The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Fried Chicken
"What's your favorite fried chicken in Houston?" I asked my mother a few days ago over the phone, curious to see if I'd overlooked any old favorites on the top 10 list I was compiling. A sixth generation Texan, my mother has lived here for more than three decades and cooks for a living. Needless to say, she's very often my point person for Texan and Southern staples such as fried chicken.
Photo by Gary R. Wise A mouthwatering Middle Eastern take on fried chicken at our No. 3 pick.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. I could imagine her face in my mind, looking at me as if I'd asked for directions to Jupiter. And then, finally: "You know I only make fried chicken at home. I don't eat that stuff out."
Fair point. And true. Her fried chicken is the stuff of legend, cooked in my great-grandmother's cast-iron skillet, the batter crunchy for only the first bite and then melting on your tongue like a pat of butter. If you're lucky, she'll make white gravy out of the drippings that are left in the skillet, although she's been too health-conscious the last 10 years or so to entertain such fatty indulgences.
"I'm too crazy about hormones and antibiotics in the meat anyway," she demurred, her 70's-era hippie side battling it out -- as ever -- with her deeply Texan roots. "You can't trust some of that stuff."
In the end, though, she conceded one single restaurant: "I like Haven. Their fried chicken is good. And you can trust Randy Evans."
"Well, they're already on the list," I grumbled. She knew I was smiling over the phone when I told her, jokingly, "You're no help."
But it was heartening to hear that my mother -- protector, guardian, supplier and connoisseur of fried chicken -- was as big a fan of Haven's fried chicken as I am. And along with chef Evans' spin on the Southern staple, here are the nine other joints that offer the best fried chicken in Houston.
10. Zelko Bistro
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Zelko Bistro is the only place in town where I'll order a fried chicken breast, and that's because the chicken breast at Zelko is plump and juicy beyond compare. Pair that impossibly moist flesh with a crispy, barely sweet crust made with -- what else? -- Captain Crunch cereal, and you have a winning textural combination. The darkly sweet and tangy shallot jam on top keeps what could be a kitschy dish elegant, as do the tender pea shoots. I love the chicken here so much, in fact, that it's the rare restaurant where I don't fill up on the buttery mashed potatoes first.
When the very first Max's Wine Dive first opened in Houston in 2007, it led a wave of upscale-downmarket dining -- or the more commonly seen moniker: "upscale comfort food" -- with its famous offer of fried chicken paired with champagne. (Which is a great idea, if you ask me; a nice, dry bottle of bubbly is almost ideal with a greasy bucket of chicken.) The chicken gets its signature kick from a jalapeño-buttermilk marinade and is still fried to order at Max's Wine Dives across the state.
How can anyone not love a chicken joint whose motto is "Chicken & Joy"? Toreore -- located inside the Super H-Mart food court -- offers both in spades. The famously fiery fried chicken isn't for the faint of tongue, however. The sweet-and-spicy chicken delivers a delicately crispy exterior that gives way to a dark rumble of spiciness, which doesn't fully hit you until around a minute after you've taken a bite. In keeping with the general wackiness found around every corner at Super H-Mart, the take-out containers of Toreore chicken appear to be giant pizza boxes.