Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood.com pick their six favorite restaurants for chicken dinner. If none of these restaurants is in your state, scan the list of everything Jane and Michael have mentioned on The Splendid Table over the years.
Kansas City, Mo.
Picking our favorite places is really tough because there isn't a part of the country that doesn't have its own wonderful way with chicken dinners. For most of us, I think chicken dinner is comfort food. For the very best comfort food chicken dinner, the classical one, I would go to Stroud's. It's pan-fried chicken with natural gravy, real mashed potatoes and cinnamon rolls to go along with it. It is the classic, comfort food, country-style chicken dinner.
2. Keaton's Barbecue, Inc.
This is probably the only restaurant that Michael and I have eaten at in 40 years where I literally fell out of the booth in a swoon of ecstasy. I've never tasted such good chicken.
What's great about Keaton's chicken is that it's fried -- and just fried it would be great. But after it's fried, they dunk it in a vat of boiling barbecue sauce very briefly. What happens is that just-fried chicken sucks in the flavor of the barbecue sauce. It's a twofer: you get that crisp, crusty, good, fried chicken with that zest of barbecue sauce. It reminded me of a candy apple, not that it's sweet, but that it's crunchy. The extra-hot chicken at Keaton's is fall-out-of-your-booth.
It's a great place because like many roadfood places, they have a lot of instructions on the wall about how to behave and where to sit. For instance, once you choose a seat, you do not move from it after placing an order because they will not know where to bring the chicken. No checks. Do not raise your voice very loudly.
There are several restaurants in Nashville that serve what they call hot fried chicken, all cooked in pretty much the same way. In most of them, like in 400 Degrees, Pepperfire and Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, what they do is fry the chicken. Then they actually take a brush and they paint it with hot sauce to the degree of heat that you want. There's mild, there's medium, there's hot, and an extra-hot that is so insanely hot, we've never even tried it.
We took one of our friends to Prince's. After he ate the chicken, we saw him licking the napkin. The way they serve the chicken is on supermarket white bread. It's rare for anyone to really love white bread, but by the time you get through with the chicken on top, that white bread has been infused with the flavor of the chicken and it too is delicious.
6. Rip's Tavern
There is one bastion of fried chicken that few people know about unless you come from there. The Illinois River valley has maybe a dozen or more restaurants, mostly taverns, that specialize in excellent fried chicken.
The best one is called Rip's. In addition to fried chicken, everyone who eats there gets a basketful of what they call crunchies, which are little bits of batter that they retrieve from the frying oil periodically. What's great is they instruct you to make a finger taco out of these crunchies by picking up a dill pickle and grabbing a bunch of these crunchies. The theory is that it is not only a great taste combination, but that the dill pickle cuts the fat so you can eat more fried chicken. It's so delicious.