[Edit: Today, on August 10th, 2017, Carla Hall announced—to my absolute horror—that her Southern Kitchen would be closing for good. It's like a death in the family. I'll miss this place. A lot.]
In theory, I love fried chicken, but in practice, it almost always bores the hell out of me. It's so one-note, so uneventful. And because it leaves so little room for innovation or fun of any sort, I inevitably get tired of the salty grease/greasy salt combo after, like, three bites of drumstick. Don't get me wrong—I don't dislike fried chicken. I just have a hard time buying into the hype. Consider me a fried chicken skeptic.
That said, I do eat a lot of the stuff, so I think I'm speaking from an informed-ish place when I say that the fried chicken at Carla Hall's is damn good. But before I start going on about food, I should probably give a little background on this place.
Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen, which opened this past summer, is a Nashville-style fast-casual fried chicken spot (exhale), owned by TV chef Carla Hall and her (business) partner Evan Darnell. Darnell's daughter has a peanut allergy—which sucks, yeah, but which is also the reason that the kitchen at Carla Hall's is 100% free of both peanuts and tree nuts. (You know, every cloud… and such.)
To be clear: they don't actually call themselves nut-free, as a few of their pre-packaged desserts (made off-site) may contain nuts. But their kitchen is entirely nut-less, so all of their hot food is (theoretically) safe for those with nut allergies. Aside from those pre-packaged desserts, the only menu items not made in house are the sweet potato rolls and the pullman loaves—which are easily avoided and relatively unimportant, anyway. So by any reasonable standard, Carla Hall's truly is nut-free. (And if I haven't already delivered enough good news: their house-made Buttermilk Soft Serve is safe, and they carry Skippers, Mini Twists, and Pretzel Caramel Bark from Vermont Nut Free, too.)
By the way: the restaurant itself is adorable. It's teeny-tiny and forever-crowded, but it's charming, too, if in a kitschy sort of way. The walls are covered with photos, recipes, and Nashville-themed bells and whistles…and, um, an orange Croc that appears to be autographed by Mario Batali. (I can never read the signature, but Batali lives in NYC, and he's one of Hall's co-hosts on The Chew. Plus, there's no one else in the entire universe with such an allegiance to orange Crocs, so. Likely.)
What's more, the staff is, for the most part, incredibly friendly—usually, they'll go far out of their way to make sure you're really being taken care of—and most nights, Carla Hall herself graces the dining room, speaking with customers and posing for pictures with the patience and good spirit of an actual saint. (Also, I can't be sure-sure, but I'm relatively certain that she has supernatural powers. I've never seen her leave or enter the room; she sort of just materializes, disappears, and repeats. It's impressive.)
But what's really important—especially once you've made your way to Red Hook and waited 15 to 20 minutes for your order—is the food, and the food at Carla Hall's is straight-up delicious. The chicken comes in six heat levels, from Southern (no sauce) to Boomshakalaka (hot enough that the staff feel it necessary to ring a bell and yell "boomshakalaka!" in unison every time someone orders the hottest chicken—and hot enough that I see most Boomshakalaka-eaters go from bravado and machismo to tears and sniffles in, like, two bites), and though I've only ever asked for my chicken sauceless, I'm pretty confident in saying that it's really goddamn good.
The skin, always just crispy enough, is satisfying and salty (though not too salty, as the vast majority of fried chicken is), and the meat's nice and moist, too. There are no funky tastes, chewy bits, or dry patches; it's just simple, tasty fried chicken, with a few high-quality pickle slices on top. Like all fried chicken, though, it's very greasy—but that's not much of a problem, because a side of their cole slaw does a lovely job of cutting through that grease.
The potato salad isn't my favorite—I hate sweet potatoes—but it's a formidable grease-cutter, too. The rest of the sides (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams) probably won't perform the same duty, but they're viable (and classic) options nonetheless. Oh, and before I forget to mention this: the cornbread is fantastic, especially when it's still hot enough to melt the little pat of butter that comes with it. So good—and definitely better than the biscuits, which are usually room-temperature and a bit rubbery.
Of course, there's dessert, too: Vermont Nut Free chocolates and Buttermilk Soft Serve, as I mentioned above. (The rest, as far as I know, aren't necessarily nut allergy–safe, but that's all right. At least there are options for us, right?) The soft serve calls to me me, but I haven't yet gotten a chance to try it—either they've been out of the necessary ingredients, or I've ended up finishing my meal past closing time, when the register's already been cashed out—but I have a feeling I'll love it. One day.
[Edit: I've since tried the soft serve, and it's absurdly good. It's a small portion for $5, but I don't even care, because honestly, it's incredible. It's really thick and creamy—much thicker and creamier than most soft serve, fortunately—but its tanginess is what really makes it stand out. It's like what frozen yogurt would be like if frozen yogurt didn't always taste so low-fat—in other words: perfect.]
I do have plenty of experience with Vermont Nut Free, though. Their chocolate's great—way, way better than, say, Hershey's or Nestlé's—and there's a certain sense of pleasure that comes with supporting a nut-free company, too. The Mini Twists (i.e. chocolate-covered pretzels) are usually great, as is the Pretzel Caramel Bark—though I should say that both are noticeably less fresh when purchased at Carla Hall's than when ordered directly from Vermont Nut Free. Makes sense, but still. The convenience is nice, but the mark-up's absurd, especially for stale-ish pretzels.
In any case, I really, really like Carla Hall's. This city has so few truly nut-free restaurants, and even fewer that I can recommend without a whole bunch of disclaimers—but Carla Hall's is totally endorsable, sans caveats, and I'd recommend a visit to anyone in the mood for a good plate of fried chicken, nut-allergic or not.
Find it at 115 Columbia Street, between Kane and Baltic. (Do yourself a favor and drive there. Alternatively, walk from the F or G station on Bergen Street, or figure out how the hell to get on the B61, and take it to the Columbia and Baltic stop, which is, like, 50 paces from Carla Hall's.)