If you ever find yourself on death row, you will no doubt be forced to stare down all of the choices you’ve made in life. However, given that your life will soon be coming to an end and that it would be impossible to go back and fix whatever poor choices led you there in the first place, I would think it best to focus on the final and most important remaining decision: What will you have for your last meal?
For me this would be a no-brainer: fried chicken – with sides of collard greens, candied yams, and mashed potatoes, if available. I’m not entirely sure what the death row policy on booze is, but I’d like a nice glass of bourbon as well. If the warden won’t authorize that, then a lemonade will do just fine. Just as long as fried chicken is the main course.
You see, I am a committed fried chicken junkie. I’ve eaten it from New York to New Orleans. I even waited until fried chicken was served at Chez Panisse before going there. Of course, I am not alone in my affection for the fricasseed bird. Fried chicken is a well-loved Southern classic and it shows up on menus everywhere.
But we are not just anywhere. We are in San Francisco, a culinary town with standards so high even our street food is gourmet. Imagine what we might do with some flour, oil, and the tender parts of nature’s most delicious bird. As a self-professed connoisseur of fried chicken and man of science, I needed to know. So I decided to devote a week of my life to sampling all of San Francisco's top fried chicken spots.
And so it was with visions of moist breasts and crisp drumsticks that I found myself at Hard Knox Café. The tiny restaurant sits in a humble corner of the Dogpatch neighborhood. It has the look and feel of a classic soul food joint, although it is really clean and has a flat-screen TV. There was preseason football on and the bartender put a cold Abita ale in front of me almost as soon as I sat down. Add to that the fried chicken I knew was in my future and I was ready to give the whole room a high five.
The Raiders were in the middle of scoring a rare touchdown when the bartender arrived with a huge plate of fried chicken accompanied by a chunk of mac ’n’ cheese and a healthy pile of collard greens. The chicken was crispy and moist, and it quickly soaked up the hot sauce I dumped all over it. The biscuits were good on their own, but I slathered them in butter anyway. You don’t hold back when you’re in a soul food restaurant.
I wasn’t quite ready to call for the warden, but I had eaten fried chicken, which made me pretty happy. Still, I knew my quest had only just begun. The future was looking greasy and bright.
My next outing was to a place so classy I was surprised to even find fried chicken on the menu. The restaurant and lounge 1300 stands on one of the polished corners of the rebuilt Fillmore District and has a menu with prices that probably match its rent. Normally I’m opposed to upscale soul food. It seems like a contradiction to me, like a heavy metal power ballad played by a classical orchestra. But 1300 comes through where it counts.
The food is impressively good. I had a grilled peach salad that somehow managed to taste exactly like a perfect summer day. I literally could not stop saying “wow” as I ate it. And the chicken was moist and crispy, so it gets an A for texture. Better still, the meat was full of flavor and had clearly been soaked, marinated, or brined in something to get that flavor all the way through to the bone. Being such a classy place, my server even brought me a delicate ramekin of Crystal when I asked for hot sauce.
The following day San Francisco suddenly shook off three months of gloom and fog, pushing temperatures across the city up to almost 90 degrees. I didn’t really feel like eating a huge plate of fried chicken, but I had to remain true to my cause. So I talked my friend Josh into driving me to Auntie April's, way out in the Bayview district.
Auntie April's provided a stark contrast to the swank atmosphere of 1300. April's is a no-frills neighborhood spot, with fluorescent lighting shining down on a dozen Formica tables and a bank of deep fryers. Lil Wayne played on a cheap boom box in the corner next to a TV with the volume turned off.
It was at least 80 degrees inside the restaurant and I did not feel like eating anything more than a bowl of ice chips. Still, I laid into the chicken. The texture was good, and everything was greasy and salty enough that we kept eating even though the heat and the lights encouraged us to do otherwise. It was also served atop a giant syrup-soaked waffle. Best of all, the food was cheap and the people working there were friendly, so it felt like a more familiar soul food dining experience.
The next day Josh and I pushed further out on 3rd Street to check out Frisco Fried. I’d been trying to eat there for a while, but it was almost never open. For some mysterious reason it serves dinner until only 6:45, and you’ll be told as much if you call on the phone. Duly warned, we ditched work early and got out there just after 6 p.m.
By all appearances Frisco Fried has all the trappings of a classic soul food joint. It’s got booths in the back, pictures of Muhammad Ali and a young MJ on the wall, and a menu that boasts the slogan “Fried With Pride.” The staff is incredibly friendly and the place has a great familial vibe to it.
While it was the prospect of fried chicken that originally brought me to Frisco Fried, I have to say it was the candied yams that left the most lasting impression. Yes, I ordered a plate of fried chicken while there – along with greens, mashed potatoes, and an impossibly large, tooth-achingly sweet glass of Kool-Aid. But the yams! The yams are the reason to visit Frisco Fried. They are warm and soft, and covered in a gooey bath of melted sugar. Next to the candied yams, the chicken was almost an afterthought – although I did manage to eat four pieces of it.
After so much fried chicken I could feel my arteries starting to harden, but I wanted to end on a high note. Even though the weather had cooled a bit, the sun was still out so I made my way to the SOMA back alley that Little Skillet calls home.
There are so many cool things about this place it’s hard to know where to begin. The food is great – which is a given considering that Little Skillet is the younger sibling of Farmer Brown. However, it’s the details that really make this place exceptional. It’s got every condiment you could ever want for your chicken and waffles – syrup, honey, two kinds of hot sauce – and artisan drinks like homemade sweet tea and mint blueberry lemonade. They’ve got finger food desserts like mini pecan pies and red velvet cupcakes, and every day there’s a different po’ boy on the menu.
My favorite thing, though, is how it all comes together. Little Skillet is nothing more than a service window tucked into a small alley on the fringe of SF’s multimedia gulch. Yet it somehow all works in a beautiful, quirky way. Padded seat cushions are available for customers to use on the sunny loading dock across the street. A jerry-rigged speaker system pumps out classic soul jams while the crowds of scruffy tech guys and comely office girls stuff their faces with some of the best soul food around.
Speaking of which, the chicken at Little Skillet is 100% on point. Tender, crispy, and full of flavor. When you bite into it you can see the herbs and spices used in the marinating process. They use organic and locally produced ingredients, and the dishes are obviously prepared by professionals who have experience with a deep fryer.
I sat on the curb and polished off my chicken, then searched my to-go box for any morsel I might have missed. After five consecutive servings I was actually feeling like I’d had enough fried chicken for a while. I looked down at my expanding waistline and decided that I should hold off on thinking about my last meal and instead seek out a green salad and a gym membership.
As delicious as fried chicken is, most doctors would not recommend eating it five days in a row. Eating it only every once in a while is probably a much healthier approach. For a quick fix, swing by Little Skillet, where you can grab some chicken either to go or in sandwich form. For a more leisurely meal, make a post-show visit to 1300 in The Fillmore or a pregame stop at Hard Knox Café in Dogpatch. For the more adventuresome, a trip to either Auntie April's or Frisco Fried is on order. Just be sure to call in advance, because both places keep irregular hours.