O.C.’s Best: Fried Chicken To Go

Nothing says summer like crispy wings and thighs, and Orange County is home to eight terrific renditions of the Southern classic

It’s a quintessential summertime favorite, a staple at picnics and family get-togethers. What better to serve everyone than a heap of golden fried chicken bursting with flavor and crunch? Make sure one of these versions makes it into the basket for your next sunny outing.

1. Tender Greens
Don’t write off fried chicken perfection simply because it’s listed as a salad, left, at this Irvine Spectrum Center fast-casual eatery. Purists may scoff at the boneless pieces of bird, but one bite of the cooked-to-order chicken with its ideal ratio of crisp buttermilk batter to juicy, savory meat induces swooning. The salad of freckled romaine and butter lettuces in a light dill dressing ($12) provides a nice contrast—though you also can order the chicken as a hearty sandwich, tucked in warm, grilled ciabatta bread with a smear of red pepper aioli, or as a hot entree on a bed of whipped potatoes. It’s even good served cold. For picnic purposes, call ahead and order it a la carte, $5 for two pieces. 31 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-679-9135, tendergreens.com

2. The Crow bar & Kitchen
Monday nights, classic fried chicken gets a sophisticated, made-for-foodies makeover at this lively gastropub. Organic Mary’s chicken ($16) is marinated overnight in buttermilk and creole spices, then fried in duck fat for deep flavor. The sides, which change weekly, range from house-made jalapeño cornbread to braised greens, Yukon gold potatoes to melted leek hash. Call ahead for takeout. 2325 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-675-0070, crowbarcdm.com

3. Mrs. Knott’s Chicken-To-Go
O.C.’s fried chicken institution has served its famous down-home country meals to generations of families since 1932. Fried to a deep golden hue, the chicken is hot, pleasantly greasy, and bursting with juice. You’ll need a wad of napkins. Don’t forget all the fixin’s, including mashed potatoes and gravy, rhubarb compote, and biscuits with Knott’s classic boysenberry butter or jam. For dessert, pick up a boysenberry pie ($9 with an order of chicken). $22 for a nine-piece meal with sides, or $38 for the 22-piece Grand Bucket with sides. 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, 714-220-5080, knotts.com

4. BBQ Chicken
Fried chicken fanatics know no cultural bounds when it comes to poultry, and that extends to K.F.C.—and we mean Korean fried chicken. BBQ Chicken, one of many Korean fried chicken shops that have popped up in SoCal, fries its birds in olive oil. The original batter, while thin and crispy, can be lacquered in either a sweet-spicy sauce or a hot sauce. The latter is flavorful and has just enough kick. If the heat overwhelms, reach for forkfuls of cool cabbage slaw doused in a creamy soy-and-chili dressing, or crunchy cubes of pickled radish. $18 for 15 pieces, half original batter, half sweet-spicy sauce. 2750 Alton Parkway, Irvine, 949-752-2001, bbqchickenusa.com

5. Yamadaya
Best known for its ramen, Yamadaya’s chicken kara-age, Japanese-style fried chicken, deserves praise, too. Marinated in soy, garlic, and ginger, hunks of meat are lightly dipped in potato starch and deep fried. The result: juicy pieces with everlasting crispness. A squeeze of lemon enhances the well-balanced flavors and texture. For an Asian-inspired picnic bento box, also order steamed short-grain rice. $6 for 10 pieces. 1175 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 714-556-0091, ramen-yamadaya.com

6. Memphis Cafe
Of all the soul food-inspired dishes here, none sings quite like the buttermilk fried chicken. A more refined version of the Southern staple, the near-boneless breast in a flaky crust is perched atop a mound of mashed potatoes and wilted mustard greens, all drizzled with andouille country gravy. The meal is the epitome of comfort done right. $12 at lunch, $17 at dinner. 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, 714-564-1064, memphiscafe.com

7. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
This nationwide chain may be peerless when it comes to fast-food fried chicken. For more than a decade, the no-frills Santa Ana location has consistently delivered glorious fried clucks enveloped in thick, crackly batter that gives way to marinated, tender chicken. The spicy version yields a gentle heat, though you can’t lose with the mild either. Tuesdays mean a leg and thigh for $1.29. That’s what we call a winner-winner chicken dinner … yeah, we went there. 1244 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, 714-834-9709, popeyes.com

8. Paul Martin’s American Grill
The Monday night three-course fried chicken dinner gets the upscale treatment here as well. A generous portion of crusted buttermilk chicken—all-organic from Pitman Family Farms—arrives surrounding a heaping mound of mashed spuds. The meal ($20) is rounded out with a green salad and, to end your feast on a sweet note, the Hot Blonde—a warm, gooey “blondie” made with brown sugar instead of cocoa, under a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Takeout available. Irvine Spectrum Center, 31 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-453-1144, paulmartinsamericangrill.com


Photographs by Priscilla Iessi

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue.

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