2000s Archive

Birds of Paradise

Originally Published July 2008
The fried chicken at Price’s Chicken Coop in North Carolina may be the best in the South.
fried chicken

Boxes of crisp, golden bliss: Price’s southern fried chicken, tater rounds, and sides of creamy coleslaw. Why cook indeed?

A visit to Price’s Chicken Coop is the fried-chicken-eating experience of a lifetime. Once inside the door of the little South End storefront, two thirds of which is dedicated to cooking and the rest to ordering, the first decision you need to make is which line to stand in. At peak mealtimes there are six or seven of them leading to a counter with three cash registers, each of which is flanked by white-uniformed, hairnet-wearing servers.

Clouds of steam puff up behind them from vats of boiling oil into which Ed Garriett, who has been Price’s head cook since 1963, continuously throws mighty handfuls of floured chicken parts and from which he retrieves glistening, golden hunks of bird.

The cinder-block room thunders with kitchen clatter underscored by the syncopation of bubbling oil, and everything happens double-time. It’s a dizzyingly aromatic spectacle (you’ll smell frying chicken two blocks away), and newcomers who find themselves so intimidated by face time with the counter help that they stammer or hesitate when their turn arrives get no sympathy from the regular chicken eaters behind them, who know how to place an order in seconds: “Quarter, white” or “Half, mixed” or maybe “Gizzards, tea, and fried pie.” Anyone talking on a cellphone instead of tending to the business of ordering lunch becomes a Price’s pariah. A wall sign written in bold felt-tip pen warns customers: “We Will No Longer Refund or Make Exchanges on Orders Placed While YOU Are on Your Phone or 2-Way Radio.”

Boxes of chicken in hand, customers wend their way through the lines of people back to the door and out onto the sidewalk. It’s decision time again: where to eat? There are no seats inside or outside. The tables and chairs often arrayed a few yards from the doorway belong to a neighboring antiques shop, and Price’s customers are not welcome to use them. People who are not taking chicken home or to their work-place lunchroom dine in cars or, when the weather is nice, sit on the grassy berm of the light-rail line across the street.

So the amenities are minimal, but the fried chicken is maximal. It’s the best in North Carolina, maybe the best in the South—and, therefore, the best anywhere. It’s not that there’s anything dramatically unusual about it. The chicken is cooked in peanut oil, and though cousins Steven and Andrew Price keep their seasonings a secret, it isn’t spice that makes it unforgettable. What’s so great is the surfeit of crunchy skin imbued with the silky goodness of chicken fat. The skin is substantially chewy, and pieces that strip away seem to almost dissolve into pure chicken flavor. Not surprisingly, the meat of the dark parts oozes savory juice. Less predictably, even the breasts are moist and big-flavored in a way that white meat almost never is. Truth be told, there are many restaurants that serve fried chicken encased in a sheath of crust that is a joy to tear off, leaving less-than-fabulous meat behind. Not so Price’s. Here, the meat is every bit as succulent as the skin.

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