Something to cluck about
Austin’s best fried chicken sandwiches
After opening a slew of award-winning Asian-inspired restaurants around the globe, chef David Chang introduced his fried chicken sandwich concept, Fuku, to New York City earlier this year. French-born chef Ludo Lefebvre operates the successful fried chicken spot, LudoBird, in Los Angeles. It’s safe to say that the fried chicken sandwich is having a moment.
The appeal of fried chicken is not a new thing, as evidenced by the flock of fast food franchises that have packed drive-thru lanes for years. But now every one seems to be getting into the fried chicken sandwich game. In a time when comfort food is surging in popularity, the fried chicken sandwich is the most convenient and chameleonic delivery mechanism.
You start with fried chicken — crunchy, greasy, well-seasoned and tender — and from there the possibilities are endless. Chefs can use the bird as a blank slate,adding globe-spanning flavors, toying with condiments, and experimenting with marinades, breading and frying techniques.
I ate about 20 fried chicken sandwiches in search of Austin’s finest. These were the best I ate. Don’t see your favorite? Chances are I tried it and don’t agree with your opinion. But there’s always a chance I missed one. If you think I did, feel free to email me.
1. Thai Fresh
909 W. Mary St. 512-494-6436, thai-fresh.com
The place: Jam Sanitchat and husband Bruce Barnes opened their South Austin Thai cafe in 2008, and it has grown from a counter-service spot to a full-service restaurant that was at the forefront of the innovative no-tipping policy in Austin. Sanitchat still teaches several Thai cooking classes each week at the restaurant that now also serves vegan ice cream and gluten-free and vegan baked goods. While Thai Fresh has doubled in size, its South Austin spirit of community and inclusiveness has remained the same for almost a decade.
The sandwich: Sanitchat, who has familial and culinary roots in Thailand, met Barnes while working at Austin Southern-cooking institution Hoover’s. Thailand and the South are wed in this crunchy, knobby auburn hulk of fried chicken thigh. The meat is tenderized and marinated in coconut milk and Thai chilies, giving it a sweet and spicy soul. A dredge of rice and tapioca flours and potato starch makes for gluten-free fried chicken. Fish sauce, lime juice and garlic give puckering punch to mayonnaise that covers the expanse of a sturdy but fluffy whole wheat bun from fellow South Austinites Moonlight Bakery, and Thai chilies find more room for expression in thin-cut, tart pickles. A former special, the sandwich now has a regular place on the menu. With good reason. ($14, includes tip)
2. Odd Duck
1201 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-433-6521, oddduckaustin.com
The place: The window-wrapped restaurant shines with modernist sparkle but maintains the rustic soul that fueled the namesake trailer that first brought chef-partner and four-time James Beard finalist Bryce Gilmore to attention. The hodgepodge of vintage dishware and penciled measurements of staff members’ heights on a column in the back of the restaurant add to the homey vibe.
The sandwich: It’s almost not a fair fight. Gilmore and Co. take an artisanal approach to everything they do. So, when they choose to elevate a burger, taco or fried chicken sandwich, those foods ascend to almost unrecognizable heights. I mean,who uses creamy homemade egg salad as the base spread for a sandwich? It spills from hearty “birdman bread” flecked with sunflower and sesame seeds. The sandwich hits myriad flavor points with savory fried chicken breast and thigh,sweet honey mustard, tangy and aromatic pickled fennel, cool mint and spicy Thai chili. ($12)
3. Luke’s Inside Out
1109 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-589-8883, lukesinsideout.com
The place: You don’t expect rosemary beef loin or cranberry potatoes with an arugula salad from a trailer, but this isn’t your average trailer. Chef-owner Luke Bibby worked in Austin kitchens and catered backstage for musicians for decades before launching this little red trailer with his merry band of pranksters outside the Gibson bar.
The sandwich: Here’s a messy sandwich well suited for the sloppy drunk or the more dignified dinner crowd. Bibby has a professed love for Szechuan cuisine, and it’s evident in this saucy sandwich that puts a slight numb on your lips with Szechuan peppercorns. The sticky marinade means less of a shell on this fried sandwich dressed out with Sichuan mayonnaise, red onion and tangy cabbage slaw and toasted sesame seeds that linger with a nutty finish. The soft baguette never stood a chance. ($10)
4. Jack Allen’s Kitchen
7720 Texas 71. 512-852-8558; 2500 Hoppe Trail, Round Rock. 512-215-0372; 3600 Loop 360. 512-351-9399; jackallenskitchen.com
The place: One of the godfathers of the Austin dining scene (and actual father of one of its best chefs, Bryce Gilmore), former Z’Tejas executive chef Jack Gilmore has created a demi-empire with his refined country kitchens that have developed legions of fans outside the center of town.
