You can find good fried chicken anywhere in America. The essential ingredients — chicken, oil, some sort of breading — are ubiquitous. Hungry customers are everywhere, too, especially given that chicken and deep-fried anything are among the planet’s most reliable crowd-pleasers. In a nation content to devour deep-fried butter at state fairs and chicken fries at fast-food franchises, it’s not a high bar to reach.
But if decent fried chicken is commonplace, extraordinary fried chicken is all the more difficult to achieve. Chefs must take ordinary elements and spin them into crisp burnished gold. Destination fried chicken is a sort of alchemy worth writing home about. Some accomplish it through practice, applying generations of expertise to precisely hone a single recipe, while others cover their bases by turning out superior wings, thighs, nuggets, tenders, drumsticks, or skewers. For some, the secret is a specific ingredient or technique: dredging in tapioca or rice flour, marinating in soy or adobo or Coca-Cola, flavoring with cayenne or cumin or coriander, and singeing tastebuds with chile paste or hot sauce.
Then there are those who are all about setting, whether it’s a food stall at the back of a suburban supermarket or a neon-lit garage in a buzzy nightlife district or a white-brick general store on a country road. Still, others focus on complements, pairing chicken with fried okra, tamales, chicken livers, roti, pancit, sazon, or kimchi slaw. There are as many different ways to approach fried chicken as there are KFC locations in America (just shy of 4,000).
In other words, fried chicken is the perfect canvas on which to apply the lenses of culture, history, and personal experience. Many interpretations are rooted in the legacy of slavery and enmeshed with the food cultures of the South, while increasingly immigrants and their descendants are finding audiences for global variations on fried chicken both traditional and avant-garde. The ubiquity of the dish also ensures that nearly every chef comes to fried chicken with some personal attachment, whether they grew up eating a beloved home recipe or they see a hole in the market for an unsung rendition. There’s really a chicken for every pot.
In our search to find the nation’s standout birds, we looked to Eater editors and friends nationwide. The quorum of finalists below don’t come from every state and territory, but they represent tentpoles for the nation, defining the highest possible achievement for anybody who puts chicken to oil.
Note: This list is loosely organized by region.
The Chicken Hut, Durham, North Carolina
For more than 60 years, generations of the Tapp family have been serving their Durham neighbors at the Chicken Hut, where customers arrive for homestyle cooking before the doors even open. The celebrated chicken is fried to order, arriving at the table piping hot and perfectly seasoned, with a shatteringly crisp crust, served with a roll for mopping up the liquid gold that sheds off every bite. Rotating daily specials, like smothered pork chops, chicken and dumplings, and chitterlings, are big draws, too — but there’s a reason it’s called the Chicken Hut. — Matthew Lardie
Chik’n & Mi, Louisville, Kentucky
The broad menu of comfort foods from across Asia at Chik’n & Mi includes everything from wood ear mushroom egg rolls to chicken noodle soup ramen, but the star of the show is the fried chicken, battered in rice and tapioca flour. Husband-and-wife owners Jason McCollum and Aenith Sananikone-McCollum offer fried thighs in sandwiches made with kimchi slaw, black garlic aioli, and pickled cucumbers on brioche buns; steamed buns stuffed with chicken, marinated cucumber, hoisin, hot mustard, and pickled red onion; chicken with waffles at brunch; and mixed pieces tossed with sauces like jeow bong or Sichuan peppercorn ranch. — Lennie Omalza
The Jerk Shack, San Antonio
This is a fried chicken success story. Army vet and chef-owner Lattoia Massey, known by her professional name, Nicola Blaque, opened a small walk-up shop with her husband, Cornelius Massey, just two years after graduating from culinary school. Then, in 2022, she upgraded to a larger space with a full-blown dining room on a busy main road. In its new home, the restaurant serves fried legs and thighs, but visit on Wednesdays to try the jerk-spiced wings, an instant classic that landed the Jerk Shack on Eater’s 2019 best new restaurants list. Massey is known for bringing the Caribbean to San Antonio, and these wings are a case in point; they’re crispy and succulent, and served with sauces that crackle with tropical flavors like mango and habanero. — Hillary Dixler Canavan
Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Birmingham, Alabama
No Sunday in Birmingham is complete without Eugene’s, where eaters gather for platters of fried chicken served at four levels of heat: mild, hot, hot damn, and stupid hot. The kitchen fries a slightly sweet, very spicy, cayenne-forward blend of spices to achieve that quintessential Nashville hot chicken style, then drizzles the oil over your choice of tenders, wings, or pieces. An order of stupid hot is almost caked with oil, yet somehow dodges the heavy grease that plagues hot chicken. For the optimal heat-to-flavor ratio and an unreasonably juicy bite, the only order is a dark meat quarter-bird seasoned to hot damn with collards and fried pickled okra. — Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme
Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles, Columbia, South Carolina
Is it breakfast? Is it lunch? Or maybe the ultimate late-night snack? Chicken and waffles won’t be put in a box, unless it’s a to-go box from Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles. On a menu full of soul food classics, the signature dish is served with four fried wings or two fried breasts, alongside one warm, fluffy Belgian waffle. You can get your waffle in flavors like blueberry, walnut, pecan, sweet potato, chocolate, or red velvet, and for an extra $1.25, upgrade to the Mama B’s version, which comes with a wing, bone-in breast, leg, and thigh (it’s worth the extra mess). — Anne Wolfe Postic
Bertha’s Kitchen, Charleston, South Carolina
The sounds and smells of bubbling pots of buttery lima beans and porky collards welcome the crowds of Charlestonians and vacationers who stop by Wednesdays through Saturdays for a chance to try the legendary fried chicken at Bertha’s Kitchen. Since 1981 (or 1980 by some accounts), this North Charleston institution has served the Lowcountry fare of the late Albertha Grant; today her daughters, Julia Grant, Linda Pinckney, and Sharon Coakley, carry on the tradition. Of course, no one behind the counter will tell you the secret to the crackling, golden birds, but each piece is inevitably crispy and crunchy, with attention lavished on the skin’s seasoning and the plump pieces of meat underneath. — Erin Perkins
The Old Country Store, Lorman, Mississippi
As guests enter this hangar-like building (established as a general store in 1875) and admire the shelves of antiques, Arthur Davis, aka Mr. D, serenades them with his rendition of “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops. It’s a fitting theme for the spread behind him: two buffet lines laden with lima beans, yams, greens, and cornbread dressing — and what brings most travelers to the Old Country Store: the famous fried chicken. It takes only one bite to understand why eaters happily drive an hour-plus outside of Jackson to sample the chicken, a simply divine combination of crispy seasoned skin and tender, juicy meat. Davis boasts about his grandmother’s recipe and that he never uses frozen poultry, but the real secret seems to be Mr. D himself, who offers an all-you-can-eat feast for a song. — Torsheta Jackson
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Nashville, Tennessee
Before Music City became known as the hot chicken capital of the world, Prince’s was quietly serving its exceptionally spicy chicken to generations of Nashvillians with a penchant for punishment. Founder Thornton Prince was behind the legendary Depression-era dish that’s almost stunning in its simplicity: a piece of fried chicken amply slathered in a paste of cayenne, sitting atop a slice of white bread with a pickle (both intended to offset the heat). Whole wings, breast, legs, and tenders are all excellent vehicles for spice that ranges from plain to xxx hot, an order so spicy it requires clearing all plans after consumption. And though its meteoric rise to fame has made hot chicken a household phrase and spawned countless imitators, the restaurant remains in the Prince family, continuing to make its way as one of Nashville’s most famous Black-owned businesses. — Ellen Fort
Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans
The fried chicken at this Treme institution (open since 1957) has been dubbed the best fried chicken in America by multiple publications, which is why the line to get inside Willie Mae’s Scotch House usually wraps around the white corner building. A Coca-Cola brine and wet batter yield crispiness beyond reproach; peppery, juicy pieces of chicken end up coated in a dark brown, crunchy crust. Among the many standout sides are the butter beans and fried okra, best ordered along with half a bird. — Clair Lorell
