Fried chicken isn’t by any means a strictly American dish, but it’s grown to become one in many ways merely by the fact that each U.S. region, from the south to the northwest, has put their stamp on this savory dish.
What may have humble beginnings (either in Britain some 200 years ago via African slaves brought to America), fried chicken has predominantly been hailed as the Southern food of choice. And while the classic buttermilk dip can’t be replicated anywhere else, any fried chicken connoisseur knows you’ll have trouble finding the hot chicken of Nashville or the chicken ‘n waffles of Los Angeles anywhere but their respective cities (and oftentimes restaurants) of origin.
Like BBQ, my quest to find the most authentic fried chicken of each region led me in various directions. This isn’t an overdone list of our favorite fried chicken joints found in each state, but a comprehensive guide to understanding what each region has done to curate and craft a signature fried chicken dish entirely their own.
Tennessee: Few other states have quite the reputation for a fried chicken dish like Nashville’s hot chicken. The original, Prince’s, is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the country, and for good reason?—their fried chicken is drenched in a signature rub that includes a fiery coating of spices like cayenne, hot sauce, chili powder, paprika and garlic, all laid to rest on a bed of pure white bread. Hot chicken is truly where this regional revolution began.
Kentucky: What started with just an iron skillet and a hankering for something cheap and easy has earned Kentucky international recognition for this beloved dish. Harland Sanders started a trend when he began serving his mother’s fried chicken recipe—using a blend of some 11 spices, cooked over an iron skillet—in a gas station in 1935.
Eventually, Sanders’ reputation led to long lines so he swapped the skillet for a pressure cooker (of his own design) to meet demands, and decades later opened a franchise that would introduce Kentucky’s signature dish to millions.
Georgia: If a true Georgia original has gone mainstream, there’s no doubt in our minds that it’s classic enough to have made it’s way to every family table in the state. Picked up by KFC for a limited edition run, the fried chicken fast food chain labeled “Georgia Gold” is a signature fried chicken dish featuring a honey mustard BBQ flavor. We’re not one to argue with the Colonel himself, so we’ll just say it’s finger lickin’ good.
Texas: Because everything is bigger in Texas, fried chicken in this southern state doesn’t just have one name, but two. Chicken fried chicken, named to differentiate itself from the other menu favorite, chicken fried steak says Restless Chipotle blogger Marye Audet-White, is a boneless, skinless chicken breast that’s marinated in buttermilk, seasoned with varying spices, then dipped. It’s typically served with corn, mashed potatoes, biscuits and cream gravy with loads of pepper.
North Carolina: With a specialty known as “dipped chicken,” North Carolina separates itself from its southern brother with a fried chicken dish entirely its own. Carolina’s classic fried chicken, which is typically fried in a flour, salt and pepper bath, is then dunked into a classic western North Carolina-style barbecue sauce (vinegar-based with pepper and a tomato base, according to Stoke Executive Chef Chris Coleman) creating a dish with a signature NC-stamp. Says Coleman, “I like to think of the dish as a creative cook’s mash-up that became the perfect representation of its locale: we love our fried chicken almost as much as we love our barbecue in NC, so why not combine them?”
South Carolina: While generally considered the birthplace of the most authentic fried
chicken, there are subtle differences in each household (though it’s worth mentioning
every household makes fried chicken). Chef Shaun Garcia, a South Carolina native who
uses his grandmother’s recipe in his restaurant Nose Dive, swears by the dry dredge.
The simple steps, from using flour to coat the chicken, followed by buttermilk, maybe egg, and another flour dip, are the SC essentials. Depending on the chef, says Garcia, the frying methods—whether there’s oil, lard, shortening or grease—is up to the cook.
Virginia: What could be considered the birthplace of fried chicken due in part to American cooking heroine Edna Lewis, a champion of Southern cooking who helped to emphasize the importance of slowly simmering a chicken over an iron skillet, became a dish that’s been elevated to the highest status. Virginia-based slaves originally crafted the fried, time-sensitive dish using spices from their West African homes, which was usually reserved it for special occasions.
Indiana: Hoosier country swears that bacon fat is the answer to a fried chicken recipe
unlike another other. Pan-fried using the reserved bacon fat often found in back cupboard of many farm families homes according to 240sweet executive chef Alexa Lemley, Indiana’s fried chicken is a favorite dish to serve and be served.
The West Coast
Hawaii: With strong ties to Japanese, Peruvian and American cultures, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that even Hawaii’s fried chicken has multi-cultural roots. While the main event (fried chicken) inherits much of its coloring from the mainland, most Hawaiians swear by a sweet, often Japanese-inspired dipping sauce like ginger ponzu to accompany the dish.
Meaghan Clark is a San Francisco based writer whose work can be found in Refinery29, The Bold Italic, DailyWorth, 7×7, UpOut and xoJane, among many other publications.