The sandwich: The menu promises to chicken fry just about anything. So, while there’s no fried chicken sandwich on the menu, you can still get a fried chicken breast subbed for the meat of other sandwich creations. Go with the Fat Jack. Unlike his son, pops doesn’t take a highfalutin approach to the fried chicken sandwich. Yes, the mayonnaise gets a jalapeño kick, and the dill pickles are homemade (when local cucumbers are in season), but this beast comes straight at your nostalgia centers with sweet and smoky hickory sauce, a layer of melting cheddar cheese and crispy slabs of bacon that extend beyond the bun on all sides. ($10.99)
5. Shake Shack
1100 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-717-0430. 11228 Domain Drive. 512-717-0422. shakeshack.com
The place: What started as a burger stand in New York City has spread across the country,bolstered by quality ingredients and founder Danny Meyer’s famous commitment to service.
The sandwich: The Chick’n Shack took up permanent real estate on the Shake Shack menu early this year. Yes, it’s a fast food sandwich. But it’s one of the best fast food sandwiches you’ll ever eat, and the prime ingredient comes from cage-free chickens that haven’t been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. That’s not a claim all fast food outfits can make. Beyond those questions of quality and ethics, it just tastes great. The breast is juicy from a buttermilk marinade and fried to a firm, crunchy finish that glistens with oil. Shredded lettuce gives a cool, crisp counter-crunch to the chicken, and the puffed potato roll is slathered evenly with a tangy buttermilk mayo brightened with chives, parsley and thyme. ($5.95)
500 W. Fifth St. 512-888-9133, austinfixe.com
The place: Though it’s located in the bottom of a downtown bank building, executive chef James Robert’s restaurant does its best to transport diners to the South, with country touches like a central dining area outlined in chicken wire and a menu of Southern staples like biscuits, grits and fried chicken.
The sandwich: The nutty sweetness of dried sun chokes ground into the flour make this bun the most interesting in the group. The pillowy roll does its best to contain a massive hunk of burnished fried chicken marinated in hot sauce, buttermilk and pickle juice. Fixe doesn’t counter its mayonnaise with spiciness, instead doubling down on richness by using chicken fat in the creamy mixture. Sweet tea pickles contribute an acidic touch in an effort to cut the savory monster. Bless their hearts. ($9)
7. Lebowski’s Grill
8909 Burnet Road. 512-419-7166, highlandlanes.com/lebowskis-grill
The place: There’s something about the soundtrack of bowling balls rolling down the floor and sending pins careening into one another that adds to the dining experience.
The sandwich: Food is not an afterthought at this bowling alley in North Austin. Some folks pop into Highland Lanes solely to dine, yours truly included. The chicken breast is marinated in white wine, Worcestershire and hot sauce for a tangy bite wrapped in a dark, rippled shell. A sweet, shining bun from Lil’ Mama’s up in Pflugerville is spread with chipotle-lime mayonnaise, its kick supported by pepper Jack cheese and slippery, charred poblano pepper strips. “Mark it eight, Dude.” ($10)
8. Top Notch
7525 Burnet Road. 512-452-2181, topnotchaustin.com
The place: Car-hop stalls, charcoal grills, the hard red chairs and vintage paper cup design … a meal at Top Notch is a time-traveling experience back to the restaurant’s 1971 opening and beyond.
The sandwich: The group of owners who bought the restaurant in 2010 stayed true to the original sandwich. The Stanish family, who founded Top Notch, turned over the chicken’s secret recipe, and it remains a secret to this day. The milk wash and seasoned flour make for a pale, soft crust with a supple breast underneath. The thin church-picnic bun comes swathed generously with tangy mayonnaise, and a simple dress of tomato, crunchy lettuce and rounds of pickles makes for a classic finish. ($4.99)
9. 24 Diner
600 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-472-5400, 24diner.com
The place: The diner that opened in 2009 served as the cornerstone for a restaurant group that has since gone on to open Easy Tiger and Italic. It also filled the sorely lacking fried-chicken-and-waffles niche in Austin and gave late-night and early-early-morning diners another convenient 24-hour option.
The sandwich: Life is about relationships, your mom or grandfather or some sagacious teacher likely once told you. The bun here is proof. The pan au lait is made by Easy Tiger, and it is as soft as a marshmallow and not quite as sweet as those overreaching buns at other joints. You can order dark or white meat for your fried chicken sandwich. Dark is the right choice, obviously. Salty, juicy meat is wrapped in a crumbly copper shell, with the trio of chipotle remoulade, pickles and apricot slaw grooving like a spicy-tangy-sweet double Dutch. ($15.95)
10. Lucy’s Fried Chicken
2218 College Ave. 512-297-2423; 5408 Burnet Road. 512-514-0664; 2900 RM 620 N.512-297-2771; lucysfriedchicken.com
The place: Don’t let his upmarket Olivia on South Lamar Boulevard fool you; chef James Holmes is still a country boy at heart. If the ’70s-era country records on the wall don’t convince you, his menu will.
The sandwich: Holmes first caught my attention with his room-temperature fried chicken served on the weekends at Olivia. While he serves his hot fried chicken on the bone at Lucy’s, he takes it off the bone and chops it up for the fried chicken salad sandwich. The scattered bits of soft skin distribute salty surprises through out the creamy mixture blushed with crunchy cabbage slaw. Assertive pumpernickel turns this take on the fried chicken sandwich into Texas’ answer to smoked salmon spread on toast you might find in more genteel parts of the country. ($8.75)