May it Please the Palate

 Fried Chicken Odyssey Part II

Homer’s “Odyssey” is the epic tale of Odysseus’ 10-year journey, returning from the Trojan War. My own Odyssey, which I write for another publication, is now in its fourth year, restlessly seeking the best food and drink in Washtenaw County. With my intrepid team, I have covered pizza, beer, burgers, BBQ, sushi, vegetarian food, and fried chicken. 

Homer is not invited. He once 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, I prefer chicken and milkshakes.

As I wrote last week, our “Fried Chicken Odyssey” took us to nine restaurants in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The results were shocking: they certainly surprised us. While certain Ann Arbor restaurants have excellent reputations, we found the best local chicken in Ypsilanti - in some of the most unpretentious and homey dives around. What is fried chicken anyhow? Sure, Potter Stewart-like, we think we know it when we see it. While there are actually several methods of preparing this dish, they share three things in common.  

First, unlike whole fried turkeys, chickens are always divided into pieces, with skin-on and bone-in for frying. These are 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. As our intellectual property attorney friends will remind us, “Broaster” is actually 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.

Why did we prefer the Ypsilanti restaurants? They took care to flavor both the skin and the chicken itself, and found the right balance of crispy skin and tender meat. The chicken was cooked in such a way that the skin melded into the meat for a seamless bite. In contrast, the Ann Arbor restaurants got very showy about their crunchy, flavorful skin, but the skin pulled away too easily from the meat – which unfortunately, was often left wanting for seasoning.

Our favorite, Haab’s, traces its roots to at least the 1870’s. It remains a timeless institution 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. 

The “Chick Inn” also rated highly. Not only was the chicken highly worthy, but you couldn’t beat the entire package - sitting outside, on a summer evening listening to some Motown, chasing down some of that delicious bird with yummy milkshakes. 

Homer also wrote, “The journey’s the thing.” Go east for Washtenaw County’s best fried chicken. Far less than Homer had to travel, and nothing need be mangled but a few chicken bones.

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