There was a day when chicken shacks dotted the highways and any home cooking restaurant would fry up a batch for the asking. Today, wing joints have sprouted up like Walgreens, and finding plain ol' fried chicken isn't as easy as you might think.
You could say it's as scarce as hen's teeth.
And finding good fried chicken presents another challenge, but we did it, and discovered something that surprised us: Fried chicken is different everywhere. Really different. Not once on our six-day tour did we find a piece of chicken that tasted like a piece from another restaurant.
Here we go. Loosen your belt and belly up for a heapin' helping of a Southern staple.
Well's Kitchen in Brighton, Tenn., is as mom-and-pop as you can get. This is a delight of a diner, located at 136 N. Main St. (of course), right across from the police station. Here's how homespun it is: The woman who makes the pies walks them over every morning. (Yes, she crosses the road.) She lives behind the police department, and the eggs come from the chickens she keeps in her yard.
The tea is sweet, the hot fried cornbread is divine, and the chicken tastes like your mama fried it -- mild, but well-seasoned and well- served, right from the fryer, hot, crisp and moist.
"It tastes like your mama cooked it because we're all mamas," our server explained. As if on cue, another server walked by with a baby hitched on her hip, and delivered meals without missing a step.
Call (901) 476-5750.
Shhh ... it's a secret
At some places, the blend of spices that flavor the chicken is guarded as closely as the recipe for Coca-Cola. At Jack Pirtle's, keeping the secret is part of company legend.
Jack Pirtle owned other restaurants in Memphis before he hooked up with Colonel Sanders and opened a dedicated fried chicken shack. Many won't remember, but the first Pirtle's (at 1217 S. Bellevue,  946-5824, which is the one we visited), was Jack Pirtle's Kentucky Fried Chicken.
When the Colonel went corporate, Pirtle went independent. He had a mixing room in one of his stores, and only he knew the secret blend for the chicken. He'd mix it and deliver it in bags. No one else touched the spices, and even though his recipe is commercially made now, it's still his and still secret.
Pirtle was an innovative man who built his own pressure fryers for his business, and the chicken is still pressure fried today. The result is a very moist piece of chicken with a crust that isn't as crisp as some but makes up for it in flavor.
If you want to know what made Kentucky Fried Chicken so famous, go eat at Pirtle's. This is what it tasted like back when everyone loved it. It's delicious, and we ate in the car even though it was burning our fingers (all locations except the ones on Mt. Moriah and Lamar are to-go only).
Suhair Lauck at the Little Tea Shop (69 Monroe,  525-6000) likes to keep secrets, too -- and one of those is that she serves fried chicken on Tuesdays. (Another interesting finding is that several restaurants have designated days for frying chicken.)
Her chicken is excellent. It's got a deep mahogany coating and a complex, balanced flavor. The spices -- about 15, she says, but won't reveal even one -- provide not only flavor but also the deep color. So don't think it's overcooked, because Lauck will set you straight. Of course, one bite and you won't need any explanation, as it's moist and tender.
Be warned that she serves only white meat, unless you get lucky. She has two regular customers who request dark meat, and we happened to be there on a day when one of them didn't show up.
Instead of hitting a city or suburban location of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, we drove to the original spot at 505 U.S. 70 W. in Mason, Tenn. ( 294-2028). The wooden building that veteran Gus's lovers will remember burned a while back. The new place is covered with aluminum siding, but it's got the same feel as the old place with its framed newspaper-and- magazine-article publicity on the walls.
The chicken also is just like we remembered it: spicy, bold, delicious.
And it's top secret.
Napoleon "Na" Vanderbilt, who opened a restaurant -- Maggie's Short Orders -- in 1953 in Downtown Mason, came up with the original Gus's recipe. The place later moved to its current location -- a structure built by Vanderbilt, who was a carpenter by trade. Vanderbilt's son, Vernon "Gus" Bonner, inherited the recipe and the property, and the business reopened in 1984 under the name "Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken."
Fried chicken with a fork
On Wednesdays at River Oaks Restaurant, 5871 Poplar, (901) 683-9305, chef/owner Jose Gutierrez fries up a mess of poulet rouge and serves it with haricots verts and mashed potatoes and bordelaise sauce.
Poulet rouge is a French red (rouge) chicken (poulet) that chef describes as "a chicken with very long legs."
