In a big city that has most of its basic food groups covered, the search for great fried chicken in Philadelphia is an unexpectedly paltry quest.
The mysterious near-absence of it here is one of our greatest gustatory shortcomings. And to date, I've been able to count the worthy candidates to that mythical chicken crown on one hand: Corinne's in Camden (the last of the cast-iron pan-fryers); Deborah's Kitchen (the Girard Avenue soul-food take-out from Marvin Harrison's aunt); Ms. Tootsie's (South Street's sleek soul food lounge); Jones (pressure-cooked for updated comfort à la KFC by our very own Colonel Starr); and Delilah's at the Reading Terminal Market (on its better days.)
We can now, however, add another poultry hopeful to that short list with Mémé, the quirky Fitler Square bistro whose recent lunch experiment with "fried chicken Thursdays" has generated serious clucking amongst the chicken cognoscenti.
Unlike those other destinations, though, fried chicken is hardly a principal pursuit for the relatively upscale Mémé, where cutting-edge chef David Katz is more likely to be found slow-poaching his chickens with foie gras in sous-vide bags before roasting them for dinner. But each week on Thursdays, the only day that Mémé serves lunch, the menu's single entree is fried chicken and a fluffy biscuit (with a bottle of Miller High Life, or iced tea) for $11.
It's not just a fair deal with a high-life wink of hipster style. This is a notable bird, with a leg and thigh that come wrapped inside a deep-brown crust that crackles with spice and a delicate, pliant crunch.
"I was thinking about bagging lunch altogether," said Katz, conceding that the residential neighborhood around Mémé sees little lunch traffic. "But what could we lose? Fried chicken is one of my top five things to eat in the world."
Not surprisingly, like any serious cook, the opinionated Katz has his own thoughts on what makes great fried chicken. He fries only legs and thighs ("I don't mess around with breasts, it's the worst piece on the bird. Dark meat, baby!") He cooks his chicken in batches slightly in advance of service, rather than piping hot to order ("it has to sit a while before you eat it, or it's just too hot and the flavors haven't settled down.") He prefers to fry yellow-skinned birds rather than the white-skinned breed he roasts whole at dinner ("the yellows have more fat, which helps give skin a little more pliable integrity - it doesn't shatter.")
It is Katz's experiments with a lighter breading technique, though, that are most intriguing. Instead of the dairy-based crusts built on buttermilk and eggs that create a thicker shell, which he believes can be too greasy, Katz has perfected the "ice water dip." He chills the birds (sprinkled with salt and pepper) in the fridge for an hour, then gives the pieces a quick dunk in ice water before rolling them in seasoned corn flour - and then he repeats the process, again dipping in the water, and then rolling in the flour. If dipped carefully and swiftly, he says, the spices should cling and not wash off.
Keeping the chicken very cold is also crucial, because it slows the cooking time and builds a better crust in the hot frying oil maintained (once the chickens have been added) at a relatively low 300 degrees.
"Chicken fried hard and fast dies hard, too, and gets soggy quickly," Katz says. "Going low and slow is an investment in the crisp."
For Katz's chicken, the investment pays off in a crust that snaps with vibrant seasoning. The texture is substantial without being heavy, and gives a satisfying crunch without a completely obliterated skin, retaining the slightly toothy spring that Katz covets.
Of course, Mémé's continued experiments with various sizes of chicken and different sides have not all been entirely successful. The plump chickens from my visit have been replaced by smaller birds Katz believes have better flavor - but my colleagues from the Inquirer Food section found them a bit too scrawny.
The ever-changing sides are also a work in progress. I loved the indulgently creamy, pungently cheesy mac-and-' cheese at my lunch. But the side of fried hush puppies were redundant next to the chicken and biscuit. At least one option for a veggie side - smothered greens or beans - would be nice.
But the lunch crowds to date have remained small, Katz says, leaving the ultimate big question open: can great fried chicken alone stir up lunch business in a Philly neighborhood where naturally there is none? Mémé's fried chicken Thursdays are holding on - for now.
In a city that can use any worthy contribution to its fried chicken culture, I sure hope Mémé continues its deep-fried Thursday quest. Even on the low and slow, it's an investment in our collective crisp.
Makes 5 servings
5 whole chicken leg quarters
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1/2 cup seasoning salt of your choice (like Lawry's)
1/4 cup kosher salt
peanut oil (enough to fill the pan halfway)
1. Cut the chicken legs into thighs and drumsticks. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and black pepper. Put chicken in refrigerator for 1 hour.
2. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large dry container and mix well with a whisk.
3. After 1 hour, take the chicken out of fridge and dip each piece into ice water quickly and put into the flour. Repeat with all pieces, dipping into water, then flour, but take care not to keep the chicken in the water long or the salt and pepper will wash away.
4. Bring peanut oil to 350 degrees in a large pot filled half way with the oil. Carefully drop the chicken into the oil and the oil should drop to 300. If the oil doesn't settle to 300 degrees, adjust the heat accordingly. When the chicken floats to the surface of the oil, let it cook for 2 minutes exactly and then carefully remove from the oil with tongs onto a kitchen towel.
5. Sprinkle the chicken with kosher salt immediately and let rest for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, open a Miller High Life and eat the chicken.
Per serving: 436 calories, 34 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 21 grams fat, 139 milligrams cholesterol, 1,865 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.