After a century spent in backwater isolationism, Seattle has boarded the rocket toward its “world-class” destiny and now overzealously indulges in foodie trend-hopping to make up for lost time. Ten years ago conventional wisdom claimed no good Mexican food could be found here; a few short years later, a dozen new Mexican restaurants of varying pedigrees had opened across the city. In 2010, artisanal seafood washed ashore with the Walrus & Carpenter, Anchovies & Olives and others of their ilk. And who can forget the cupcake wave of the late ’00s? Then sports bars. Donuts. Pizza. High-end Asian. Steak. As the city grows, most of these boomtime entries hang on, and so blooms Seattle’s garden of earthly delights. If you wanna bet on the next craze, my money’s on “new Nordic.”
But as of right now, what’s cracking is fried chicken.
Nobody needs schooling on the joys of fried chicken. It’s one of those items many Americans ate as kids and still relish today, taken to go from the grocery store or gas station minimart, tasty hot or cold. It’s comfort food that, due to a messy cooking process, is rarely made at home. Like most anything fried, even bad fried chicken is pretty good, and when it’s good it can be great.
Sisters And Brothers, which opened three months ago in a former beloved dive bar across the street from the north end of Boeing Field in Georgetown, might be Seattle’s current fried-chicken champ. It’s the first restaurant in the city to serve “Nashville hot chicken,” a regional variant with a sexy name—especially in a Pacific Northwest detached from the sweltering passions of the Deep South—that’s even more alluring once it’s cradled in a paper-lined basket, piping hot and practically glowing with flavor.
I first encountered hot chicken in February at a chic New Orleans bistro, where the dish’s dangerous piquancy was the highlight of an unforgettable meal. Its roots trace back to a frustrated Nashville wife’s spicy Sunday-supper revenge on her two-timing husband, who savored his punishment so much he made a business out of it. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is still open today.
Wherever you find it, hot chicken involves brining the bird, coating it in spiced flour and deep-frying, then applying a special paste or rub that’s heavy on cayenne and paprika. S&B’s secret recipe, about which my server claimed zero knowledge, results in a brittle crust of luxurious ruby red that leaves oily stains on the fingers. The crust is somehow alchemically bonded to the flesh—opt for two pieces of dark for $14—so you’re never left with meatless scabs of fried batter. Among the four available spice levels, “hot” is definitely hot enough, and taken as a dipping sauce on the side, “insane” combines heroic amounts of cayenne with the intoxicating smoke of chipotle. Baskets come with the traditional white bread, pickles and a side, the pinnacle of which is stupendously crisp coleslaw.
Sisters And Brothers is as much a dive bar as a chicken shack. Owned and operated by art-punk refugees from Capitol Hill, it hosts DJ nights and all-day barbecues with bands. Outdoor picnic tables get buzzed by low-flying aircraft and $3 cans of Oly. The vibe is loose and sloppy and brash—not unlike the Runway Café, which it replaced—but they’re not playing around with the chicken. Regardless of the time of day, there’s often a line out the door.
Hidden within the airy, verdant Rachel’s Ginger Beer on Capitol Hill, Sunset Fried Chicken is a more stylized affair. The walk-up service window offers three fried-chicken sandwich options, as refined as a classic can get for $9. Sunset’s standard version elevates the Chik-fil-A ideal of fried chicken breast, dill pickle, mayo, slaw and toasted bun with free-range poultry, organic veggies and overall freshness. The others are riffs—one spiked with pickled jalapenos, the other “General Tso” style, with cilantro and daikon. Try one and you’ll want them all.
As an archetype, the fried chicken sandwich is possibly more American than the Germanic-inspired hamburger. In her recent U.S. travels, Sunset chef/owner Monica Dimas encountered countless fried-chicken sandwiches in other cities, humble and perfect and readily available. She’s spoken publicly about Seattle’s tragic shortfall and, like she did with nearby Neon Taco, which makes the best tacos on Capitol Hill, set about achieving focused, unassuming excellence by cooking something she loves to eat herself. The current proliferation of fried chicken results as much from a void recognized as a trend followed.
And of course there are oases of fried chicken that have been around for ages, quietly doing their own delicious thing. At opposite poles of the city, Marco Polo Bar & Grill, a spotless dive in Georgetown, and Duck Island Ale House, a funky beer bar near Green Lake, serve pressure-cooker fried chicken, which in both cases is supremely hot, juicy and tender—the kind of food you make a special trip for. Marco Polo has been around since the 1950s; flat screen TVs and craft beers might be the only update. Duck Island dates back to the ’90s and boasts an impressively diverse selection of 27 draft beers and many more in bottles. Both claim their fried chicken is the best in the city. Both could be right.
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