Tag Archives: fried chicken

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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KFC: For when you don’t hate yourself quite enough for Taco Bell

A bucket of chicken from KFC

I’m always ambivalent about these sorts of posts. On the one hand, allergy-friendly fast-food chains are infinitely helpful, and I do believe that they, too, are worth collecting. Places like KFC have saved my stranded, hungry, nut-allergic ass more times than I can count, so I don’t see any reason to keep them off my blog. But on the other hand, I have absolutely nothing new or fresh to say about all these international fast-food chains we’re all already familiar with. Even the allergen information is covered on their websites, so it’s all I can do, really, to point out the ones that are nut allergy–friendly. (And throw in some stupid commentary along the way. Obviously.)

So. As you’ve probably guessed, KFC is indeed pretty nut allergy–friendly. When you search for tree nuts on their Special Diets Wizard (yes, that’s what they call it), only four Café Valley (i.e. made-elsewhere) desserts come up—and when you actually read through the ingredients for those four desserts, you’ll notice that none actually contain any tree nuts. (Two have “may contain” warnings and two don’t, but I’m sure all four products may contain trace amounts of nuts, hence their coming up in the search.)

Beyond that, the following appears below the aforementioned Wizard: “Peanuts and tree nuts are not used at KFC. However, peanuts are present in the Reese’s® Peanut Butter Pie Slice and the Café Valley Bakery® Chocolate Chip Cake and Lemon Cake may contain traces of tree nuts.” And though that sounds sort of contradictory, it does makes a sort of clunky, corporate sense—you just have to replace “used” with “cooked with,” and you’ll have the simpler truth: that no one’s cooking with any nuts at KFC, and that any desserts that contain (or may contain) them are made elsewhere. Cross-contamination is virtually a non-issue, then. Good enough for me.

Four biscuits from KFC

Anywho. When I was younger—and certainly not anymore, how dare you?—I had a bona fide obsession with food. I had a stuffed dog named Butterscotch; a taboret jam-packed with various food-related stickers and stationery; a bedroom full of food-related sculptures, sculpted and painted by yours truly (who else?); and an actual plan to change my name to Caramel. When adults asked my favorite class, I’d answer “lunch.” Second favorite? “Snack.” And for a while, my favorite novel was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Why? Because the protagonist spends good portion of the book trying to figure out how to feed himself in the wilderness, and the descriptions of the meat he cooks are straight-up mouthwatering.

Hatchet is the reason I’ll never quite get clean from KFC. When the kid manages to kill, clean, and cook his first “foolbird,” as he calls them, the description that follows is pretty tantalizing. And while Paulsen, with that passage, was probably just trying to instill the value of patience and perseverance, all I came away with was a grumbling stomach. After finishing the book, I talked my mom into buying (and listening to) the audiobook—and that was how I ended up sitting in a car, a block away from our neighborhood KFC, tearing through some juicy, juicy bird breast, listening to the bit of Hatchet in which Brian Robeson does the same. I was hungry, and it was tasty, and I wish I were kidding when I say I’ve been chasing that chicken-high ever since.

Mashed potatoes from KFC

I hope that at least does something to explain why I keep going back to KFC, if remarkably infrequently, despite the unambiguous shittiness of the food. I had one good experience—one time, and it wasn’t even that good of an experience—and now it’s looking like I’ll never be free, regardless of how consistently KFC’s chicken manages to disappoint me.

I guess I should probably spend some time on the specifics of the food itself, if only for the sake of it…or (I suppose) for those of you who have been living under an actual rock. I’ll start with this: As is the case at pretty much every single fast-food chain, your KFC experience is all about your expectations. If you go in expecting anything close to legitimately decent fried chicken—like, fried chicken that could register as good sans handicap, or fried chicken that’d be passable in an actual restaurant setting—you’re going to come away disgruntled. But if you can manage to face the Colonel with your expectations in check, you might actually be able to have a semi-pleasant meal.

After all, there’s a certain sense of joy comes with rooting around one of those red-and-white buckets in search of the perfect piece of chicken. It’s a weak and watery sense of joy, sure; and that perfect piece of chicken isn’t, uh, available at KFC, but still. Despite the chicken’s flimsy skin, bland meat, and overabundance of salt, I have fun with my buckets…and I have fun, too, with my popcorn chicken, and my biscuits, and my mashed potatoes, and my mac and cheese, and my whatever-shitty-sandwich-it-is-they’re-pushing-this-year, too. It’s mostly about the ritual, I think: the bag-unpacking and lid-lifting, the skin-tearing and and meat-gnawing, the scooping and dipping and Mountain Dew–slurping, the biscuit-prodding and finger-licking, and—yes, of course—that meal’s-end feeling of having made a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mistake.

Also, the sporks. Seriously. Where else are you going to get to use one?

Find KFC all over. (Sort of. Over the course of the last decade or so, a whole bunch of this city’s KFCs seem to have disappeared.) I go to the one on 14th and 2nd, but they’re all the same, really.

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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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