I’ll admit the sign got my attention.
On the north side of Causeway Boulevard in Tampa, on a gas station’s powder-blue concrete wall the banner read, “BEST CHICKEN IN TOWN!”
I’m such a sucker for culinary hubris.
And fried chicken.
I made a quick but highly legal U-turn and headed back to the Seema Snacks Sunoco.
Inside was a garden-variety convenience store stocked with a Great Wall of Refrigerated Beverages, a couple of empty booths near the boiled peanuts counter and a healthy flock of colorful customers. Like the portly gentleman in past-their-mileage overalls and a waist-length salt-and-pepper ponytail. Behind him was a sweaty faced guy in a V-neck cotton T-shirt disputing the deli counter’s hours of operation in a tone normally used for shouting questions at the president.
Closer inspection revealed the banner outside more accurately should have read, “Best Chicken Legs In Town.” Other than a few plump tenders in the heated case, a bouquet of legs in an aluminum bin were the stars of this fried poultry show. One leg went for $1.59, and a trio sold for $3.99. I opted for the chicken hat-trick. I’m a chicken leg man, so I overlooked the verbiage.
What I got were three crispy, golden-brown gams that were so moist, the juice ran down my chin after the skin peeled away to offer a perfect crunch. The first leg didn’t stand a chance. The other two offered token resistance. By the end, all that was left were a few bare bones, some crumpled napkins and a greasy smile.
Darn if that wasn’t the best chicken in town.
Wait. Let me qualify that.
It indeed was the best fried chicken ... at that moment ... in that place. Because that’s what food math dictates: Flavor + Place x Time = Memory. On any other day, another piece of fried chicken might have stolen the title.
Fried chicken is a state of mind, according to Lee Brian Schrager, co-author with Adeena Sussman of the new book “Fried & True: More than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides” (Random House, $22.50). The book is a poultry travelogue, winding its way through America’s chicken joints and fine dining establishments.
Every chef and cook they met had a story about their favorite fried chicken and a tale to tell about the source of their recipe. That includes the chicken brined in sweet tea at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee as well as the buttermilk fried chicken chef Thomas Keller serves at his Ad Hoc restaurant in California’s Napa Valley.
“Fried chicken is love,” Schrager said.
I couldn’t agree more.
I swear I heard angels sing the first time I bit into a fried thigh served in a white paper bag at Country Chicken & Fish in Lakeland. As traffic whipped past a few feet away along Kathleen Road, I joined other patient chicken disciples in waiting for freshly fried orders to appear through a tiny service window low enough that I had to bend down to see through. The workers there, who wear “Jesus Loves You” T-shirts, could have demanded that we crawl over broken glass to get their chicken and I swear we would have done it gladly. Their fried cluck is that good.
Then there’s the version served at Love’s Artifacts Bar & Grill on MacDill Avenue south of Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. The crispy skin covers the exterior like a thin veil hiding forbidden spiced goodness. Peel it away, watch the steam rise, smell the irresistible aroma and say a little prayer of thanksgiving that food so good exists on this planet.
It’s at this point that I ask for a moment of silence in memory of Tampa Luv Chicken & Waffles, which until last year served the best of both those things. The place is no longer in business (cue the sad trombone), but it once served perfection. I know this firsthand. I ate half a fried chicken coop there once and washed it down with a sublime pairing of grape soda.
Thinking about not having that crispy delicacy at my disposal bruises my soul. That statement comes from a man who played Little League baseball on a team sponsored by a franchise called Chicken Unlimited.
Darn if that wasn’t the best fried chicken in town.