Hill Country Chicken: Are Fried Chicken and Pie the New Burgers and Cupcakes?
Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
Hill Country Chicken chef Elizabeth Karmel is on a mission that's close to my heart: she wants New Yorkers to have a casual fried chicken and pie joint that they can be proud of. Good timing, right? Fried chicken is, well, as hot as a Fry-o-lator full of peanut oil in New York. And pie isn't far behind.
Pies 'n' Thighs was the chicken-and-pie pioneer, opening several years ago before it closed and reopened in its current location. Before that Kenny Callaghan and Jen Giblin served up fried chicken and exemplary pies at Blue Smoke. And before them, Charles Gabriel was at the top of the fried chicken chef pecking order in New York, first serving it from a truck and then a restaurant uptown on Eighth Avenue, then gradually making his way downtown with Rack and Soul and then all the way to Midtown white-tablecloth restaurant Aretsky's Patroon last summer. Even chef-of-the-moment David Chang, at Momofuku Noodle Bar, serves a fried chicken dinner featuring both Southern-fried and Korean-style fried chicken. And according to our taste test, the best cheffy fried chicken of all was served at The Redhead.
But Karmel, born and raised in North Carolina—already the executive chef behind barbecue spot Hill Country—is attempting to bring a serious, counter-service Southern-fried chicken and pie restaurantto our fair city, using Bell and Evans chicken and a KFC-like pressure cooker cooking method—which should, in theory, produce fried chicken that is moist and juicy on the inside and crisp and crunchy on the outside.
Hill Country Chicken opened five weeks ago just a few blocks from the Serious Eats office, so let's just say we have become intimately acquainted with Karmel's creations. Because when you get right down to it, fried chicken and pie are two of our favorite things in the world to eat.
Karmel was inspired by a fried chicken field trip she took five years ago to Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken in Mason, Tennessee—all but seeing God that day in Gus's fantastic lacquer-skinned dark brown fried chicken. She's making two styles of fried chicken: a classic skin-on version, and a skinless fried chicken recipe passed down from Hill Country owner Marc Glosserman's mother.
skinless fried chicken is always going to come in second
The classic version is actually seasoned three different times: in the aromatic buttermilk brine, in the seasoned flour, and finally with a house-made chicken "shake" that features a fair amount of paprika. The skinless version skips the chicken shake stage. I'm sure Mrs. Glosserman is a great lady, but skinless fried chicken is always going to come in second in a fried chicken cooking contest, and it does here as well—though it is plenty crispy, tasty, and moist (the holy trinity of fried chicken deliciousness).
The classic skin-on fried chicken has that extra layer of flavor from the chicken shake, and exhibits the cosmic one-ness between the crust and the skin that the great fried chicken cooks achieve—by rendering all the fat underneath the skin. Also it should be noted in how seriously Karmel and company are taking this endeavor; it has gotten better each time we have had it. The buttermilk brine helps keep both the white and dark meat tender and moist, even the huge breasts (which are, in fact, too big for my taste). The thighs and drumsticks are the individual pieces to get, but isn't that always the case?
But as solid as the Hill Country classically prepared thighs and drumsticks are, they are surprisingly surpassed by two other items on the menu. The Chickwich is a slightly dressed-up version of the classic Chick-fil-A sandwich. A piece of boneless fried chicken breast and a couple of slices of pickle on a squishy, soft hamburger bun. It's a perfect sandwich: crispy, crunchy, salty, meaty, and sweet in every bite. In a city like New York, where the only Chick-fil-A is tucked inside an NYU building, this chickwich seems heaven-sent.
Equally terrific and surprising are the chicken tenders. I am philosophically opposed to prefabricated chicken tenders; they're usually dry, uninteresting, and not tender in the slightest. Not here. The hand-dipped and hand-cut chicken tenders at Hill Country Chicken have a great crunchy, well-seasoned crust and, shockingly, aretender. They actually live up to their name.
The side dishes are reasonably well-executed but nothing out of the ordinary. The skin-on French fries are solid but not as brown as they should be, and the cheesy fried mashed potatoes are less than the sum of its parts. To me, fried chicken should be served with good old-fashioned peppery mashed potatoes and cream gravy. Though the blistered corn salad and carrot-and-raisin slaw are perfectly fine, my favorite side dish might be the cole slaw. But the biscuits are better than the slaw; if you get a freshly baked batch, they might be the best side dish of all. They're reasonably light and fluffy and though they won't change your life, they've gotten better and less greasy every time we've had them. In this biscuit-challenged city of ours, they do represent progress.
they vary in quality from marginally acceptable to very, very good
There's an impressive array of mini and regularly-sized custard, fruit, and cream pies in the display case every day at Hill Country Chicken. Probably too many, for that matter, as they vary in quality from marginally acceptable to very, very good. In the latter category, the coconut cream pie was mercifully not too sweet and was enlivened by orange zest and juice; the banana cream pie (the only whole pie slice that was available at 8:00pm one evening) was a very successful hybrid of banana cream pie and banana pudding. But the lemon meringue pie had a strange, slightly off flavor to it. Pie lovers would be better served in general if Karmel and company focused on doing fewer pies.
Welcome to the fried chicken and pie fray, Elizabeth Karmel and company. You and your hardworking, conscientious crew have given fried chicken and pie lovers in New York another worthy eating option—which means we are making real progress in this fried chicken and pie-challenged town.