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SF's Fried Chicken Scene Explodes 

Wednesday, Jun 17 2015
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Earlier this month, along with four other food writers, I judged Feastly's Fried Chicken Showdown in the Mission. It took a little longer than expected because there was an issue with the fryer, but it was a wonderful experience and I was genuinely honored to have been asked. (Such things have a real "See, Mom?" quality.) After lots of wine and chitchat — and my proudly primping my name placard as if I were a delegate to the U.N. — the panel and the crowd agreed on the winners: Cayce Terrill Wilson and Ryan Ochsner of pop-up supper Break & Gather. Their Nashville hot chicken, made with Mary's organic chickens and organic pickles, had exactly the right crunch and spice, and the biscuit cut the heat without leaving you with a mouthful of dough. Let's hope for a brick-and-mortar from them soon.

Nashville hot chicken is a bit hard to find outside of Middle Tennessee — although you can find it at Hard Water — but such regionalism is what makes fried chicken special. As a category, it's closer to a kingdom than a genus. Most are best when sauce-less, but Korean fried chicken really slathers it on. (It's sublime with low-ABV beer and a bowl of pickled daikon, too.) All things being equal, I prefer meats bone-in, but the boneless KFC at mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall ARIA Korean-American Snack Bar (932 Larkin) remains the best I've ever tasted, and at $13.99 for 16 pieces, it's also an insane value.

Leaving the phylum of Korean fried chicken for a bit, there have been new developments in proper Southern fare: Rusty's Southern (750 Ellis) and Buttermilk Southern Kitchen (2848 23rd St.). I sampled both in the last week, along with two others for comparison, to see how they stacked up in San Francisco's ever-growing fried chicken universe.

Rusty's fried chicken sandwich (a sweet tea-brined thigh on pain de mie, $12) is perfectly fried, and in spite of an onslaught of sauce, maintains its structural integrity until the end. A ramekin of baked beans telegraphs to diners that this is a genuine Southern meal, and the two sauces at the table (North Carolina vinegar, and South Carolina mustard) keep everything oriented. My only grievance would be that if you're going to bother advertising the "house pickle," it should be an actual pickle and not a translucent chip on a pick. For dinner, there's a fried chicken plate with braised collards and okra perlou for $19. Odds are, Rusty will bring it out to you, all smiles.

At the southeastern corner of the Mission, the affordable and charming Buttermilk Southern Kitchen has much to recommend aesthetically. It's lined with mason jars of pickles, and the map on the wall is an outline of the South minus Texas and Florida. (That took me a minute.) Unfortunately, the fried chicken was grievously undercooked, to where the texture was unpleasantly gluey. There's really no way to recover from that — even if, without asking, we were brought bottles of Tapatío, Tabasco, and Cristal. (Nice touch, there.) Still, at $16 for three pieces plus two sides, it's a steal, and while the biscuit had too much soda for me, the spring vegetables were stunning. A mix of asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and chick pea leaves, it was not merely the only nutrition I ate in a week but possibly the best-tasting dish. Smoke-and-vinegar may well be the greatest flavor combination, and these greens would not be out of place at Aster. Clearly, there is hope.

On the recommendation of a friend who's a New Orleans native and generally dismissive of California's fried chicken, I went to the Gas & Shop at the corner of 17th Street and South Van Ness for what turned out to be a Krispy Krunchy Chicken franchise. It's not what I would call a hidden gem, like ARIA; to the extent that there is anything creepy left in the Mission at all, this might be it. However, in spite of sitting on hot rollers under heat lamps all day, the fried chicken (two pieces of dark meat plus potato wedges for $3.99) was pretty decent. Operating on the assumption that anything that reflexively evokes your childhood can't be all that bad, it reminded me of Roy Rogers (a reference that admittedly might leave people who grew up west of Pittsburgh scratching their heads). Had I gotten there as it came out of the fryer, it might have been outright good, not just gas station good.

With apologies to close runner-up, the Front Porch, and to Brenda's and Farmerbrown, the gold standard remains Tuesdays at Miss Ollie's (901 Washington St., Oakland). The three pieces of fried chicken, with greens, a fried plantain and bitter "pikliz" are only $17.50, and they're absolutely supreme. There's a shrine to Miss Ollie on one side, and her stern visage peers down from a framed photo on a pink wall, as if to make sure her successors are continuing to take pains with rice oil, halal meat, and the act of inserting seasonings under the skin. This is fork-and-knife food, too hot to eat with the fingers, and one bite reveals all: The fibrous chicken retains its heft without drying out, and is made all the better with a dash of Carib Cane Vinegar. Pair it with mauby, the intensely licorice-flavored beverage from Trinidad, if you can handle it.

Of course, this doesn't even begin to cover the breadth of fried chicken's possibilities. None of what I ate was true soul food, nor did I try Chicken Maryland, chicken katsu, or any blisteringly numbing Xi'an wings, so hopefully the run of new places keeps up and San Francisco gets even more varieties — if only because I'd love to rewrite this column in six months with entirely new entries. Thank God fretting about cholesterol is totally passé.

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Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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