and started to eat when the thickest swarm of mosquitos I've ever experienced descended upon us. It was horrible, nightmarish. I remember we grabbed everything and ran back to the van, the mosquitos all our faces and eyes while we struggled with the door handles, and then a thousand of the things flew inside with us in the two seconds before we slammed the doors shut, and then slapping at them and being bitten and screaming while we didn't even drive away, just sat there with the windows closed. I remember after everything calmed, looking down at the piece of chicken I still had in my hand, and seeing a mosquito, a huge one, all black and spindly, with white stripes on its legs, sitting on the batter crust, which I had been planning to eat. So I've never really liked Kentucky Fried Chicken since then.

I've had lots of good fried chicken, too. At sit-down restaurants, and pot luck dinners, at people's houses, where they tell you it's their grandmother's recipe. With pitchers of beer at Baden Baden in Koreatown. (The name of which, because I'm helpless in this regard, I can never think of without hearing Master P's voice.) I've never gone for the fried chicken dinner at Momofuku, which I imagine is wonderful, like everything else at that place.

Well, all that other stuff just faded into a duller, less-than-truly-delicious memory on Thursday, when I bit into the fried chicken at Jestine's Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina. Whoever cooked this chicken (not Jestine, she died in 1997, at the age of 112!) seems to have figured out some kind of chemistry equation about breading and spices and retaining heat and succulence and fantastic, fantastic flavor inside a crispy outer shell of chicken skin. If you can get yourself to Jestine's Kitchen, please do and order the fried chicken. Dark meat, of course. (What are you, crazy?) Oh, and get the fried okra as a side. But not the collard greens, which were not so great.

Amazingly (amazingly!) the fried chicken at Jestine's Kitchen was not even the best thing that I ate while I was in Charleston. The best thing that I ate when I was in Charleston was probably the clams and sausage in hot-pepper sauce at Husk. Husk is different kind of place than Jestine's. It's upscale and super into the slow-food, local-ingredients, seasonal cooking thing. We went there for dinner, and it was one of things where the waitress was so psyched and enthusiastic about telling you every last detail about the food and where it comes from and the chef's methods of preparation that you think that maybe she's on ecstasy or something. But she was certainly knowledgable, and when the food came, it absolutely erased any complaint I might have had. Besides the clams, also super excellent were the smoked pork chop with lima beans, and a rabbit terrine cooked in goose fat and duck fat. (Rabbit can be a little dry, the chef at Husk thinks, according to our waitress. I agree. And I am here to report that cooking it in goose fat and duck fat is a judicious remedy.)

I have now been to Charleston twice. And it has become one of my very favorite places to visit. Besides the food (which we'll get back to in a minute, if you're still reading) it is about the prettiest city I've ever been. The southernmost tip of the city juts out into the harbor, and is filled with gorgeous old house with a lush, well-kept garden after gorgeous old house with a lush, well-kept garden. Impeccably preserved, all of them. Many of these houses are mansions, really, many of them built by plantation owners before the Civil War. (So there is lots of rich history there, some of it horrible.) Extending from the center of the city is the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which is both architecturally attractive and will also carry you over the Cooper River into Mount Pleasant. Strangely named, Mount Pleasant, as there is no mountain there. But Ben Bridwell, of the lovely southern rock band called Band of Horses is from there, and so whenever I've driven over this bridge, I put on the car radio and hope to hear one of Band of Horses songs, which have a sound to match the way the surroundings look, and the town's name, too.

Sadly, I've never been so lucky as to hear a Band of Horses song on the radio while driving over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, but I did hear Molly Hatchet's "Flirting With Disaster" while doing so last week, and this was highly satisfying in its own way.

Out past Mount Pleasant, maybe fifteen minutes' drive, is a smaller bridge which stretches over beautiful marshland to Sullivan's Island, which is a sort of beach paradise that very lucky people get to live on. (One of those lucky people is my friend Sid, who I went to college with, and who is the editor of Garden & Gun magazine, which is a great magazine that just won a general excellence award at this week's National Magazine Awards.) On Sullivan's Island, a couple blocks in from the beach, there is a stretch of bars and restaurants, one of which is called Home Team Barbecue, and you should go here and order a Corona beer and a rack of ribs and have the vinegar sauce with it. If you do this, there is no way you'll be anything other than very, very happy.

