Chicken Odyssey

. November 1, 2014.
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by Nick Roumel

Homer’s “Odyssey” is the epic tale of Odysseus’ 10-year journey, returning from the Trojan War. Current’s Odyssey is now in its fourth year, restlessly seeking the best food and drink in Washtenaw County. We have covered pizza, beer, burgers, BBQ, sushi, vegetarian food, and now fried chicken.

Homer said, “The journey’s the thing.” We part ways with Homer where he wrote, “I have no interest at all in food and drink, but only in slaughter and blood and the agonized groans of mangled men.” Personally, we prefer chicken and milkshakes.

Our journey took us to nine restaurants in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The results of our Odyssey may shock you. They certainly surprised us. While Seoul Street and Zingerman’s Roadhouse have excellent reputations, our Seekers found the best local chicken in Ypsilanti – in some of the most unpretentious and homey dives.

The Rules

We were looking for fried, bone-in chicken. We disqualified chain restaurants, and those which served only the ubiquitous wing. In addition to our own favorites, we talked to locals and put out the challenge on social media. We came up with nine non-chain restaurants in Washtenaw County that met the criteria.

Ypsilanti, after the recent closure of Korey’s, gives us “A Taste of Soul” by Biggies; Cuppy’s Best Soulful Deli; Family’s; the Chick Inn; and the venerable Haab’s. We managed to sample fried chicken from all five in one day. In Ann Arbor, we visited The Ravens Club, Seoul Street, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, and Mary’s Fabulous Chicken and Fish. We hit the first three in a pounding thunderstorm, with a quiet visit to Mary’s the next day to close out the Odyssey.

We only ordered chicken, plus a few sides. With only one exception (the Chick Inn’s homemade milkshakes) we focused on the fried bird. We used a scoresheet featuring a 10-point scale for the following categories: appearance, aroma, size, crispness, moistness, and flavor. We also left room for subjective comments, and I took everyone’s “top three” to close out the scoring.

What Is Fried Chicken Anyhow?

Whole chickens are generally divided into four pieces, with skin on and bone in for frying: the dark meat pieces of the thigh and drumstick, and the white meat from the breast and wing. While there are many variants, generally there are three steps. First, the chicken is pre-seasoned, with a spice rub, marinade, or milk/buttermilk bath of some kind. Second, it is lightly dredged with a seasoned flour and a leavener like baking soda. Third, it is cooked in hot oil, wholly or partially submerged in the fat. For restaurants having a “Broaster” style pressure cooker, the chicken cooks in minutes with a combination of the agitating oil and sealed-in pressure. We learned that “Broasted” chicken is a trademark and is allowed to be used only by restaurants carrying their proprietary cooker. It produces chicken that is crisp on the outside, while retaining its own juices for moist, tender meat on the inside.

Who Got To Go On This Wonderful Odyssey?

We kept it interesting with a mix of veteran Seekers, and one newcomer.

  1. Ken “Sky” Walker – Sky was Punt to my Counterpunt when Current used to publish the Michigan Football Guide, and again after the column moved to mgoblog. A long-time social worker, Sky is also a discerning carnivore, and has joined us for all but the Vegetarian Odyssey. His dry wit and plain spoken commentary cut through many a greasy moment
  2. Cynthia Hodges – Our “newbie,” Cynthia comes from a long line of redneck stock, so she knows fried chicken. She writes one of Ann Arbor’s longest running and popular blogs (motherskitchen.blogspot.com), and she is the founder of the A2 Food Yahoo group. She can be frequently found teaching people how to can their own food at local farmer’s markets. In real life, she is an automotive engineer.
  3. Ken Anderson – By day a communications coordinator for the AATA, Ken is the fiancé of veteran seeker Patti Smith. This is his second Odyssey.
  4. Heather Leavitt – Heather is the owner of “Sweet Heather Anne” (www.sweetheatheranne.com), and recognized for her artistically designed cakes by such publications as Metro Detroit Bride, CBS Detroit, Edible Wow (cover story), University of Michigan LSA Alumni Magazine, and Inspire Bride Magazine. Heather also cooked at “eve” the restaurant for three years, and assisted Courtney Clark of “Cake Nouveau” with her Food Network “Cake Challenge” successes. This is her third Odyssey.
  5. Nick Roumel (author) – Your author, a food lover with many years of restaurant, bar, and catering experience, and long-time food writer – who happens to practice civil rights law on the side.
  6. Thom Martin – Thom is a Kansas City BBQ Society certified judge, devout foodie, and four-time winner of the Arbor Networks office chili cookoff. He still reserves a “10” score for something that you’d “shove your momma to the ground to get some.” This is his fifth Odyssey.
  7. Patti Smith – “Teacher Patti” is a special education teacher. In her free time, she enjoys craft beer, blogging, and social networking. She has written a historical book of downtown Ann Arbor, which will be released in November by Arcadia publishers. She is the only veteran (besides your author) of all seven Odysseys.

