Imagine you've been on the road for hours, somewhere in the packed masonry of states. Maybe you're the one driving, maybe you've been the one in the passenger seat picking the music, but in any case, you're tired. Tired of the scenery, tired of conversation, tired of your thoughts, tired of the snacks you bought at the gas station several hundred miles ago. You need food, and you need it to be hot, fast, crispy, and, most of all, comforting.
Fried chicken is having a nuanced cultural moment right now. It's not just that hip restaurateurs like David Chang, with his new chain fuku, have decided to move into the domain of Chick-Fil-A and make fast and spicy fried chicken sandwiches better than anyone else. It's also the way people like Chang are talking about the idea. There is something artisanal about the conversation, maybe, but still nothing precious. Whereas burgers were accepted into the white-tablecloth world not that long ago, fried chicken isn't getting a change of scenery, necessarily. This food is a simple pleasure, but there’s a way it must be done right. There's a wholesome care that goes behind the dish; it's not just basic, it's foundational.
And it's also tempting. To paraphrase another food empire's slogan, you deserve a break, from whatever diet you're on, whatever you're doing that's regular and not as fattening. "I want people who don't eat spicy food to say, 'That's fucking spicy but I'll eat it and pay the price later,'" Chang told reporters when fuku launched. The price, of course, being mild indigestion and not the kind of disease wrought by typical fast food. The quality of the ingredients in the new fried chicken is just high enough to make one feel better about such a high-calorie choice.
There is something self-conscious, if not totally urbane, about this wave of finger-licking nostalgia. Shake Shack's latest creation, the immensely satisfying ChickenShack, was available only in Brooklyn for a limited time, and was usually sold out before lunch ended (there's no word yet if Shake Shack is looking to add the ChickenShack to the permanent menu or bring the sandwich back every once and a while). Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken, the chicken-only offshoot of New York's fashionably reliable Blue Ribbon restaurant, is expanding to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, following the trend of franchising the East Village. Restaurants are putting fried chicken on their menus to participate in the haute-low conversation, but it's the duplicative nature of the sandwich that seems to be as important as the taste. Repeat pleasures, from brands people trust — that's what these sandwiches are. It's a beautiful day in the United States of America.
But what if you want to make one of these on your own? "A fried chicken sandwich is all about texture," Brennan Foxman of WokWorks in Philadelphia says. "If you focus on texture and flavor, and they fuse together, you will end up with an absurdly tasty fried chicken sandwich." The common ingredients seem to be a fluffy, doughy bread (Chang is using a Martin’s potato roll; Foxman uses a steamed taco bun); spicy sauce or cayenne in the batter or preferably both; and, above all else (personally speaking), pickles.
There's no shortage of ways to make fried chicken yourself,
Homemade Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwiches
Makes 4 sandwiches
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more for flavor
- hot peppers of your choosing (red chili flakes, Scotch bonnet peppers like Chang, etc.)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 8-oz skinless, boneless chicken breasts, halved crosswise
- peanut or vegetable oil (for frying)
- 4 potato-bread rolls
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- Sandwich pickles
- Sriracha or otherwise spicy mayo
- Heat the oil over medium heat, until a thermometer registers 350ºF, in a large and heavy skillet to a depth of 1/2-inch.
- Mix the flour, all that pepper, and 1/2 tsp of salt in a shallow bowl. The shallowness is key, as you’ll want room to move the chicken around.
- Pour the buttermilk into another shallow bowl.
- Halve your chicken breasts, and put one piece of chicken at a time in flour mixture, shaking off the excess. Dip in the buttermilk, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Then dip again into the flour mixture, shaking off excess.
- Fry each piece of chicken until golden brown and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Then transfer to a wire rack set inside a baking sheet, and season to taste with salt.
- Cut the rolls and spread each side with butter. Heat another large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, cook the rolls buttered-side down until browned and crisp, not more than a minute. Spread with spicy mayo, layer with pickles, and the chicken, and serve.