I hope I'm not the first black person to admit I have a love/hate relationship with fried chicken.
For the urban (read: Rick Ross-listening-to) community, battered, deep-fried pieces of poultry flesh is a go-to delicacy, as African-American as sweet potato pie. Sadly, fried chicken, like watermelons, which I never really understood since I'm not a big watermelon eater, is emblematic of stereotypical black culture. It is so synonymous with black folk that sometimes I feel like I'm setting the black race back 30 years by getting a two-piece meal and feasting on it. (This is probably why, on those occasions when I do eat chicken, I do it alone, usually in the privacy of my home.)
Also, there's the fact that fried chicken is fried. Therefore, if you eat too much of it, you'll get fat, your arteries will clog or you'll suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Considering that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health has documented that obesity is more common in African-Americans than in other ethnic groups, maybe we should ease up on the chicken-consuming, or, at least, have it baked, grilled or smothered.
Shame and health issues aren't the only things keeping me from making a chicken run; it's difficult to find decent fried chicken around these parts. When I moved to downtown Raleigh eight or 50 years ago, I quietly made it a priority to find a respectable fried chicken place. Luckily, I lived near New Bern Avenue—or, as I would soon call it, Fried Chicken Boulevard, which runs through two census tracts where 40–47 percent of households are black. Three chicken spots lie literally a few yards away from one another, spanning in quality from decent to downright disgusting.
If you go to New Bern Avenue from downtown Raleigh, the first spot is BOJANGLES' (1013 New Bern) with its spicy-whether-you-like-it-or-not portions. Bojangles' is always good for a cheap, quick chicken fix. However, being the self-respecting black man that I am, it's hard not to be in that place and feel a bit self-conscious. I mean, it's called Bojangles', for chrissakes! I feel like I should enter that place doing a gotdamn soft-shoe!
On the next block, right next to a Cook-Out, there is a KFC (1221 New Bern), another satisfactory chicken spot that may make black folk a bit uncomfortable, but for different reasons. For one, a gang of people is always in there, no matter what time of day, waiting for food. Secondly, the management has no qualms about letting homeless folk wander around the dining area, asking for spare change or a ride.
Across the street, you have CHURCH'S CHICKEN (1400 New Bern), which is just awful, almost worse than convenience-store chicken (aka the preferred chicken for drunks at three o' clock in the morning). The old joke about Church's is that the average meal consists of grease with a little bit of chicken thrown in for flavoring. It's chicken for people who don't care about themselves. If you don't have enough money to get a two-piece at Bojangles' or KFC, you might buy a 20-piece box at Church's for half that.
However, if you go farther down New Bern to 3699, you'll see yet another chicken spot on the horizon: the 2-year-old POPEYES on the corner of New Bern and Trawick Road. While it's great that you can finally get Popeyes in the Triangle without having to go to RDU airport, I have to say, as someone who grew up eating Popeyes back in my hometown of Houston, there's something about the chicken these days that's a bit off. Apparently, the trans fat-free oil they switched over to a few years back makes the chicken less flaky and flavorful and blander and staler. It's still another quick-fix spot for chicken junkies.
There's only one thing that's more unbelievable than mediocre fried chicken, and that's people who like mediocre fried chicken. I have a filmmaker friend in Greensboro who thinks Church's is awesome, always having a couple of boxes for the cast and crew to munch on during shoots. (Jesus, that's sad.) I had another friend suggest I should eat at MAMA DIP'S in Chapel Hill, since he convinced me it was the best chicken he ever had. OK, I went there twice, to sample the chicken in both fried and baked forms—and, both times, they were dry and unsavory.
Of course, you can't talk about Triangle fried chicken now without mentioning BEASLEY'S CHICKEN + HONEY, one of the many downtown Raleigh eateries (237 S. Wilmington St.) owned by superstar chef Ashley Christensen. I've heard people complain that the chicken—usually drizzled in honey, occasionally served atop a gigantic waffle—is not as spectacular as they would like it to be. The chicken is OK (the sides are better), but since you have to sling out a lot of dough just to get two pieces and a couple of sides in that place, I understand why people get upset. Besides, as far as local chicken-and-waffle spots go, I prefer DAME'S CHICKEN & WAFFLES in downtown Durham, even though they do serve only chicken-fried cutlets with their waffles.
Being the Texas boy that I am, my fried chicken loyalty still lies with many of the chicken shacks I used to frequent back in Houston. Every time I go back down there, the first thing I do when I get off the plane is make a beeline to a Frenchy's Chicken spot (in my opinion, the best chicken, period!) and get a couple of juicy, succulent, well-seasoned breasts.
For a brief moment, I can eat fried chicken without shame or disgust, without feeling guilty that I'm perpetuating a stereotype or becoming another statistic of African-American obesity. Because when you're eating fried chicken that sinfully good, you just don't care.