This post was supposed to go up months ago. My apologies to C-Ville Weekly, who were kind enough to ask me to judge. I had an amazing time, thank you so much.
Last summer I had the good fortune to judge a fried chicken contest for C-Ville Weekly. In the past I’ve judged pie and barbecue, so 3rd time makes me an expert? Not so sure. When someone asked what my expertise was with chicken I stammered before replying, “Um, I eat a lot of it? My grandma made a lot of it? And um, I eat a lot of it?” It wasn’t until later I remembered to mention oh yeah, I also write for a food blog.
They say you learn by doing and I guess by doing a lot of judging you certainly get better. That and by quitting smoking. My palate is one helluva lot more nuanced than it was 15 years ago when I was slurping up ramen noodles in a poorly ventilated alleyway apartment in college then chasing it with a Camel Light.
Judging constantly surprises me. Forming opinions on pie is easy, just because there are so many different flavors and textures. Barbecue is a little more challenging, cause well, it’s all meat. I find myself relying on tenderness and sauce flavor because it all tasted pretty damn good. I assumed chicken would be hardest of all, because really there is only one way to fry a chicken and that is to fry. a. chicken. Little did I know.
Each of my contenders was completely different. Of the 11 entries……did I mention there were 11 entries? I about passed out from food fatigue when I saw that mountain of fowl before me. One judge offered to eat only thighs, another breasts. I opted for chicken legs (“A leg or a breast Mr. Robie?), simply because drumsticks are what I grab first. Always.
Anyway, of the 11 entries, only 5 were vying for the top spot. The other 6 were fine as well, but some of the meat was downright old. Older than grandma’s gams. Tough wasn’t the word for ‘em. My TMJ started acting up they were so old.
Of the 5 contenders, each one could’ve taken the top prize. It just so happens we all agreed Michie Tavern’s classic with a capital “C” take on fried bird was simple, elegant, and tasty. The best.
And yes, when you taste 11 versions of fried chicken you definitely pick up on differences. Some meat is fresher than others. The outside textures range from crunchy to bready. The flavors range from spicy, to peppery, to sweet. Even the ratio of breading to meat was different, and the way the flavors of both melded together into one taste was completely different for each entry. It was fascinating to discover there’s not just one version of “fried” but many, many, many.
While Michie Tavern walked away with the prize, I think if we’d judged again with COLD fried chicken (one of nature’s great pleasures and a whole other category) The Whiskey Jar would’ve taken it no problem. Their spicy injected meat and spicy crunchy tender bird is a hangover cure. Would be GREAT with some hair of the dog beer. I ate there recently and ordered the chicken and was disheartened to discover they’ve changed their recipe. It’s not spicy anymore. What a shame :(
Below are my personal picks. I won’t speak for Chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant, or Joel Sleasak of Free Union Grass Farm who both have infinitely more tastebuds and judging experience with chicken than I do. These were the ones I liked. These are MY picks. Cause you know just because we picked 5 for the paper, I still gotta have my say. That’s what blogs are for. Thanks to the other judges and to Megan and Caite of C-Ville Weekly. This was the most fun eating I’ve had in a while!
Postscript: I fasted before this contest and for about 2 days after. Mind if I say, “BURP!” My favorite part was when I recorded in the food log I’m keeping for my doctor, “11 fried chicken legs.” :D
First Place: Michie Tavern, KEEEEE-lassic fried chicken. Light breading with just the right amount of pepper, tender as shit meat, really just simple and delicious. Upon first bite I actually thought this was Wayside Chicken. ‘Cause I eat a LOT of Wayside Chicken.
Second Place: Wayside Chicken, light breading, really peppery, and tender, “tastes like quail” meat. Upon first bite I was 7 years old again and eating a drumstick at that old chicken chain, Golden Skillet. Remember that place?
Third Place: Shell Station, Preston Avenue, gets kudos for fooling me. Their leg didn’t look like much, but bite into it? There’s a LOT there. Juice, tenderness, and a nice barbecue-ey tang that knocked this bird up into everyone’s third place finisher. I’ll be stopping there for chicken as much as I do for gas from now on.
Fourth Place: Mel’s Cafe, YUMMY bird. I adored the extra crispy coating that I could swear is cornflakes. Just a touch of sweetness here that adds quite a lot. Deee-lish.
Fifth Place: Chicken Coop, Lovingston, gets a mention because their chicken had a flavor I couldn’t place. Something herbal? Or maybe it was just the grease. ;) In any case this crunchy on the outside, tender inside drumstick kept me going back for more tastes even after the judging was done. Of the 11 chicken legs I tasted, it was the only one I stripped clean.