It’s the aroma that first snags you—that lush wave pulsing with hot fat, peppery spices and sizzling meat. It shoots through the olfactory nerves to the gustatory niches of the brain, yanking the tummy into full alert.
The sight is what does you in, though. When that mound of Southern fried chicken is before you, everything else falls away and life becomes a singular matter of satisfying your craving. The initial crunch, the release of grease on the tongue, the bloom of heat and spice on the palate and the burst of moistness as the teeth tear tender meat from bone, well, it’s nothing short of gastronomic heaven.
In South Carolina, this delectable drama plays out every day in restaurants and dining rooms across the state. But we aren’t alone. Thought by some food historians to be the offspring of a marriage between Scottish cooking methods and African seasoning techniques, fried chicken came to roost in this country a long time ago. Today, methods for making it fall into three categories: deep fried, broasted (pressure cooked) and pan-fried, which is said to be the best way, but is highly impractical for serving the fried chicken-loving masses.
And Americans do love their fried chicken. In a survey by National Today, 50 percent of respondents said they “loved” fried chicken and 16 percent took it many steps further by proclaiming they would “marry” fried chicken if they could. Now, South Carolinians do enjoy a love affair with the dish, but understand the best way to honor that relationship is at the dinner table. Keep the statistics—plates of lonely chicken bones are how we measure our ardor.
Ready to experience the love? Here’s a partial list of South Carolina restaurants, dedicated chicken shacks and other operations famous for their Southern fried chicken finesse:
Gwen and Franny’s, Hardeeville: Soul food is the name of the game here, so you know the fried chicken is the real deal. “Finger-lickin’” is a common descriptive applied to the expertly fried bird.
Shrimp Boat, Rock Hill: Forget the name, this is the place where locals go for fried chicken. Marinated in a secret blend before it is battered and fried, the dish is so popular at both locations that their tagline is: “Ain’t no chicken like Shrimp Boat chicken!”
Soapstone Baptist Church, Pickens: Dining is a religious experience at this historic church, established by freed slaves in 1865. On the third Saturday of the month (except December), the public shows up in droves to partake in a “fish fry,” a comprehensive affair that also includes some of the best fried chicken in the Upstate. Proceeds support preservation efforts. This is an experience to relish on many levels.
Steak House Cafeteria, Walhalla: Though T-bones were the signature dish when it opened in 1973, Steak House Cafeteria has made a name for itself as the home of the “Arabian Chicken,” its much-lauded recipe for fried chicken. If you get lost, just ask for the “Chicken House” and a local will direct you there.
Sunrise Drive-in, Florence: Florentines still swear by the fried chicken at this iconic restaurant, which operated as a drive-in eatery back in the day. This classic fried chicken is prepared when ordered, but it’s totally worth the wait.
Webster Manor, Mullins: This quaint bed and breakfast inn serves a weekday lunch buffet that does the unthinkable by serving skinless fried chicken. But through some kind of cooking wizardry, it works! Diners can’t get enough of this defiantly moist chicken.
Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken, Hartsville: For more than four decades, this last-man-standing of the once-burgeoning franchise has held firmly to its spot as the favorite fried chicken shack in the Pee Dee. The hint of honey and secret spices in the batter make this broasted chicken stand out from all the rest.
Zesto, Columbia: Tailgaters and hungry folk, in general, consider Zesto to be the fried chicken capital of the capital. Broasted and lightly seasoned, it’s always hot and ready whether you want a snack or a bucket.