Belgrade Gardens, Barberton, Ohio
The Barberton chicken style has been featured on the Food Network and in the pages of Saveur, but for the beau ideal, head to Belgrade Gardens, the first of many “chicken dinner restaurants” to arrive in Barberton in 1933. That’s where Serbian immigrants Smilka and Mike Topalsky introduced a culinary tradition that earned the town the title “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” Young Amish-raised poultry are dry-brined overnight in salt, before getting dipped in egg wash, lightly breaded, and fried to a deep amber in lard. Wings, breasts, legs, and thighs all get the treatment, as do the backs, here called chicken ribs. Nonnegotiable sides include fries, coleslaw, and “hot sauce,” a Serbian dish of stewed tomato and rice. — Douglas Trattner
Eischen’s Bar, Okarche, Oklahoma
In a state synonymous with chicken-fried steak, one timeworn Oklahoma saloon has turned the sleepy town of Okarche, 40 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, into a fried chicken rite of passage. Originally opened as Eischen’s Saloon in 1896, the bar predates statehood by 11 years and still looks preserved in ambergris with its taxidermy-clad brick walls, hand-carved back bar, and framed newspaper clippings exalting the fried chicken. The chicken is a time traveler, too. The bar uses a recipe perfected in the 1960s: same secret blend of herbs and spices, same 15-minute dip in soybean oil at 330 degrees. Whole birds are the main draw, served in a golden brown heap on paper trays, skin aglow in a thin sheen of oil from dedicated fryers (other items, like okra, are fried separately). Even the prices are preserved in time; along with white bread, pickles, and raw onion slices, each gigantic platter goes for $16. — Matt Kirouac
Great Sea Restaurant, Chicago
The lollipop wing stands as one of the greatest fried chicken innovations. Back in the ’80s, Americans often threw chicken wings away, so Hsing-Tseng Kao, who opened Peking Mandarin, turned wings into mini-drumettes that looked meatier and more appealing. Based on gam pong gi, a Chinese dish that uses a whole bird, the chef hacked the meat and pushed it to the top of the bone, leaving exposed bone as a handle. Great Sea Restaurant, a mainstay on the city’s North Side, has lollipop wings down to a science, coating them in a sweet, sticky, spicy Chinese Korean American sauce (also sold by the bottle). — Ashok Selvam
Juniper, St. Louis
Chef Matt Daughaday chalks up Juniper’s legendary fried chicken to the “whispies” — brittle, ruffled edges of mahogany crust that ripple off the bird. Instead of battering the chicken, which creates a thin shell that slips off the meat like an unzipped dress, or dry-dredging, which causes skin to break apart after a bite or two, Juniper dips the chicken into a wet batter, dredges it in dry seasoning, and lets it rest just long enough for the layers to get to know one another. The process creates a thick crust with more structure, substantial crunch, and those craggily whispies that catch the flakes of finishing salt. — Holly Fann
Pollo Chapin, Detroit
The owner at this small, family-run Guatemalan restaurant in southwest Detroit might offer you a bowl of rich chicken noodle soup ahead of the main event. Then comes the fried chicken: The curry-colored deep-fried skin snaps loose with an audible crunch like a potato chip to reveal tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat. A plate frequently comes with a side of sweet or sour pickled cabbage dyed purple with beets, a dinner roll, and coleslaw, and tables are adorned with bottles of Valentina. Be sure to order the slightly spicy bone-in chicken tamale on the side, too. — Brenna Houck
TomKen’s Bar & Grill, West Allis, Wisconsin
There are a lot of places in West Allis (home of the Wisconsin State Fair) to drink beer and satiate the subsequent munchies. You might wonder why it’s worth fighting for a spot at this particular, ever-packed, much-beloved institution — until you hear the rustle and crack of fried chicken skin. Start with a steaming bucket of “friendly” chicken, coated in a medium, spring jacket-heft batter. Then try the wings, which deliver even more juiciness, coming lightly battered and tossed in coatings like Creole or Buffalo Sings the Blues: a Frank’s-based bath spiked with tiny chunks of blue cheese. — Todd Lazarski
Union Hmong Kitchen, Minneapolis
