Monday, November 22, 2010

A li'l bit o' chicken fry: Hill Country Chicken vs. Pies 'n' Thighs

(Fried Chicken Box at Pies 'n' Thighs in Brooklyn)

My friend, Daronté, tells the story of one particularly horrifying church potluck dinner, whereupon approaching the buffet table, his eyes were immediately drawn to a rather gargantuan platter of what he reckoned to be nearly twenty pounds of fried calamari.  Closer inspection, however, revealed that crispy golden breaded squid they were not, but rather an enormous mound of glistening chit'lins, the friendly southern soft-on-the-ears way of saying deep-fried pig intestines.  Daronté's mother, also somewhat baffled by the absurdly monstrous pile of chit'lins, immediately inquired of their preparer, "Lord, that's a whole lotta chit'lins... how long did it take you to clean 'em?"  Both mother and son recoiled in horror at her response, "Gurrrrllll... you're supposed to clean 'em?!?"

As far as I'm concerned, the words "offal" and "awful" are not merely homophonic, but synonymous.  To me, it's irrelevant if you give tripe pretty adjectives like "honeycomb" or if Danny Meyer calls it trippa alla trasteverina and masks it with pecorino and mint; it's the stomach of a hog.  And anyone naive enough to believe a rocky mountain oyster is really a shellfish deserves to eat a testicle unaware. While chit'lins nor hog balls ever crossed our Sunday dinner table at home, we did enjoy our own versions of soul food.  Mom, for example, popped chicken livers like m&ms by the handful.  After one particularly extravagantly indulgent evening of toothpick-skewered chicken liver with water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, however, she coiled up in such agony, that we had to rush her to the hospital.  By the next morning, her gallbladder had been removed.  Whether there existed a correlation didn't seem to matter much, and we never again saw chicken livers at home--to the chagrin of no one but mom, really.

I grew up in a one stoplight town in Indiana where the only restaurant catered to bikers, with a menu that featured (and still does) a fried cow brain sandwich.  Although I've seen nearly every unmentionable animal part on a dinner plate, the fact of the matter is that I just don't find it tasty... at all (with the rare exception of foie gras, which is so pureed it hardly resembles a liver at all, and is usually paired with some variation of a fig or citrus coulis, or caramelized apples).  While I sort of admire the thrifty waste-not-want-not mentality that has inspired so many to create recipes using pigs feet, skin, stomach, and yes, even poop tubes, when it comes to soul food, there's really only one dish that does it for me every single time.  Fried chicken.

Though I initially hoped to embark on a more extensive investigation of the current New York City hot spots serving up delicious southern comfort plates, the development of the first pimple on my forehead since puberty forced up my grease-spattered white flag after just three meals.  Admittedly, I would love to try the chicken sandwich at Lowcountry in the West Village with a fried cutlet on a cheddar biscuit smothered in pork fat gravy, and maybe even a side of their trotter tots (minced pigs feet hidden in tater tots might actually be passable as yummy).  But as I have no aspirations to join the ranks of Justin Bieber, Mandy Moore, Alyssa Milano, and Jessica Simpson as a poster child for Proactiv, I've opted to simply share my findings based on two particular fried chicken joints: Hill Country Chicken in Chelsea and Pies 'n' Thighs in Williamsburg.

Call me Forrest Gump, but fried chicken, after all, is sort of like a Christmas or birthday present.  If you had it all the time, it wouldn't be quite as special.  Furthermore, the makings of a truly spectacular present (or chicken breast) is one that's so splendidly wrapped, you just can't wait to see what's inside.  Or maybe the wrapping isn't glittery or different, but rather simple and comforting because it's the way your grandma wraps it the same every time.  But regardless of the packaging, no matter how great the gift wrap (or crispy coating), even the most wonderful exterior can be ruined if you tear it off only to reveal a boring pair of socks, or even worse some tacky yarn-crocheted doll with a plastic head intended to slip over a roll of toilet paper.  A truly great present is one that's thoughtfully wrapped and contains something special you wouldn't find just anywhere.  And great fried chicken, in my opinion, demands both a perfect coating and succulent, juicy, flavorsome meat inside.  Now that I've laid that all out on the table, here's what I found during my (albeit brief) Big Apple fried chicken exploration...

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Hill Country Chicken (1123 Broadway at 25th St.)

If you find yourself in the foodie hub known as Madison Square Park, but aren't in search of truffles by the gram at Eataly or a sea urchin cappuccino at Eleven Madison Park, swing by the newly opened Hill Country Chicken, dishing up southern favorites with a twist.  The country clad kitchenette is serve-yourself, and at peak times the line can get pretty long.  But the wait is well worth it, and the queue moves quickly.  Here's a tip for even faster service: if you plan on ordering one of the sandwiches, turn it in right away, as they are made to order and take a few minutes.  Then you can pick out any side dishes or pies, pay, and fill your glass with strawberry lemonade or mint tea while you wait.