Here are some other things to make sure to eat if you go to Charleston:

1) The mafalde with saffron and crab at the Italian restaurant Lucca. (You know what? You should also get the fried mortadella and the cauliflower custard with egg yolk and pancetta from the starters menu if you go there.)

2) Biscuits at Poogan's Porch.

3) Pork trotters with fried egg at F.I.G.

4) Pecan pie everywhere, at every restaurant, after every single meal.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

KenWheaton (#401)

Intriguing. Though I remember you as picking Bojangles over Popeye's so I will always regard you with no small amount of suspicion.

Dave Bry (#422)

@KenWheaton That must have been another Dave. (I'm guessing, Mr. Roth?) I've never been to a Bojangles.

KenWheaton (#401)

@Dave Bry Hmmmmm. I apologize, good sir. Maybe it was Cho.

I had the fried chicken dinner at Momofuku (that must have been when the census people came by my apartment), and it was one of those meals that was way better than it had to be but also disappointing at the same time?

Bittersweet (#765)

Makes me want to eat lunch all over again, even though I just finished. Thanks, Dave! Charleston goes on my travel list.

Dan Packel (#10,421)

Just got back from a rushed weekend there and didn't eat any of this. A fine meal at Muse, though. And a goodly quantity of bourbon.

Kit Traverse (#7,330)

Damn, on my one trip to Charleston, I visited Jestine's, but only for brunch. Need to get back there.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for a fried chicken fix closer to home and don't have the keyboard skills to snag a 'fuku reservation, try Popeye's.

Baboleen (#1,430)

Garden and Gun Magazine?

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@Baboleen surpisingly a really good magazine!!!

jolie (#16)

@Baboleen It's a fantastic magazine with an equally fantastic newsletter (ahem) and also it takes an ampersand.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

I agree with the internetz. Jestine's is decent southern food, it is far from the best fried chicken in charleston. Even the sweet tea there is only decent. (and how can you not make excellent sweet tea in the south?)

Totes agree with the F.I.G. and Poogan's Porch recommendations however! I would also add to the list: 82 Queen, S.N.O.B., and McCrady's. (Also Poe's on Sullivan's Island!)

Lastly, I lived in Charleston for a year, and as a Black southerner I thought I could handle the south – Charleston is a whole 'nother beast – I hightailed it out of chucktown as quickly as I could. Mostly, brazenly racist southerners and plantations and references to antebellum south are not my particular cup of tea – though it is a beautiful city.

Andy Rosenberger (#3,872)

@tigolbitties my very first day on the job in Charleston, for a major national company, I had to be at an event at the College of Charleston. This coincided with the inaguration of President Obama. As we're sitting and watching this all go down, my new boss (who I've known for 20 minutes) tells me that she "just wishes he would change his name, you know?" and later utters "I guess I wouldn't mind so much if he were white"

Charlestonians know no a)shame and b)black people that they like.

roboloki (#1,724)

it's good to know that racism has been eradicated in new york and only exists in charleston.

Very much agree about Poe's and 82 Queen. Also about the racism.

In addition, I feel the grits and the bread/biscuits/apple butter at Hominy have been ignored here as well.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@Andy Rosenberger yeah, I took my first official "adult" job at the College of Charleston and I would often call up friends and family alike with daily stories about the ridiculous things people would say to me. (I was one of three, four? black administrators for the entire campus!) The icing on the cake though was their graduation – we are purposely dressing up like plantation owners now?!?!?
I'm sad that they I laughed at your last sentence, but it is oh so very true!!
ETA i saw your post below, and I did love my little place on James Island – five minutes to Folly or Downtown! (except I did not love the flying, huge ass roaches. Call them palmetto bugs if you like, they're still fucking roaches.)

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@HeyThatsMyBike OHHHH YES!!! i could not remember the name to save my life! yes, anyone who is visiting, add Hominy Grill to the list! mmm, i wish i had some biscuits and grits right now!

