Over the past decade, food industry pundits have monitored the chef-driven rise of fried chicken and all its incarnations in food meccas across the country. In Buffalo, fried chicken as a vogue is just hitting its stride. But despite arriving a little late to the game, Buffalo is now operating as a sort of microcosm of the various fried chicken subsects and factions comprising the trend nationally. And that makes for a pretty exciting fried chicken tasting tour, if you’re up to the challenge.
Nashville Hot Chicken
I became hyperaware of Buffalo’s nascent fried chicken scene in January or thereabouts, when Toutant teased its version of Nashville hot chicken on Instagram. Nashville hot is a regional specialty characterized by its liberal coating of blistering chili oil. It gained national attention early last year when chefs from all walks and necks, and even KFC, began slinging interpretations outside Tennessee state lines for the first time on any significant scale.
At Toutant, Chef-Owner James Roberts combines aspects of the 70-year-old, progenitorial recipe from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and a popular version by Hattie B’s, Prince’s relatively new Nashville competition. Roberts begins by marinating boneless chicken thighs in brine and buttermilk before dredging them in highly seasoned flour and frying them crisp. The bird is then painted with its distinguishing fiery sauce, which Robert confides has “a ton of hot red peppers, a little mild red pepper, a good amount of molasses, and a couple secret ingredients.” He serves it simply atop a slice of liberally buttered, house-made white bread with a few pickles. But don’t expect either to do much to cut the heat. That sh*t is incendiary. And that’s just how Roberts likes it.
“The only rule we have,” he said, “is it has to be hot enough to make you cuss and sweet enough that you can’t stop.”
The Nashville hot isn’t on Toutant’s regular menu; it’s only offered as a special at the whim of the kitchen. If you want a taste, follow Toutant on Instagram, where Roberts hints at its availability—generally on short notice.
Fried Chicken Sandwiches
For the past two years, the humble sandwich has been the darling of the fried chicken frenzy, with big-name restauranteurs like David Chang and Danny Meyer catering to the demand for haute, fast-casual, portable poultry. Now Buffalo finally has its answer to Fuku and Shake Shack.
At Melting Point, that answer comes in the form of a split cheddar biscuit bookending cole slaw and buttermilk chicken fried chestnut brown. The chicken itself is perfectly tasty, but the flakey cheese biscuit, with its frico-like bottom, is a showstopper. Together, they make for a sandwich I would gladly wait in life for, but fortunately don’t have to.
Craving and Pierce Arrow Burger Bar have also gotten in on the fried chicken sandwich game. The former is available at lunch with spinach, pickled sweet potato slaw, and truffle honey on a house-made roll. The latter is spicy and biscuit style, with maple bacon, lettuce, and tomato.
Korean Fried Chicken
I don’t know of a proper Korean restaurant within city limits. But I do know that Buffalo is no longer a stranger to Korean-style fried chicken thanks to the Dapper Goose, where it has been a menu staple (lead image) since the restaurant’s opening last fall.
Unlike thickly battered southern fried chicken, with its deep crags and desirable fissures, double-fried Korean chicken is notable for its crackly, paper thin crust. At Dapper, Chef Jesse Ross nails the effect with the help of overproof Ray & Nephew rum in the flour-based batter. The alcohol promotes the sought-after texture on two planes. By staving off gluten formation and rapidly evaporating in the hot oil, it engenders a bubbly, exceedingly crisp outer shell that gives way to the juiciest meat I tasted on my tour. As is traditional, Ross then coats the bird in a sauce of sweet and spicy gochujang, a fermented chili paste, and serves it with kimchi fried rice and spicy cucumbers.
Japanese Fried Chicken
House-made kimchi likewise makes an appearance in Buffalo Proper’s contribution to the fried chicken scene. Beyond his fermentables, Proper Chef Nate Washburn takes his cues from Japan, where karaage chicken is king. In adherence to the karaage tradition, Washburn marinates thigh meat in soy sauce, wine, citrus, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil before dredging it in naturally gluten-free potato starch. He serves it on the blonde side of brown with the aforementioned kimchi and a generous pool of kewpie mayo that he flavors with tamarind for acidity and complexity.
Karaage chicken is also on the menu at SATO (and has been since day one), where it comes with kewpie mayo and quick-pickled daikon and carrot namasu. Chef-Owner Satomi Sakai Smith considers the dish’s robust soy-ginger marinade and potato starch crust its distinguishing qualities. Compared to southern and Korean renditions, “that flavor really gets in deep all throughout,” she said in an email interview.
Chicken and Waffles
No fried chicken roundup is complete without discussion of fried chicken’s sweet better half, waffles. Western New York saw its first chicken and waffle food truck last year, but by then the dish was already on the ground at a number of Buffalo locations (Bertha’s comes to mind). Perhaps the most renowned is served at Freddy J’s BBQ, a diminutive kitchenette and food counter on Grant Street. There, Chef-Owner Fred Daniels batters thinly pounded, boneless chicken breast in a secret blend of flours before shallow frying it in an awesomely haggard cast iron skillet. The result is something that eats like a homemade chicken finger.
It can be had with grits and eggs, but the most popular accompaniment is Daniel’s famous, icing drizzled red velvet waffles. Not one to turn down grits, I ordered them as a side and recommend you at least do the same. Other grits I’ve tried locally have been waterlogged, too thin, undercooked, defiled by a heavy-handed addition of dairy, or some combination thereof. Daniels’ grits are scoopably thick and fluffy (albeit short on salt), leaving me with the distinct impression that each kernel had been allowed to absorb its maximum capacity of cooking liquid. When asked, he attributed the quality of his grits to the low and slow five-hour simmer he commits to with each batch—a technique heirloom grits kingpin Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills says follows thousands of years of sound Native American clay pot maize cookery.
In conclusion: fried chicken is great and all, but what I really love are grits.