Seoul Street

1771 Plymouth Rd., Suite 101
Ann Arbor, (734) 719-0085

Quick bite: It’s all about the skin

Seoul Street’s Korean Fried Chicken has a lot of fans, but we found it consternating. On one hand, we are fully on board with the Korean frying method, guaranteed to make super-crispy skin, made even more delicious by the glazes – soy garlic, or hot and spicy. We also give them points for using fresh, all natural chicken.

Where Seoul Street lost us was in the inattention to the chicken itself. The skin – which Sky called an “armor plating” – peeled too easily from the meat, which lacked discernible flavor. This could have been remedied by a strong brining or marinade. Additionally, while moist, the texture was a bit slick rather than the supple tenderness that marks an excellent fried chicken. Though Patti said she could “hear the skin crackling across the table,” she lamented, “It was not good enough to expand my ass for.” Sky agreed, saying “For all the hype, I wouldn’t drive out of my way for this.”

Still, the crispy skin and glazes are what many people do come back for. Heather especially loved the soy-garlic flavor, and the hot-and-spicy really delivers the heat. Each would be excellent choices for the chicken wings (which we did not order). Note also that Seoul Street recommends placing an order 40 minutes before pickup.

Price: 4 pieces plus a side is between $7.95 – $8.95.

Cuppy’s Best Soulful Deli

1451 Ecorse Rd.
Ypsilanti, (734)-320-2577

Quick bite: Go for the soul food

Cuppy’s is known for its wide variety of made-from-scratch soul food: tilapia, catfish, shrimp, ribs, mac-n-cheese, greens, yams, sweet potato pie, and coconut cake, to name a few. Unfortunately we did not enjoy the chicken, which looked appealing but was otherwise just average, a bit dry and bland.

But we’re glad we found this gem, and we will return for the rest of the menu. People rave about this place.

Price: $10.99 for a 3-piece mixed fried dinner, with two sides and cornbread.

Family’s Fried Chicken

510 W Michigan Ave,
Ypsilanti, (734) 485-1923

Quick bite: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Family’s straddles the prime location of Michigan Ave. and Congress, across from the police station, fire department, and courthouse. It is nothing to look at, and having just read a scathing Yelp review, we didn’t expect much. Yet we agreed with Sky (who picked up the order) that it was “surprisingly good.”

Family’s was above average in every category, with a good clean aroma, nice crunch, and tender chicken. It was nicely spiced, if a bit unevenly; Thom ventured that it had been brined; I guessed that it had been pressure cooked. It was Ken’s favorite.

Price: 4 pieces plus a side is between $7.95 – $8.95.

A Taste of Soul

(by Biggie’s)
97 Spring St., Ypsilanti, 734-483-8360

Quick bite: no chicken!

We visited this casual, take-out only soul food joint during our BBQ Odyssey. At that time, we praised the huge, meaty ribs, tender baked chicken, and huge variety of delicious side dishes. On this visit, unexpectedly, the restaurant was out of fried chicken – except for wings. That was not an auspicious sign for a fried chicken odyssey.

While the wings were crispy, there wasn’t much flavor. They also suffered due to the fryer’s noticeable need for an oil change. We will definitely give “Biggie’s” another chance due to their variety of offerings, reasonable prices, and friendly service – and look for more consistent product on future visits. In the meantime, their yummy baked chicken is a much better bet.

Price: chicken is $6.99; 100 pieces mixed is $74.99 (when they have it).

Mary’s Fabulous Chicken and Fish

3220 Packard St
Ann Arbor, (734) 971-5703

Quick bite: Unassuming

Like Family’s, Mary’s is not much to look at either outside or in. The fry-heavy menu boasts chicken, fish, shrimp, clams, gizzards, and fries, with a few sandwiches like a popular cheese-steak hoagie.

The chicken was good. It had a peppery, spicy coating that adhered well to the chicken, which was plenty tender. If someone brought you Mary’s chicken, you’d eat it and be quite satisfied. Service is quick and pleasant.

Price: an 6-piece mixed order was $8.39 (cash only)

Haab’s Restaurant

18 West Michigan
Ypsilanti, 734-483-8200

Quick bite: Our Chicken Odyssey RUNAWAY winner!!!

Haab’s traces its roots to at least the 1870’s, and remains a timeless institution, even as the rest of Ypsilanti changes rapidly. A family restaurant that delivers personal service to its loyal regulars, as well as new visitors, Haab’s features a classic menu in the steakhouse tradition.

We went for their “Chicken in a Basket,” a ½ fried chicken with shoestring fries, biscuit and honey. And oh, honey – this was our fifth chicken of the day, but I couldn’t stop eating it. It was that good, scoring highest in our Odyssey for moistness and tenderness – “juicy without being greasy,” as Ken noted. The flavor of the chicken was so good that Patti even preferred it to the skin, which was an extreme rarity (the Ann Arbor restaurants, by contrast, had excellent coating but lacked in flavor). We all vowed to return.

Haab’s “Chicken in the Basket”

Price: $12.99 for a chicken, fries, and biscuit.

Chick Inn Drive In

501 Holmes Rd.
Ypsilanti, (734) 483-3639

Quick bite: Classic diner menu, great fried chicken, and amazing milkshakes!

The Chick Inn is a drive-in with car hops, a few picnic tables, and Motown blasting through the parking lot. Sky loved the outdoor ambience. In fact, entering the actual building is a no-no; the sign on the door gives this friendly warning: “Welcome to the Chick Inn. Please do not enter. If you would like to order, please use one of the outdoor speakers in the sitting area. Thanks a lot! J” Unfortunately, stupid people still go through the door and try to order. Like me (sheepish grin).

Undeterred by my rudeness, the server was as friendly as could be, bringing our order outside, which included beautiful chicken pieces and homemade milkshakes to die for – including peanut butter, chocolate, and several options with large pieces of fresh fruit. Even the “kids’ size” are about 12 oz., and they cost only $.90!

Chick Inn rated highly across the scoresheet. It looked fabulous; Heather noted the “rich orange color.” It also nearly scored solid “10’s” in crispness. The flavor was very good as well, if a tad salty. But you can’t beat the entire package – sitting outside, on a summer evening listening to some good tunes, chasing down some delicious bird with yummy milkshakes. Worth the trip.

Price: $6.75 for a 4-piece order, comes with a roll and butter

Zingerman’s Roadhouse

2501 Jackson Ave.
Ann Arbor, 734-663-3663

Quick bite: Overdone

Odyssey readers know we admire Zingerman’s Roadhouse, and their commitment to local sourcing, excellent service, and taking care of their employees. By and large, their food is excellent. Yet as much as we loved their crispy, peppery fried skin, we have found their buttermilk fried chicken often cooked to the point of dryness. Our takeout order, on the day of a near monsoon, was no exception.

Everything else is to adore. The chicken is exceptionally clean; the oil is squeaky fresh; and the spice mix is sublime, flavoring both skin and chicken. The ample breast piece was not harmed dramatically by the overcooking; but the dark pieces suffered, and the wings were nearly inedible. On another recent visit, a friend (who always orders Zing’s fried chicken) had to send the order back for being so overdone. Zingerman’s will always replace an unsatisfactory order without complaint – but they shouldn’t have to.

Price: 2 piece dark, mashed potatoes and cole slaw, $14.50 (dine in); 8 pieces to go, served hot, $20.00 (specify “fridge to fridge” menu).

Lessons Learned

Washtenaw County’s best fried chicken lies to the east. Our panel made Haab’s an easy top choice; Chick Inn was a solid second, and Family’s made third place by a nose. We would also recommend Biggie’s and Cuppy’s for their extensive soul food options.

Ann Arbor’s chicken is dominated by crispy, delicious skin, but they’re going to have to go deeper than that to top their Ypsilanti rivals.

Well-fortified by all this fried fowl, our Seekers journey on. See you at the next Odyssey.

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