Taste Test: Fried Chicken

From Popeyes to BonChon to GBD, we wade through the best and worst Washington has to offer right now.

By: Anna Spiegel

Fried chicken is enjoying a golden age in Washington. Two new chicken and doughnut joints—GBD and Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken—opened in the past three weeks, and more restaurants than ever are offering fried chicken specials. Not that crispy birds are a new trend; old favorites such as the Hitching Post and Levi’s Port Cafe are still going strong. So who fries up the tastiest morsels of meat? We tested 14 varieties to find out.

The Criteria

As mentioned, fried chicken is popping up everywhere. In an attempt to show our arteries some mercy, we established a few ground rules for qualification. First, we only sampled chicken dinners—no tenders, poppers, sandwiches, rip’ns, etc. Every bird under consideration had to be available for carryout to the general public on a regular basis. Finally, we deployed anonymous fried chicken fetchers (ahem, interns) to ensure a fair trial and to guarantee that the chicken arrived promptly and, more important, warm and relatively crispy.

The crunch-factor wasn’t the only deciding point—we know a little something gets lost en route from fryer to office. The ideal birds had both flavorful meat and a well-seasoned skin, and delivered a satisfying grease fix without getting too greasy.

The Contenders

We don’t often find ourselves chasing a Michel Richard meal with an order of Popeyes, but that’s exactly what was needed to find the ultimate fried chicken. Fast-food chicken chains included KFC, Bojangles’, Popeyes, and Crown Fried Chicken, while chickens plucked from eateries on our 100 Very Best Restaurants list included Central and Pearl Dive. We checked out newcomers GBD and Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken, as well as seasoned fryers the Hitching Post, Henry’s Soul Cafe, Cork Market, Eatonville, and Levi’s Port Cafe. Of course, no taste test would be complete without the other KFC—Korean fried chicken—from the BonChon franchise in Fairfax.


THE BEST

“Fancy” fried chicken: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

We’ve been fans of Jeff Black’s fried chicken dinners since his 14th Street hotspot opened. Luckily for anyone averse to long table waits, the restaurant recently started serving six-piece buckets of the crispy stuff upstairs at Black Jack and for carryout. You won’t find fast food prices. But 20 bucks buys a tub filled with six plump Pennsylvania Amish thighs, drumsticks, and breasts, four scallion-corn muffins, and two sides of spicy slaw and braised organic greens—so it still feels like a deal.

Insider tip: The buckets are offered during regular dining hours, but if a helpful cook is in the kitchen during weekday lunch when the restaurant is closed, you can call in a special order.

Traditional: Levi’s Port Cafe

Chowing down on a Southern-style fried chicken dinner from this Southeast soul food spot was like eating a home-cooked meal, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a restaurant. The platter arrived with a generous and deftly seasoned breast and leg, a scoop of gooey (in a great way) mac and cheese, and pot-liquor-y green beans. At $9 for the whole shebang, it doesn’t get much better.

Insider tip: Two slices of generic sandwich bread in place of biscuits are the only downside to this feast.

Nontraditional: BonChon

There’s a reason District denizens make the trek out to the suburban locations of this Korean fried chicken joint: The Asian-style wings and drumsticks are totally worth it. (And good news: A branch is coming to Arlington soon.) Two turns in the fryer renders the skin shatteringly crisp—we could literally hear colleagues crunching away on leftovers across the room—and it stays that way for hours, making it ideal for parties and tailgates. Go for a mix of sticky-sweet soy-garlic glaze and the tongue-searing spicy version.

Insider tip: Wait times can be long, especially during peak hours, so call ahead.

Fast food chain: Popeyes

Popeyes calls to mind old-fashioned picnic-style fried chicken: crispy, peppery, simple, and satisfying. As one taster noted, the extended crunch life of the chicken has to do with the fact that the mega-chain “has science on its side.” Still, we couldn’t immediately pick out the spicy “Bonafide” thighs and legs from those at other casual chicken joints.

Insider tip: Popeyes also boasts the best chain biscuit—moist, crumbly, and buttery in an addictive, movie-theater-popcorn way.

Special Shout-out: Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken

The newest addition to the chicken-and-doughnut trend has been open just shy of two weeks, but it’s already turning out some of the tastiest versions we sampled. The flavorful organic Pennsylvania birds get a buttermilk soak before their turn in the fryer and emerge with a perfectly seasoned crust that’s not too salty or spicy. (As one taster noted, “I could actually eat a lot of this.”) The only downside is that Astro is an afternoon-takeout-only spot, and the coating loses some of its crunch in the insulated bag.

Insider tip: The team is adding spicy garlic and Sriracha-glazed chicken to the lineup next week, so look for those.


THE WORST

“Fancy” fried chicken: Central

Testing eight varieties of fried chicken back to back is bound to give anyone a stomach ache, but Central stuck with us—and not in a good way. The “to-go special” at lunch included six “nuggets” that were a mix of dry meat and greasily bland coating, and a breast of the same profile. The thigh proved best, but Dijon-mayo dunking sauce rendered it over-the-top rich (again, not in a good way). On the other hand, we could swim in a buttery kiddie pool filled with those mashed potatoes (more on those below).

Traditional: Cork Market

The much-lauded Cork Market fried chicken can only be purchased cold from the prepared foods case, which makes it ideal for picnics. Not ideal for picnics: a soggy, greasy crust over flabby skin. The garlic-herb-marinated meat underneath isn’t bad, but that’s not really the point. When sourcing a picnic at the 14th Street spot, stick to items such as tasty chicken salad, cold soba noodles with shiitakes, and ratatouille.

Fast food chain: Bojangles’

The Union Station food court isn’t exactly an eater’s paradise, but we wanted to give this Southern-inspired chain a shot. Sadly, it fell short of fellow fried chicken moguls Popeyes and KFC. Far from a guilty-pleasure fast food fix, eating the basic fried fare and tough biscuits just made us feel guilty.

OUR DREAM PLATE

Certain orders automatically included biscuits and sides. These were the best of the best, and would make up our ideal fried chicken supper.

Biscuits: GBD

“Golden Brown Delicious” just opened less than three weeks ago, and is still finding its proverbial wings when it comes to consistency. Still, pastry chef Tiffany McIsaac’s pillowy biscuits are worth a trip in and of themselves.

Coleslaw: Hitching Post

One of the most generous servings of fried-to-order chicken came from this friendly Southern joint in Petworth, but the thing we couldn’t stop eating was a crunchy side of slaw spiked with vinegary chopped pickles.

Mac and cheese: Eatonville

The crunchy chicken was packed with almost too much flavor—it was tasty, but lingering saltiness proved a tad too much. Sides helped curb the salinity; we loved the vinegary collards and the satisfyingly creamy mac and cheese.

Mashed potatoes: Central

“Buttery” is putting it lightly when it comes to Michel Richard’s rich pommes purée. Try to forget that you may be consuming a whole stick (or two) per serving and just enjoy the velvety spuds.