The admiration of fried chicken is universal. But in Houston, the options for “Gospel Bird” are nowhere else. I claim that it cannot be compared with the caliber of crispy, craggy, juicy chicken on display in Bau city. And I’m not alone.
“Houston is a fascinating place [fried chicken]”I can’t think of many other places that celebrate different forms of fried chicken like Houston,” says Adrian E. Miller, culinary historian and soul food scholar.
Miller, who visited Clutch City to use different forms of fried foul, says there are many theories about how Houston’s unparalleled appreciation for fried chicken and the various cultural presentations of this iconic southern dish came about. For one, Houston – the country’s fourth-largest city – is labeled as the most diverse, home to the country’s largest Nigerian population, vibrant historically black enclaves, the rapid growth of local Asiatowns, and vast Latino and immigrant communities. It comes with a significant culinary contribution, Miller says.
A local food writer first suggested that Chef Kaiser Lashkari start frying chicken in his restaurant, the Himalayas, and the result, full of spices, is moistening the foreheads of Houstonians in five years and loosening the collar. Although he grew up in Parsi, Lashkari’s reef in classic fried chicken is entirely his own. First he removes the skin, and then he fries the chicken skin in a combination of Indian spices for three days before frying it in the American Southern way: in a small Indian fryer in vegetable oil. The steps are complex – the military draws out the frying oil after each of the four chickens has a deep golden and crispy texture – and the results are remarkable: the tasty, juicy and lightly crusted fried chicken is served next to the tangy “magical mustard” sauce. Bill as one of Houston’s favorites. “You won’t miss the skin because of the way we fry it,” says Lashkari.
The Palestinian restaurant Al Assel also uses homemade flavors, crispy chicken flavors with spices imported from Jerusalem. Although owner Ali Khatib and his kitchen staff are secretive about the details, previous reports have added spices such as Sumac, Oregano and Jatar to give the chicken its tangy flavor. (Cucumber-tomato salad and ground, yellow rice side also does not hurt.)
Across the city of Duck and Bop, chef and owner Jason Chole creates a unique version of the “paper-thin” Korean fried chicken, combining his love for wings, his Korean heritage, and his upbringing in the working-class suburb of southwest Houston. External “for maximum crispness,” he says.
The chicken is roasted to order, cut indoors, then wrapped in a secret batter (not based on cornmeal, says Cho), double-fried, and evenly brushed by hand with seasonings and sauces made in South Korea, including sweet and -sweet soy garlic, Truffle Parmesan, Sriracha Honey Lime, Buffalo, and Homemade Lemon Pepper that are unlike any other in the city. The experience of piping hot feet or biting softly can be compared to crunching on potato chips. “I’m six, seven steps away, but I still hear you bite the chicken,” Cho says.
That crispy-fried texture is another reason Houston – and Texas in general – is such a hub for excellent fried chicken. This is the state that invented the corn dog and the “fried coke”, after all (the last creator we lovingly dubbed Fried Jesus) and maintains its reputation for intensely creative fried fair foods.
“I don’t know if it’s built on DNA, but we just like Crunch,” said J. P. Francis, a retired engineer and Houston food blogger who started the Fried Chicken Blog in 2013. “And there’s something about humans. And fried flour. Think about it: donuts, potato chips, you name it. We like fried and beaten things.”
That cooking tradition, like Houston, has its roots in Southern American culture. Although the first documented recipe for fried chicken can be found in an 18th-century British cookbook, Americans later adopted their version of this deep fried delight. White Southerners initially viewed chicken as a delicacy to be used at fun feasts or as a major fuel for farmers looking for calorie-dense food, says Marshall Scarborough, vice president of menu and culinary innovation for fried chicken chain restaurant bojangals. African Americans, who from their day had memorized recipes as enslaved cooks, later turned the dish into their own, paving the way for soul food renditions that evolved over generations and cemented special gatherings, Miller says.
Along the way, Houston served as a constant destination for European and East Asian immigrants, Africans and formerly enslaved black Americans, and other communities in the American South fleeing ethnic persecution, poverty and natural disasters, such as the 1927 Mississippi River floods. The establishment of Freedmen’s Town in the city’s fourth ward attracted former slaves who were trying to live a life free from the constant violence and discrimination they experienced while planting trees and in other very isolated southern cities. When these communities moved to Houston, they adapted their own cultural practices and culinary traditions, including the materials they brought with them and the local materials they met on their arrival. In the 19th and late 20th centuries, many of those adjustments evolved into new styles and treatments that are now iconic dishes – dishes like fried chicken.
That legacy can be seen in stallwarts like French Today, a black-owned franchise that opened in 1969 when Percy “Francisco” Cruzot introduced New Orleans-style Creole food in a quick-service format in Houston. Now opening 11 locations and a new outpost this spring, the Southern-style fast-food chain has become the undisputed centerpiece of an undisputed city, known for its long lines stretched down the streets and attracting chickens that have earned the seal of approval from lifelong customers. As celebrities, including Houston’s own Beyonc.
“After church on Sunday, people would line up and sit for 45 minutes, and it would wrap around the block,” says French architect Paul Heisler. “It’s amazing how someone enjoys sitting in line for 45 minutes, but it’s a testament to how good the food is and how traditional it is.”
King Cruzot, 73, who took over the company in 1989 after his father’s retirement, says “the recipe for cute chicken dough” is so simple that it would be unbelievable. It’s no different than what someone does at their home on Sunday, “says Cruzot.” We leave it in the fryer and the magic happens. “
The southern soul of the city also lives in the Barbecue Inn, a cozy food shelter that has been serving fried chicken for four generations since it opened in 1946. The offerings here are straightforward though, including crispy fried chicken platters with fries and salads. – Tomato Salad, the restaurant prides itself on the consistency and quality of food of its loyal customers. “It’s like your mother made it,” says David Screhot, who co-owns the place with his father Wayne.
In addition to the abundance of various indigenous establishments and Southern-style institutions, Houston incorporates more national and international chicken chains than almost any city in the United States. These include tried and true American favorites such as Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s Chicken, and Goose’s world-famous Fried Chicken, but also Jollybees from Bonchon in the Philippines and South Korea. And it’s just expected to get better. Following a modest online campaign Urging the Bozangals to come to Houston, the franchise will soon make the city its homeAnd NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal’s franchise Big Chicken is coming up with more options, which will open up 50 locations across Texas.
In Houston, fried chicken is more than a dish – it’s a highly accessible art form, supported by locals and inspired by the unique blend of Houston tick-making culture and history. From your-mom-made purists to live sauces and the crunchy crunch of new establishments that pop up daily, fried chicken will always be Houston’s object of passion. “It’s nostalgic. It’s comfortable food. It’s something you can eat as a family, and when you get it differently,” says Dak & Bop’s Cho, “it’s great.”
“Fried chicken – done correctly – brings people together. It’s food sharing. It’s comforting,” says Scarborough. “We eat it while celebrating, we eat it while mourning … For centuries, it has been in the kitchens of many mothers and grandmothers. The recipes have been put down, tweaked, perfected.”
Arnia Williams Is a Houston-based photographer.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein