(USA Today)--Ask a Southerner for their favorite fried chicken place, and you'll get one of two reactions: Either they'll immediately fire back one name and address (always memorized) or they'll give you a list three pages long with notes.
"There are no favorite fried chicken recipes; they all have their own special characteristics," says Adeena Sussman, recipe developer and subscriber to the latter school of thought. Sussman ate her way through America's best fried chicken joints while researching new cookbook Fried & True (co-authored with Lee Brian Schrager, founder/director of South Beach Wine & Food Festival). If fried chicken is about to enter the media spotlight as burgers and BBQ did before, the whole South will have just one question: What took so long?
Fried chicken is one of America's oldest traditional recipes, dating back to two distinct cultures: Slaves would cook it for themselves during the pre-Civil War era, and after they were freed, some of them opened small restaurants using their home recipes. Meanwhile, Scotch immigrants had their own delicious frying traditions – what's good for the Scotch egg worked just as well for the chicken. Today you see some cultural crossover, like landmark Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans' Fifth Ward.
"Willie Mae's almost didn't survive Hurricane Katrina," says Sussman. "The rebuilding of this institution was symbolic of the rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina."
As much of a New Orleans icon is Dooky Chase Restaurant. Owner Leah Chase-Kamata has hosted everyone from Martin Luther King to George Bush in her restaurant, according to the Fried & True authors.
It's pretty common for fans of a specific restaurant to have fond – even protective – personal opinions about the founding families. Fans of Martha Lou's in Charleston assert, "You pay for the chicken, not the hype or the Website (because Martha Lou don't have time for such foolishness.)" In Savannah, crowds line up starting at 9AM to get their fix at family-owned and operated Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House. And from across the country, fans of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken note with concern its growth from a roadside shack outside Memphis to a local mini-chain (six locations, the latest in Austin). The restaurant's been under the same family ownership for three generations, and its growth has taken place over seven decades, but still.
"Surprised and maybe a little disheartened that they've expanded to Austin — chains are rarely as good as their flagships," writes in Tucson-based Gus's fan Gregory McNamee.
Though Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina is famous for its barbecue, there are a number of outstanding fried chicken places as well. The popular vote goes to Beasley's Chicken and Honey – owned by successful local chef-preneur Ashley Richardson.
"Ashley Richardson pressure fries – an unusual combination of steaming and frying, which keeps the chicken extremely moist," explains Adeena Sussman.
In Atlanta, insiders suggest you skip the trendy places in favor of landmarks like South City Kitchen (If you're in midtown/downtown Atlanta for business), or the Busy Bee (a West End institution that predates the area's hipster influx).
In Kentucky, which has the most famous fried chicken heritage, every town has its own house of cholesterol delight. Louisville is home to Mike Linnig's where the bird's fried whole and served up in all its glory. Bardstown has Talbott Tavern, where its fried in an old-school cast-iron skillet. And in little Shelbyville, you'll find Claudia Sanders Dinner House – the all-you-can-eat legacy of Colonel Sanders' wife.
But no fried chicken ode is complete without a section on hot chicken – that regional dish beloved to "chile heads" from far and wide. In all the Nashville restaurants serving hot chicken, there's a choice of different heat levels from mild to knock-your-head-off hot.
The dish has its roots in Nashville's African-American community, specifically Prince's. According to Prince's lore, the great-uncle of the current owner was a womanizer whose wife caught him playing around and squeezed red pepper juice all over his next meal to punish him. Instead, he found it delicious.
"Prince's is the birthplace of an iconic American foodstuff," says Adeena Sussman. She adds that current owner Andre Prince Jeffries doesn't carry around the recipe...she carries the actual hot spices in a special bag on her person at all times.