It's a more divisive issue than any trifling political matter; so merely selecting the best piece of fried chicken and listing it between best burger and best fries, alongside a three-sentence explanation, seems a bit hasty. A more probing investigation into this Southern culinary staple is required.
My first stop on my quest to find the best fried chicken in Charlotte is Simmons on Graham Street. At 10:30am, Dorothy Simmons has finished her five-hour shift up in the kitchen preparing four crates containing roughly 240 chickens for the day. Slumped in the red booth closest to the kitchen, with photos of the Simmons clan adorning the wall, she's ready for her daily reward: a piece of her own fried chicken. She's eaten a lot of it in her life and could make a claim for the number one fried chicken consumer in Mecklenburg County.
Growing up in Charlotte, Simmons learned the recipe she uses today from her mother, Ella, who always wanted to open up a restaurant but never got the chance. Ella had to feed an army of 18 children and fried up chicken six times a week to meet the task. The one non-chicken day, she fried up fish. Simmons has eaten a piece of fried chicken nearly every day she's worked.
When I'm offered a sample, I ask for a small piece, knowing my lunches for the next week will consist only of these deep-fried cholesterol bombs. The request, as I suspect, falls upon deaf ears.
"Bring him a mix," Simmons tells her sister Carolyn, a server at the restaurant. And soon an ice tea/lemonade amalgamation is set in front of me in a Styrofoam cup, followed by a busty breast of chicken. While no one is about to confuse it with the baked chicken, to me, Simmons had the subtlest fried flavor.
I compliment Carolyn on the food. "You're just beginning," she says with a laugh, as if magical flavor crystals are buried deep in the sinew.
Dorothy, like the owners of the other places I went to, wouldn't divulge a single ingredient in her recipe. She's caught people trying to steal her secret formula before. She does tell me what makes her fried chicken the best in the city. It tastes good cold, unlike the Coffee Cup's and Price's, she says. In fact, if Simmons had to choose a last meal, she would order her fried chicken cold.
Simmons' son Tee tells me younger people generally prefer white meat, while older generations go for dark.
"It's got more nourishment. It's juicier," says Dorothy of dark meat.
"Chicken is chicken," claims Tee, waxing his anything-goes chicken philosophy.
The Resees maxim on gustation technique preaches a multitude of acceptable eating styles. But after watching Dorothy gobble up her piece, I'm embarrassed by the half-gnawed thing that I claim to be finished with. While eating hers, first Dorothy pulled off fleshy chunks to wrap inside bits of bread. Then she nibbled and polished until even the shiny grease coat on the bone was cleaned off.
Stop number two: the Coffee Cup. More than one restaurateur wrinkled their nose at the Cup's revolving door of ownership. Current owner Gardine Wilson, a native Mississippian, acknowledged he hadn't heard of some menu items like livermush or sweet potato cobbler before buying the place. But Wilson maintains that despite the ownership discontinuity Charlotte has a deep connection to the history of the place. Just last week a woman came in whose grandfather was one of the original cooks. She fondly recalled being treated to oyster soup (now a defunct menu item).
In the kitchen, near the jumbo iron skillets (the Coffee Cup doesn't cook their chicken in deep fryers like most places), Wilson shows me stumps where stools for the black customers once sat. Dead chickens and turkeys dangled over their heads. The segregated bathroom (now the ladies room) is around to the side, separated from the body of the restaurant like at a gas station. The Cup was one of the first places in Charlotte to integrate, before Jim Crow Laws were repealed.
After lunching at the Cup in 2003, the day before it was going to close down, Wilson decided to walk out of his job with Bank of America and save the Charlotte institution. He's learned a lot since his first day in the restaurant business when he ran out of food by 1pm and had to close shop early.
I order my piece of chicken smothered with gravy, which helps to compensate for white meat's ineludible flaw: dryness. No gnawing or digging with your teeth is needed to dislodge the meat from the bone, which is a big plus for me.
Another place with historical ties is Statesville Market Café, just north of downtown on Statesville Road. Owner Sherry Reid's father owned a popular soul food restaurant on Graham Street in the 1960s and '70s called Preacher's. Unlike her dad, who was set in his ways, Reid is always tinkering with recipes, such as her rich mac and cheese which includes cream cheese.
Reid explains part of the chicken frying process to me: She brines the chicken, soaking it in salt, sugar and water to tenderize the meat before battering it. Her Barbados-style Bajan chicken, which has pockets of clove-dominated spices buried under the fried skin, is both the crispiest and spiciest on my tour. Reid also has the most innovative method of grease control. She set out a warm bowl of water to dip my grubby fingers in. By the end of the meal, the bowl had a thin grease film floating at the top. The creatively-minded Reid says she doesn't understand the appeal of Price's chicken. "To me, it's just very average."
Stephen Price, who began in the business at age 13 working for his father, doesn't dispute the simplicity behind his recipe. "It's pretty basic," he confirms. With 22 full-time employees, Price's produces an unfathomable amount of chicken.
Any regular customer can tell Price's hasn't changed a whole lot in the 44 years it's been open. Credit is due to Price's for not yuppifying in spite of tremendous popularity (our critics and readers have picked Price's every year we've had the Best Of Charlotte fried chicken category). A sign on the wall at Price's reads, "We will no longer refund or make exchanges on orders placed while YOU are on your phone or 2 way radios."
So who really has the best fried chicken in Charlotte? For a spice-hating, white-meat eating, bono-o-phobe like myself, I pick Coffee Cup.