GailPink (#9,712)

This is a great story and now I am really hungry.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Dave, this is where you pull an Oprah and give all of us a trip to Chollston for some of this chicken. I'm packed and ready.

deepomega (#1,720)

Honey's Kettle. Culver City. Do it.

dado (#102)

Charleston is the one city I hope to see pop up on my internet specials, but it never does. Only so I could go to a restaurant called McCrady's. Maybe someday.

Andy Rosenberger (#3,872)

I lived in Charleston for 8 months, but sadly those 8 months consisted of a healthy bout of post-college mild depression along with a diet of, mostly, egg/imitation crab/cream cheese scrambles, not to mention bi-weekendly trips to see a lovely young lady just across the border in Georgia. I also got my ipod stolen out of my car once and threatened because I accidentally cut someone off at a stop light. James Island, Stand Up!

But I'll be damned if I didnt get to Fiery Ron's Home Team Barbecue (in West Ashley) (literally) weekly. Being that this makes me a (self-proclaimed) expert, allow me this opportunity to corroborate and castigate:

-Home Team is nothing short of magical, partially for it's innovation (the hyper-creative BBQ tacos were my joint. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever deviated.) but mostly the fact that it is basically sweet, smoky crack.
-Castigation: I can't believe you wrote nothing of their White Barbecue Sauce. I can only assume that it is made of Cesar Dressing packets mixed with fairy dust filtered through rabbit fur, but they never told me what it was, even though I asked every time. Run, don't walk, back to Home Team during your next visit, and order up a few shots.

I also drove my friend to Ben Bridwell's wedding in downtown Charleston, March 2009.

(I used to think if I wrote a memoir it would be about my strange, haphazard, brief time fretting over my future as a midwestern post-grad in the American South. I'm pretty sure I just did that.)

jolie (#16)

@Andy Rosenberger Oh hey, you dropped something…

PDrizzle (#7,548)

Most famous Sullivans Island resident: Bill Murray.

Don't bother going to Chusston if you are: brown or black.

That is all.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@PDrizzle you ain't lyin'

Baboleen (#1,430)

I have never met a pecan pie I didn't love.

BirdNerd (#4,196)

Fried Chicken?

Band of Horses?

Master P lyrics?

Pecan Pie???


Annie K. (#3,563)

My friend Janie lives on Sullivan's Island and she took me to some restaurant whose name I wish I could remember but it's in an old house in an odd neighborhood and we ate shrimp and grits. Then we went up into the mountains and ate at a place that doesn't look like anything near some interstate and had hush puppies. How long can I stay a Northern girl and still feel such visceral longing for shrimp and grits and hush puppies?

dado (#102)

You did it. I just booked a flight out of LaGuardia to fly to Charleston to eat some chicken. I hope you're happy.

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@dado now you get to go to mccrady's!!!

Dave Bry (#422)

@dado Whoa! Amazing. And yes, please taste test every fried chicken available anywhere in the city and compare to Jestine's Kitchen's. (The Hominy Grill sounds to be another strong frontrunner—I want to go back to go there.) Have a great time!

@Dave Bry Yes Dave, you need to go to Hominy!

Annie K. (#3,563)

@HeyThatsMyBike @Dave That's the name of the place I couldn't remember in the old house, Hominy Grill. Shrimp and grits, now I'm weeping.

funemployed (#10,685)

Just graduated from College of Charleston and went to Husk for lunch. The place is amazing (and amazingly well-priced, at least for lunch). Glad to see a Chucktown shout-out on one of my favorite blogs.

funemployed (#10,685)

Oh, and in the way of suggestions, the shrimp and grits at 82 Queen are the best ever.

Samsbroke (#10,484)

Just back from a wedding there. Great dinner at Virginia's on King and great catering by a place called "Fish." Even the Chik-Fil-A was somehow better. Sad to miss some of the other options here.

johnny_carsick (#7,535)

My favorite city in the entire world, since I was three. There are some incredible seafood places on East Bay Street near Broad, if I remember correctly.

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