Chef Yia Vang’s Hilltribe fried chicken sandwich is partly an homage to his childhood, when his mother made him sandwiches with damaged chickens from the Tyson factory where she worked. Vang tosses chicken in chile oil, giving it a fiery orange tinge, and yellow chile seeds peek through the breading. He then stacks it high with pickle chips and slaw between two buttery buns. According to Vang, the sandwich is as integral to his menu as Hmong sausage patties, purple sticky rice, and chilled khao sen noodles. — Justine Jones
The Alley Restaurant, Aiea, Hawai‘i
There’s a bowling alley on O‘ahu that fries literal tons of skin-on, boneless chicken thighs each year. The fried chicken, labeled simply Tasty Chicken, has been on the menu of the Alley restaurant inside Aiea Bowl for more than three decades. But when chef Glenn Uyeda (whose résumé includes a stint at Le Bernardin) bought the aging bowling alley in 2005, he dropped the bones and upped the sugar to create something great. Chicken pieces are twice coated in cornstarch, fried, and immediately tossed into a garlicky, chile-flecked, sweet soy sauce; the chicken is so hot, the sauce bubbles on contact and caramelizes the sugar, which locks in the crunch on the blistered skin. After just one bite, fried chicken candy from a bowling alley doesn’t sound so weird. — Martha Cheng
The Chicken Supply, Seattle
Raised among the food cultures of the Philippines and the Pacific Northwest, chef Paolo Campbell wanted to open a Filipino fried chicken restaurant for years while working in Seattle fine dining. That dream became reality at the Chicken Supply. Gluten-free, soy-marinated wings, drumsticks, thighs, and 10-inch cylinders of breast meat on sticks pop with the puffy, crisp texture of Rice Krispies. Alongside, Campbell serves twists on family recipes, like soy-marinated vegetables or cold pancit with seared cabbage and pickled celery. — Jade Yamazaki Stewart
Hat Yai, Portland, Oregon
In Hat Yai, Thailand, street vendors with pushcarts hawk hunks of fried chicken covered in piles of fried shallots, usually accompanied by pillows of sticky rice. In Portland, on the opposite side of the Pacific, Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and Alan Akwai provide their own version: Hunks of Mary’s free-range sit in a blend of soy sauce, white pepper, and cumin, before landing in a dredge of cornstarch and rice flour. Thinly sliced shallots bubble, brown, and infuse hot oil where the chicken is fried, and they cling to the hot skin as the bird emerges. Beneath the ruddy amber casing, beads of coriander hide in the nooks of bone and cartilage. Perhaps even more than the chicken itself, Portland’s Hat Yai excels at the accoutrements, delivered in combo plates. Visitors dunk drumsticks in cinnamony Malay curry and wrap pieces of meat and bracingly spicy daikon pickles in torn pieces of flaky, tender roti. The restaurant is named for another city, but this may be Portland’s most iconic dish. — Brooke Jackson-Glidden
Lucky Wishbone, Anchorage, Alaska
Since George and Peggy Brown opened Lucky Wishbone in 1955, it’s remained a postwar Anchorage institution, serving up white cardboard boxes of sizzling thighs and drums, fries, and corn muffins with honey and melty butter, all passed through the passenger-side window in the retro drive-thru. George built the restaurant himself and could regularly be found among the green vinyl booths until 2018, when he died at age 96. The fried chicken, made according to a family recipe that dates back at least 100 years, is done country-style — flour-breaded, lightly seasoned, and oil-fried — and offered alongside other throwback classics like fist-size burgers, homemade shakes, and piping-hot fried chicken livers in a paper-lined basket. — Julia O’Malley
Monroe’s Hot Chicken, Phoenix
Nashville-style hot chicken arrived in the Valley of the Sun with the opening of this stylish counter-service spot in 2019. The nationwide trend landed in good hands with Larry “Lo-Lo” White, founder of the mini-chain LoLo’s Chicken & Waffles and grandson of local soul food legend Elizabeth White of Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe. At Monroe’s, he partnered with chef Willie Graham on a menu of crunchy tenders that can be stuffed into hefty sandwiches, served alongside golden fries, or perched atop salads — all at your preferred heat level. Purists may scoff at the lack of bone-in options, but Monroe’s has perfected the boneless form, encasing moist white meat in exceptionally crisp and flavorful batter. — Lauren Saria
Noble Riot, Denver, Colorado