It's true. The breast is smaller, the leg longer, and the meat a bit denser than your average chicken. Gutierrez coats it in a mix of garbanzo flour, rice flour and a gluten-free mix, all seasoned with salt and cayenne. It's delicious, moist and flavorful, and it's not your everyday chicken. But then, he doesn't serve it every day.
Neither does Felicia Willett, who serves her divine fried chicken for Friday lunch (which is the only day Felicia Suzanne's, 80 Monroe,  523-0877, is open for lunch). Her chicken is soaked in buttermilk and hot sauce, and like Gutierrez, she fries it to order. It's superb chicken, with a thick, crisp crust that has a little kick but isn't hot. The thigh and the wing -- that's what she serves -- come with waffles and a creamy, savory tasso gravy. If you want syrup, too, just ask.
Besides being a great place for Friday lunch in general, Willett sweetens the deal by serving martinis for 25 cents. They're tiny, but hey, they cost a quarter, and it's lunch.
Interesting note No. 3: At River Oaks and Felicia Suzanne's, the chicken takes 22 minutes to cook, and the server tells you so when you place your order.
Pairing tip for eating fried chicken when you have access to a bar: Order sparkling wine.
Filling up the tank
So maybe the wing joints took over the chicken shacks. But fried chicken found its way into convenience stores. Chains such as Dodge's and Chester's can be found in gas stations all around, but some independent operators fry their own, too.
Gary's Market (4860 Getwell,  375-0444) is one of those places, and the chicken is down-home good. It's mild, but it does have flavor, and best of all, it turns over fast. When chicken sits on a steam table or under a heat lamp, it has to move fast or it develops a puffy, tough coating, and the meat right under the skin gets stringy. Not at Gary's, where there's a line by 10:15 a.m. for chicken. It's good stuff, though you might have a hard time passing up the massive slices of grilled bologna, too.
Pop's Express has two locations: 8163 Mississippi 178 in Byhalia, (662) 838-4330, and the one we visited -- 10047 U.S. 178 in Olive Branch, (662) 890-8905. Pop's chicken is spicy yet not fiery. It's juicy, crunchy and served up in a paper bag, though there are a few tables for dining inside the convenience store. There's not much ambience, of course, but cook Brad Moody is a genial, entertaining guy who'll tell you about Pop -- Hardip "Pop" Singh, who came up with the seasoning. Moody doesn't know what's in it. It's a secret.
The five Gurkin's Drive-In locations, including the 390 East Poplar location in Collierville, (901) 853-8887, serve a tasty, old-fashioned fried chicken. It's the perfect chicken to pick up on a road trip.
The chicken is cooked fresh every day, seven days a week, said Tommy Lindsey at the Collierville Gurkin's. He doesn't know who came up with the recipe, but Gurkin's has been in business since 1978, he said.
Simple but not plain
When a restaurant's slogan crows, "Love, peace and chicken grease," it better live up to it. Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe, 154 Beale, (901) 527-9060, meets the challenge admirably with its spicy, crunchy and tender bird.
Fried chicken comes with a hug, a "baby" and maybe a kiss on your forehead at Alcenia's, 317 N. Main, (901) 523-0200. The hugger and the cook is B.J. Chester-Tamayo, and her home-style golden fried chicken will brighten your day just like the extra attention.
A little different
We were ravenous when we showed up at Uncle Lou's Southern Kitchen (3633 Millbranch,  332-2367) for a 3 p.m. lunch.
Have mercy. There wasn't a drop of the "sweet spicy love" sauce left on our plates after we tackled fried chicken that tastes like hot wings.
It's brilliant. Instead of jumping on the wing wagon, Louis "Uncle Lou" H. Martin III lifted the idea of coating the fried chicken in a spicy sauce. It's fantastic.
Martin, who owns the business, added his take to a seasoning used by his great-grandmother, Rosie Glaspie. The sauce is a cross between barbecue sauce and buffalo wing sauce. The vinegar in the sauce gives it a little kick, and honey adds the sweetness.
Finally, if you love fried chicken cold, head over to 3 Angels Diner, 2617 Broad, (901) 452-1111. You can get it hot, but as far as we know, it's the only place in town where you can get an order of yesterday's fried chicken right from the fridge.
Wherever you eat it, take a moment to be grateful for the unknown cook, probably unrecognized as a genius at the time, who first coated a piece of chicken in flour and dropped it in a vat of rendered fat.
We salute you.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
-- Michael Donahue: (901) 529-2797