Category Archives: Southern

Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

I was late to the subway party. I was a bus kid, familiar with only two lines, confined (for the most part) to the neighborhood I lived in—and it took me until the 10th grade to realize just how much more ground I could cover via train. Immediately, I was floored. I loved that I could descend a flight of stairs at 86th and Lex, sit for a while, climb a different flight of stairs, then find myself at a friend’s doorstep in the middle of Brooklyn. I loved that I could play Pin the Tail on the Subway Map and then actually go to whatever stop my finger landed closest to. And I loved that I could go to Times Square whenever I wanted—which I did, often.

I’m glad to report that I’ve since grown tired of Times Square—but I can’t say I’ve since grown tired of riding the train. Sure, it can be hot, and smelly, and noisy, and dirty, and crowded, and slow, and unpredictable, and—worst of all—routine, and routinely all of the above. But for me, that original novelty just hasn’t worn off. Add my late bloom to the fact that I now live 2 minutes from the train (as opposed to 20—fuck the upper-east corner of the Upper East Side), and you get me as I am today: outrageously lazy, yet entirely willing to get on the train for just about any reason whatsoever.

So don’t think I don’t know how weird it is that I have no qualms about traveling long-ish distances for even the simplest of meals. And don’t think I just suck it up for the sake of this blog, either. I’m well aware that I’m unusually train-happy, and I know, too, that most others aren’t. (Believe me, I know.) That said, I’m going to have to straight-up beseech you to get your ass on the A train and up to 132nd Street for some of this Charles guy’s pan-fried chicken.

There are no nuts in Charles’ kitchen (save for whatever might be in the few cakes on the menu, which aren’t baked in-house, and which are easy enough to avoid). I haven’t been able to get a straight answer on whether they themselves bake their breads, so I avoid those, too—but I’m entirely comfortable with the rest of the menu. (In fact, as they go, Charles’ was actually a particularly un-scary restaurant for me to try. I don’t spend my train rides stressing about all the ways nuts might be hiding in fried chicken and mashed potatoes in the same way as I do with, like, curries and sauces and breads and pastries and chocolates and granola bars and vegan “dairy” and…yeah. Hello.)

A tray of chicken from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Anywho. The menu’s pretty big, but I haven’t yet managed to make it past the fried chicken—not because I have any doubts that I’d like the rest of the food, but because that chicken is so goddamn good that I’ve been downright unable to pry myself away from it. When it comes to restaurant-born chicken, I’m actually fairly picky. Overbearing skin drains me: if it’s too salty, or too heavy, or too blunt, or too dry, I’ll still do my best to chew on—it is fried chicken, after all—but history’s shown that I won’t make it far. At Charles’, though, that’s not an issue. The skin’s crispy, but not brittle; juicy, but not wet; salty, but not overly so; and light, but not lifeless. It has integrity. It has spirit. And if you’re lucky enough to stroll in just as a batch is coming out of the pan…well, it just might be life-changing.

But don’t trust me. (Why should you? I did just publish a post on KFC.) Trust, uh, the whole entire Internet. Google the restaurant’s name, and everywhere you turn, you’ll find praise: some for the old location, some for the new. Sweet, sweet consensus—the chicken is excellent. It’s worth your time. It’s worth a trip. It’s some of the best. It is known.

But I don’t stop with a quick ride on the A up to Charles’. No—I triple-travel for this chicken. Sure, I like eating right there in the restaurant. But I love heading up to Charles’, picking up a whole goddamn tray, high-tailing it home, sticking that shit straight in the fridge, and then forgetting about it until the sun starts to set. Then, I’ll shove it into a tote—alongside whatever ludicrous assortment of sides I’ve looted from my cabinets—and head (with Sam) straight to Battery Park. Cold fried chicken, a bowl of pasta salad, some kettle chips, and an assortment of greenmarket spoils, all strewn buffet-style across one of those stone chess tables; a breeze off the Hudson; an unobstructed view of the sunset…

I concede that it’s a meme of an outing. But I maintain that it’s a meme for good reason. What better way is there to spend a July evening? (I’m really asking.)

A side of macaroni and cheese from Charles' Pan-Fried Chicken

Alas, the sides—from Charles’, not my cabinet—are a bit more hit-or-miss. At the wrong time of day, the macaroni and cheese grows gummy and flavorless, and the potato salad, a usual favorite of mine, isn’t worth a reorder. But there are so many sides I’d like to try—cole slaw, macaroni salad, a million types of vegetables, rice and beans, mashed potatoes, you name it—that I haven’t even come close to losing hope. And those entrees, too. Should I ever manage to distract myself from the fried chicken, there’s so much: baked chicken, smothered pork chops, barbecue ribs, turkey wings—if it’s on the menu, I probably want it. And I’m supremely excited to work my way through it all.

Find Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken at 2461 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, between 131st and 132nd Streets. Did I mention it’s worth the trip?

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Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen

A plate of fried chicken and cole slaw from Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

[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.)

Mason jars lining the walls of

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.)

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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.

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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.

A jar of nut-free Vermont Nut Free Skippers at Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

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.)

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Blue Smoke

Blue Smoke's cornbread Madeleines

If there’s one place the food-allergic community seems to love, it’s Blue Smoke. I’ve read lots about them, but it wasn’t until today that I decided (spur of the moment) to go. I typically don’t eat at restaurants that handle nuts, but I figured I’d take advantage of my recent restaurant-trying momentum and give this one a chance. They do have a reputation of being very allergy-aware, after all—so to Battery Park City I went.

To start, the atmosphere, in general, was not for me; it was dark, noisy, and decorated with lots of lumber (???), with loud country music and two too-bright flatscreens above the bar. But I’ve dealt with worse, so I figured I’d manage. (Hey, if they can handle my allergy, I can handle their atmosphere, right?)

As far as I know, only one item on the dinner menu at the Battery Park City location contains tree nuts: the sweet potato mash (it’s topped with pecans). A couple of desserts contain nuts, too, but I tend to stay away from those anyway. I was assured by my server, though, that I didn’t have to worry about any sort of cross-contamination—so all that was left to do was dig in and find out. (Well, that and decide what I wanted.)

I ended up going with the cornbread madeleines (pictured above) and the fried chicken & biscuits. Sam, along for the ride, ordered the pulled pork—they were out of ribs (?!?)—with a side of mac and cheese and a side of baked beans. Our server, after double-checking with the kitchen, assured me that all the dishes we’d chosen would arrive completely free from nuts—and to my delight, that they did.

The madeleines were definitely my favorite. They were warm and light, with that lovely cornbread texture, and they came with some sort of maple-butter sauce, which was what really sealed the deal. These things were so good that I seriously considered ordering another portion to take home with me and hoard, but (fortunately) our entrees arrived and redirected my attention before I could get the chance to do so.

The fried chicken was good, but it wasn’t out-of-this-world good. It came with slaw and a biscuit, and when I put the three together, the flavors played together nicely (duh), but nothing on that plate had me thinking, “hey, I’m really glad I spent $28 on this.” Sam’s pulled pork was equally decent (or so I’m told; I didn’t actually get around to trying it), but he didn’t feel it was particularly worth his $30, either.

Don’t get me wrong; nothing brought out to us was bad—but it’s tough to rally behind an average-quality plate of food when it comes at a not-so-average price. Still, I’d probably return to Blue Smoke, should I ever end up with a little extra money. As promised, the handled my allergies well…and those madeleines were delicious.

There were only two minor hiccups over the course of the entire meal. The first: I wasn’t given a nut-free menu (though it didn’t matter much, as it was the food that I needed to be nut-free, not the menu itself). Still, I was a little surprised, as I’d read a lot about Blue Smoke’s allergen-free menus. The second: a server (not our server, whom I’d told about my allergy) brought out a complimentary taste of something, with no word on whether it was safe. (It was, so it wasn’t a big deal—but I would have liked to have been told, if only for the level of allergy-awareness that would’ve shown me.)

Overall, though, I had a pretty good experience at Blue Smoke. The service was great, and neither the food nor the atmosphere killed me—so the night goes down as a success in my book (or would that be “on my blog”?). All things considered, I suppose I’d recommend Blue Smoke to a nut-allergic friend—but only if said nut-allergic friend were wealthy enough not to scoff at a $30 plate of fried chicken.

(Blue Smoke has two New York City locations: One in the Flatiron District [116 East 27th Street], and one in Battery Park City [255 Vesey Street]. I’ve only been to the latter—and only once, at that—but I suppose I’ll have to try the other, too. Maybe they’ll have ribs.)

[Edit: I’ve since eaten at Blue Smoke a bunch more times, and I’ve decided that this post was terribly unfair. Since its writing, I’ve tried the spare ribs, the baby back ribs, the brisket, and the biscuits, and I’m now 100% prepared to declare that I was wrong, and that Blue Smoke is actually pretty damn awesome. All of their servers are extremely friendly and helpful—and what I like best about them is that they’ll never, ever give you an answer they aren’t sure of. They’re the kings and queens of “let me check on that for you,” which goes such a long way in making me feel safe.

Also, the restaurant’s way more affordable than I’d realized. For under $50 (including tax and tip), Sam and I get a big plate of Blue Smoke’s three best meats (baby back ribs, spare ribs, and brisket), along with two sides of our choosing. It’s more than enough to feed two—and for the portion (and quality of service), I’d say the price is pretty reasonable. I prefer the baby back ribs to the spare ribs, but both are great (better than the fried chicken, no doubt), and the brisket, absurdly tender, is straight-up delicious, too. Also, their biscuits—which count as a side, though they aren’t listed with the rest of the sides—are perhaps the best biscuits I’ve ever eaten.

Plus, they now give me an allergen menu (without prompting!) as soon as I sit down—and I’m hardly a regular. Incredible. The end.]

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