Noble Riot opened in 2019 as a nerdy, funky wine bar. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it started serving fried chicken for people craving comfort, forming a combo meal that “mixes classy with trashy,” as co-owner Troy Bowen puts it. Ordered by the bucket (which feeds two for $19 or four for $36), the juicy chicken is breaded in a gluten-free cornstarch and rice flour mix that’s unfailingly crunchy. Look out for specials, like buckets of Champagne and chicken for Valentine’s Day, and don’t sleep on the smashed fingerling potatoes. Accompany your bucket with whatever bottle the sommelier likes that day. — Nickolaus Hines
Gol Tong Chicken, Los Angeles
Gol Tong Chicken is a rare standalone in the world of sticky-sweet Korean fried chicken, where most outposts are part of a large national or even international chain. It’s bold to go it alone, but South Korean film director Kil Chae Jeong is up for the challenge with his one-off phenomenon in LA’s Koreatown. In stark contrast to the more polished KFC chains, this place is as unabashedly off-kilter as the founder himself, who directed erotic horror flicks before turning his creative eye to chicken. His Director’s Cut platter tops glistening chicken with everything from fresh berries, pineapple chunks, jalapeno slices, peaches, cheese, and even avocado. It sounds gimmicky, but it works, and the chicken itself more than holds up — juicy, golden brown morsels with a substantial crust that stays crunchy even after being tossed in the signature sweet, soy, and chile-inflected sauces. It’s everything you want in a plate of Korean fried chicken, with a little something extra. — Matthew Kang
San Tung, San Francisco
You can’t talk about fried chicken in San Francisco without mentioning the dry fried chicken wings at San Tung. Before the pandemic, this no-frills neighborhood Chinese restaurant was infamously crowded, with diners spilling out into the foggy streets to wait for tables. These days it’s open only for takeout, but a line of customers still snakes along the sidewalk. They patiently wait for sticky chicken wings by the dozen, flavored with generous handfuls of roasted red chile peppers, scented with a delicate perfume of garlic and ginger, and packed into heavy Styrofoam boxes. — Lauren Saria
Eatery 19, Syosset, New York
Regional Sinosphere food specialties have grown quickly throughout Long Island, which is why it’s no surprise to find excellent popcorn chicken, a staple of Taiwanese night markets, at this small restaurant next to the Syosset stop on the Long Island Railroad. The owners of Eatery 19 season thigh meat with five-spice powder, dredge it in starchy batter, and fry it up with basil. The nuggets pack a delicate crispness, a smacking chew, and wonderfully warming notes of cinnamon. — Ryan Sutton
Freakin Rican, New York
Chicharrones de pollo — a staple of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and a mainstay of New York cuchifrito parlors — easily rank among the top stateside chicken nugget traditions. Derick Lopez, chef at the Freakin Rican in Astoria, Queens, makes a particularly compelling version. He marinates boneless thigh chunks in adobo, paprika, and apple cider vinegar, before frying up the meat in a batter laced with cumin and other spices. The nuggets sport a deep bronzed color and pack a profound crunch. Sprinkle a bit of sazon seasoning over them for extra salt and aroma, or squeeze a bit of lime on top to cut through the fat. — Ryan Sutton
Roy Boys, Washington, D.C.
Located one block from the famous 9:30 Club, this lively fried chicken joint in Shaw has been feeding the nightlife neighborhood through last call since 2019. Setting the scene with a roll-up garage window, neon, and blaring rap music, the bar sends out lip-smacking pieces on silver platters and more composed options like the Drop It Like It’s Hot sandwich: Nashville spice-blasted, boneless chicken with bread and butter pickles and buttermilk ranch. Rita’s Tacos — a pandemic-born pop-up that’s permanently camped inside — stuffs the same heat-tinged chicken into a Nashville hot taco, joined by mac and cheese and additional hot sauce. Though available in the afternoons, too, these are late-night delicacies. — Tierney Plumb
Nien-Ken Alec Lu is a Taiwanese illustrator and motion graphics artist based in San Francisco. As a proud member of the LGBTQ+ and Asian American communities, he is always looking for opportunities to use his skillset to bring awareness and impact to his surroundings.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein