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VOL. 43 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 27, 2019

Where, when to find Nashville’s best fried chicken

The city’s finest don’t serve their bird every day. We’re here to help you plan

By Catherine Mayhew

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Nashville is a fried chicken town. Before Hot Chicken blew up across the country (thank you Prince’s for starting the ball rolling and creating hourslong lines on the weekend), there was only fried chicken. Glorious, crispy, unfancied-up fried chicken.

You can get it almost all day, every day at such enshrined monuments of Southern cuisine as The Loveless Café, Monell’s and Swett’s. And it always satisfies.

But at other local treasures, fried chicken is relatively scarce, creating a slight uneasiness among the fried chicken fan base. You have to plan ahead. You have to consider whether the demand will exceed the supply. What if they run out? What if you’re that next person in line when the guy ahead of you gets the last order? Psychoanalysis has been required of lesser traumas.

So today we bring to light those places that, in effect, say to you: “Get out your calendar and be on time. Otherwise, no fried chicken for you.”

And a note about etiquette. If you even consider that word while eating fried chicken you don’t have your head in the game. Put down the knife and fork. Put them down. Fried chicken is eaten with your fingers. This is nonnegotiable.

But first, a few words on why this part of the world is steeped in its devotion to fried chicken, a uniquely American food.

A brief history

Tell us your fave

Did we miss your favorite spot? Whether you can indulge in fried chicken every day or just on special days, let us know your pick for crave-worthy yardbird at editor@tnledger.com.

“My job, as a writer, is to explain that all meals come with servings of history, too. The history of racism is key.” John T. Edge, writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance

It will surprise some to know that among those credited with bringing fried chicken to America are the Scottish. It seems they knew a thing or two about good taste. While their English brethren were boiling or baking chicken, Scots preferred their birds fried.

Was there an intersection between Scottish settlers to America and enslaved Africans who are most rightly credited with perfecting the dish? Nobody seems to know.

Slaves were often allowed to have chickens, which they traditionally raised in West Africa, either to trade or sell to slaveholders or other whites or sometimes to keep themselves.

They also grew the crops they were forced to leave behind such as okra, watermelon, and red and black-eyed peas. Those ingredients eventually made their way into plantation kitchens through slave cooks.

Fannie Johns holds up a plate of fried chicken wings at Silver Sands.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

And in the case of fried chicken, it was the white slaveholders who appropriated the African dish and attempted to make it their own. The first recipe for fried chicken was not published by an African American but by a white woman named Mary Randolph, who wrote the first cookbook in America, “The Virginia Housewife.’’ It is surprisingly similar to today’s version: chicken, flour, salt and lard.

The fried chicken saga doesn’t end there. After emancipation, African American women known as “waiter carriers” would sell fried chicken to train passengers passing through their towns by handing up the chicken through the train car windows.

The relationship between African Americans and fried chicken was often the subject of insulting stereotypes in newspapers, advertisements and postcards.

That negative connotation is why some African Americans to this day refuse to eat fried chicken and its tandem stereotypical cultural symbol – watermelon - in public.

As Edge said, the history of racism is key.

“I can’t put that [watermelon juice] in my cart because everyone … will think that’s what black people do,” the comedian, writer and actor Phoebe Robinson said on a recent podcast of The Sporkful. “We all learn (not to eat fried chicken and watermelon) – it’s like there’s a little pamphlet of things you can’t do (when you’re black).”

Tandy Wilson, chef/owner of City House, acknowledges the tangled history of the dish.

Chicken and side from Dandgures Cafe in Nashville

-- Photo By Catherine Mayhew |The Ledger

“It’s funny what we consider ‘our food’ because rarely is anything our food,” he says. “So many of the dishes considered my family cuisine was food we learned through the influence of the African American community.

“The issue of slavery is one that we shouldn’t feel awkward bringing up. I have remorse for what happened in the South. But it did and we can’t pretend like it didn’t. One of the strongest food cultures in the nation was born from it.”

Fried chicken spread through the country during the decadeslong Great Migration when millions of African Americans fled the oppressive South to start new lives in the North, Midwest and West. Often prohibited or restricted in train accommodations, a lack of lodging and access to restaurants, they would pack boxed meals with fried chicken to sustain themselves on the long journey. Once relocated, the beloved familiar food became the centerpiece of Sunday meals.

Stained by the bitter legacy of slavery and embraced like a baby in a mother’s bosom, fried chicken is a study in contradictions. The noted poet, memoirist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread and fried chicken.”

Let’s Eat

Fried chicken and two side at Wendell Smith’s

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“It’s just one of those comforting meals,” says food writer and Ledger columnist Jim Myers, who never met a piece of fried chicken he didn’t like. “Everyone has their death row meal that you’d want to eat before you were executed. For me that would be fried chicken. Not Nashville hot chicken, but just good Southern fried chicken.”

Southern fried chicken has been the backbone of many a meat ‘n three menu in Nashville for decades. But these places embody “scarcity” when it comes to fried yardbird. You can only get it certain days or in certain ways.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen: weekdays 10:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m. 605 8th Avenue South

It’s 11:30 a.m. at Arnolds, which has been a Nashville mainstay since 1982. The line at the cafeteria-style restaurant moves slowly toward the steam tables and the sense of anticipation heightens.

Fried chicken is Mondays only.

Wendell Smith’s head cook Dollene London, left, owner Benji Cook and manager Kim Greer

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

All of a sudden one of the servers yells out, “More fried chicken!” A cursory stroll around the dining room revealed at least one plate of fried chicken on every table. It is hot, golden, crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. Classic and delicious. Just what you’d expect from a James Beard American Classics Award winner.

The sides are also time honored: mashed potatoes, pinto beans, fried apples and creamed corn, to mention a few. But our side pro tip pick is always the turnip greens. Smoky, meaty and perfect with a splash of hot green pepper sauce.

Dandgures Café: weekdays 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. 538 Lafayette St.

Dandgure’s is known for the huge retro mural on its wall and classic country cooking. Serving up deliciousness daily since 1991, Dandgure’s only trots out the fried chicken Mondays and Thursdays. While Arnold’s fried chicken is the deeply golden variety, Dandgure’s offers a more delicate take. The crust is deeply flavorful, beautifully seasoned with a blonder hue.

Dandgure’s, like so many other traditional joints, serves a leg quarter or breast quarter intact. That calls the diner’s surgical skills into question if you want to separate the pieces. This is a three-napkin operation at the least.

Side pro tip pick is traditional mashed potatoes with brown gravy. You may or may not want to pick off pieces of chicken and dip them in the gravy. But we’d recommend it.

Elliston Place Soda Shop: Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. 2111 Elliston Place

If nostalgia’s your thing, Elliston Place Soda Shop is your place. It’s Nashville’s oldest continuously operating restaurant in its original location.

When it opened in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt was president, The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland debuted and Lou Gehrig retired from major league baseball.

The Soda Shop’s fried chicken sticks to tradition, with a bronzed crust enrobing juicy chicken. You can only get it on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Side pro tip: Like Dandgure’s, the Soda Shop’s mashed potatoes are superior. Gravy comes on the side, so if you’re inclined to excessiveness you can melt the butter that comes with the cornbread over the spuds before adding gravy. Not that we would know anything about that.

Silver Sands Cafe: Tuesday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 937 Locklayer St.

Expect a line when you walk through the door of Silver Sands. Just get over the fact that you might have to wait a few minutes for some of the best fried chicken in Nashville.

There walls are filled with artwork, memorabilia and photos from the civil rights movement, as well as vintage menus. So study up as the line slowly snakes forward. You will be rewarded with the most delectable chicken encased in a shatteringly crisp crust. This historic treasure serves fried chicken every day it’s open but not in the usual way.

If you want your fried chicken immediately, it’s wings only. But if you have the patience you can ask for any other part of the bird, and they’ll cook it to order.

For our money, wings are the perfect fried chicken part. At Silver Sands, you get four very large wing pieces, which have the perfect skin-to-meat ratio. Bonus points for a place that still serves hot water cornbread.

Side pro tip: Get the macaroni and cheese. The noodles are perfectly cooked, the cheese sauce is luscious and there are nubbins of melted cheddar peeking out from every nook and cranny.

Wendell Smith’s: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-7:30 p.m. 5300 Charlotte Ave.

You know you’re in the right place when the original owner was known as Big Wendell and his son was called Inkie. Now three generations strong, Wendell Smith’s is the kind of place where regulars are so regular the waitresses know the names of their grandchildren and where they go on vacation every year.

The meat ’n three menu isn’t on their website. It’s hand printed and left on each table along with the regular menu. So just remember that fried chicken days are Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The sides are classic old school including okra and tomatoes, fried corn and congealed fruit salad. But the baked apples are money, perfect for cutting through the crunchy richness of the fried chicken crust to get to the tender meat.

And speaking of cutting, Wendell Smith’s is another place that serves its chicken quarters whole, so memorize your chicken anatomy to get the perfect pieces. Or just make a mess of it. Smith’s is a no-judgment zone.

Catherine Mayhew has been the restaurant critic and syndicated food columnist for The Charlotte Observer and Knight-Ridder News Service. She’s the author of the Handymom’s Guide to Grilling, is a master certified barbecue judge and former competition cook. She writes the Southern food-centric blog The South in My Mouth.

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