Crunch Time

Photos by Tim Robison

Photos by Tim Robison

Now a nationally stamped foodie destination, Asheville is in an intriguing culinary hot seat. The challenge: keeping current without losing local flavor. In bigger towns, a worldly array of cuisines happens naturally. Now, we have our own buzzy cosmopolitan spots — Mela, Cúrate. Creative mixology is tugging at the robe hem of our craft-beer aristocracy.

But we’re still in the South, for the love of grits, and traditional, locally sourced fare — often with a gourmet twist (pulled-pork egg rolls, anyone?) — is sticking strong to Asheville-area menus. Actually, it’s flourishing.

What follows is a by-no-means complete account of some local treatments of fried chicken — a down-home dish that carries considerable emotional resonance. My husband, whose roots go back hundreds of years in the Carolinas, was my sidekick-in-crunch. Offering occasional commentary, he pointedly excluded Colonel Sanders from our journey.

Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack

(1455 Patton Ave., 828-575-2260; rockyshotchickenshack.com)

In a short time span, Rocky’s has undergone seismic changes. Started in a hunk of cinderblock in Arden by local musician Rocky Lindsley, it accrued investors and reopened in July 2011 as a trendily appointed West Asheville hotspot.

Underscore “hot.” Modeled after spicy-chicken shacks in the deeper South, the restaurant uses the dangerous ghost pepper for the spiciest of its eight heat levels. (The best, or worst, depending on your yen for pain, is “Mt. St. Hell No” — a summit only palatable to the slightly deranged, including my iron-gutted spouse.)

Today, Rocky the man is no longer part of the restaurant that still bears his name. Some recent non-fried entrées have been questionable. But the joint is holding onto its high points. It still offers an eye-poppingly large fried breast that’s juicy all the way through. The crust is consistent and well schooled, and you don’t have to be a masochist to enjoy it: All parts of the bird can be served up plain or honey-flavored. Sweet.

Big J’s Bubba-Q

(3722 Sweeten Creek Rd., Arden; 828-687-2424)

If you’re still after greasy and traditional (see above) but don’t mind waiting a bit, Big J’s Bubba-Q offers what might be the freshest fried chicken in town, and certainly the juiciest.

Big J’s truly is a shack. No bigger than a walk-in closet, it’s open about 5 pm, more or less, on most days, if you’re lucky. Yes, the tiny restaurant also offers barbecue, but it owes its cult following to its chicken, fried to order in good time.

There’s one seat inside, if you want to wait the 25 minutes till your two-piece box is done. Those in the know call ahead. Those holes poked in the lid of the to-go container? “That’s so you can smell the steam coming out on y

HomeGrown

(371 Merrimon Ave., 828-232-4340; slowfoodrightquick.com)

It’s all in the name here — and in the fabulous mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy and apple crisp. More importantly, a restaurant called Homegrown had better serve some damn good fried chicken.

It does. The buttermilk crust is pretty and golden and as addictive as doughnuts. Satisfying for sure, although hardcore purists might balk at the edge of sweetness. Another sly innovation: the boneless, nice-sized, white-meat entrée is neither a breast nor a tender, but appears to be some inventive cut in between.

Here’s what my husband had to say: “This tastes great. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to use a knife and fork to eat fried chicken. My nana insisted on perfect manners at the table, but fried chicken was the one thing our ride home,” my cohort explained. But of course.

Asheville Sandwich Company

(202 State St., 828-252-0110)

Despite striving to maintain a low profile, this frills-free stop in a developing part of West Asheville already enjoys a certain cult following, thanks to a short but savvy menu including a prime-rib sandwich and bahn mi offerings with tofu or pork belly.

The spicy chicken sandwich, served on a crusty sub roll, doesn’t try to compete with Rocky’s for real heat. The bite, courtesy of a Vietnamese sriracha-based hot sauce, is expertly balanced; the meat juicy and fresh; and the crust is competent, if not chart-topping. Like many of the restaurant’s other meat-based sandwiches, the spicy-chicken fillet comes topped with shoestring fries: a comfort touch extraordinaire.

Ingle’s Markets

(Various locations, ingles-markets.com)

It’s dirt cheap. It’s locally made. (Not in a pedigreed-bird sort of way, but still.) And it can be awesome, with a crust so flaky and deep you need a gingham bib to get through it unscathed. This is come-as-you-are, greasy, traditional fried chicken, made (mostly) by ladies who seem to be doing it from cellular memory.

Ingle’s fried chicken also sits under a heat lamp all day. No bones about that. The challenge is getting there as soon as each batch is refreshed. Call the Ingle’s deli closest to you for peak times, and don’t have a thin skin about getting a sharp answer.

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