In 2005, Cookie Monster began treating his obsessive tendencies with Paxil and announced that cookies were now a sometime food, not an anytime food. Not long after, San Francisco chefs began feeling the same way about fried chicken. Over the past few years, weekly fried chicken nights at local bistros have come and gone, making national news when the Bay Area's culinary emperor, Thomas of Keller, started hosting Fried Chicken Mondays at Ad Hoc in Yountville.
Banking on the proposition that in a recession we all crave comfort, fried chicken night continues to spread, and a number of S.F. restaurants have caught the urge to upscale fried chicken — but not too much. Bacon aside, is there a foodstuff more universally appealing? I once dated a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, in a painfully ecstatic catharsis worthy of a Lars von Trier film, after accompanying me on a review of a Southern restaurant in Walnut Creek that had some of the best fried chicken around. (The restaurant has since closed, but the conversion has proved permanent.)
Magnolia Pub's chef, Ronnie New, introduced fried chicken to night in 2008, then tried removing it. "There was a massive, citywide, nonviolent revolt," manager A.J. Tiras says, and so New and the fried chicken fans compromised on Thursday nights, when his special ($18) sells out most weeks.
New left the brewpub for a year or so, then returned to its kitchens last month. A few weeks ago, he reformulated the fried chicken recipe, substituting his Louisiana grandmother's recipe, which stands up well to pints of Magnolia's malty, low-hopped New Speedway bitter. New's a heavy dredger, dragging a boneless chicken breast and butterflied thigh through an herbed coating that solidifies in the hot oil into a solid, hard-crack shell. It has a little heat to it, his coating, and its thickness helps make up for the fact that he's frying the meat without the bones to keep it moist. In fact, the breast is flavorful but just on the right side of dry. But the thigh meat comes out glistening and tender.
The sides change every week. On my visit, New served the chicken over pinquito beans braised with enough andouille — the ratio of beans to sausage was close to 3:1 — to confound the divisions between the flavors of vegetables and meat. Clearly a man who grew up eating beans and rice, and knows how to prepare them. Faced with a giant bowl of fried chicken, beans, and sausage, I was grateful for the salad I'd started the meal with.
Four months ago, Firefly, the bistro that has become an extra living room for moneyed residents of Noe Valley, decided to put its occasional fried chicken special on permanent weekly rotation. Tuesdays were a little slow, chef-owner Brad Levy says, and he'd just discovered that the largest size of Mary's organic game hens (basically a smaller breed of chicken) were the perfect size to fit a half-bird on the dinner plate. The dish's formal title: "the fried chicken of your dreams."
It's a small bird, hacked into dainty pieces — a thigh is the size of a kiwi, the drumstick not much bigger than a pink rubber eraser. The cooks coat the skin in dry spices and just enough flour to let the skin crisp of its own accord and the bird's own fat flavor the crust. I wouldn't call it the chicken of my dreams; it's a young, small chicken, paler in flavor and not as moist in the breast and drumstick as the thigh and tiny wing. But it is enough for one person, surrounded by mashed potatoes, pink flecks of potato skin suspended in the creamy puree, a few spoonfuls of a flavorful chicken gravy, roast broccolini, and a biscuit, with all the density of a campaign promise.
The newest fried chicken special is Local: Mission Eatery's, where Jake Des Voignes serves a fried chicken lunch plate ($13) on Fridays that has taken four days to prepare. Pasture-raised chickens from CC Family Farms come into the restaurant on Mondays, when Des Voignes immerses them in a salt-sugar brine with herbs and aromatics. The next day, he transfers the meat to an unsalted buttermilk brine to tenderize the flesh for a few days, then coats the birds in seasoned flour and buttermilk before plunging them into hot oil, serving two pieces of the chicken with a tart coleslaw, and a sweet, earthy cornbread made with red corn from Full Belly Farms.
Once the chicken is out of the fryer, Des Voignes' cooks don't let itsit long enough to let the residual oil drain off — a few tablespoons of it pooled on my plate as I was eating. But the meat! So juicy, so shiny and moist, I had to double-check to make sure it was fully cooked. The flour scrunches up in waves across the surface of the skin, where both coating and skin crunch, without cracking.
So, fried chicken Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights: scheduled. Tacking on the Street's longstanding fried chicken Sunday and Spice Kit's new fried chicken Wednesdays, you could eat someone's special fried chicken almost every day for a week. A sometime food available anytime: the American diet, in short.