Fried chicken ranges from a $1.75 drumstick to a $5.50 breast and comes in two varieties: classic or Mama Els'.  Both versions are brined in buttermilk, which seals in all of the juices and flavor, resulting in what was undeniably the most deliciously tender and substantial chicken I have ever enjoyed.  The classic recipe (left) leaves the skin on, with a hearty southern spice rub with lots of paprika.  If you enjoy a crisp skin with just the right amount of seasonings, classic is the way to go.  Mama Els' version has the skin removed, but it's replaced with a crunchy batter that tastes of herbs and sweet onions.  Although some may prefer a thicker coating, as soon as your teeth sink into the juicy meat, I think you'll agree that anything more isn't really needed.

They use only all-natural Bell & Evans chickens, humanely raised, fed an all-vegetable diet, and air-chilled to preserve flavor and moisture.  The breasts are enormous, and I easily cut a full inch into mine before hitting bone.

Buttermilk drop biscuits are perfection at $1 each, but for $27 you can get a Pick of the Chick, which includes 2 of each part of the chicken (breast, thigh, drum, and wing) with four biscuits (ends up to be a savings of $3).

Just a week before at New York magazine's food and wine event, I had actually sampled Hill Country Chicken's texas hand roll, which almost singlehandedly inspired my visit to their restaurant in the first place.  Each hand roll is $9, but cut in half, and easily enough to share.  Tender fried chicken strips are brushed with a sweet and spicy red pepper jelly, dressed with creamy coleslaw, and folded into a whole wheat tortilla.  The result tastes like a savory, seasoned thai chicken wrap, and I will most likely order it every time I visit.

The fried pimento cheese sandwich is absolutely outrageous.  Pimento cheese spread is slathered between slices of soft white bread, dipped in batter, and fried.  When you bite into one of these guys, warm cheese comes dripping out of the corners and falls in golden dollops on the table.  It's salty, excessive, and quite frankly my favorite grilled cheese sandwich.  Yum.

The Hill Country Club is a superior sandwich, showcasing an enormous, juicy, boneless breaded chicken breast with a creamy blanket of remoulade, sliced red tomatoes, avocado, and crisscrossed strips of applewood smoked bacon.  The picture doesn't do it justice, but this big guy is colossal.

Sides come in two different sizes ($2.50 or $5) and are ladled to generously overflowing portions if you dine in (otherwise, the flat lid denies you of the dine-in double portion).  The cheesy fried mashed potatoes are decadent, lumpy skin-on smashed potatoes blended with crispy french fries and cheddar cheese.  Each bite is a heavenly mix of creamy spud, hearty skins, crispy fried bits, and salty and smooth melted cheese.

In the kitchen, you can see glistening heads of freshly washed cabbage used to make their crisp and creamy classic coleslaw.  Blistered corn salad is served chilled, a sweet and vinegary contrast to the otherwise creamy and filling dishes.

A liquor license is on the way, but in the meantime, they offer unheard-of-in-Manhattan free refills on fresh squeezed strawberry lemonade, mint ice tea, and Boylan's fountain sodas.

To conserve time, order from the pie counter when you order your meal.  Pies are available in individual 3-inch cups for $3, by the slice for $5, or as a 5 inch ($6) or 11 inch ($40) whole pie.

If you aren't in a rush, grab a refill and take your dessert downstairs, where the staff is most likely enjoying a family meal in the far corner, and more casual diners are tucked into booths surrounded by wood-paneled walls covered with old country album covers or hand-painted folk art.  There's even an Atari video machine, and a shelf of board games at your disposal (and no, you can't play with the Lite Brite... I asked).

Even the bathroom wallpaper adds to the feeling that you're in your childhood best friend's basement den for an evening of Connect Four or Monopoly.

From a window in the downstairs dining room, you can observe as a rosy-cheeked woman, who could be anyone's aunt, churns a blend of spices into stewing apple wedges in preparation for the cheddar apple pie.

Along the next counter, one of the bakers fills pie tins with stones before sliding them into the oven, which prevents the crust from bubbling and cracking in the heat.

The apple cheddar pie was the only one that really disappointed.  The crust with tiny cheddar bits was quite delicious, but the filling was somewhat bland.  Sour apples with pastry and cheddar cheese need a sweet component this pie lacked.  Next time, we'll try it a la mode (add $1.50)

The cowboy pie, on the other hand, was delicious and rich.  Sort of like a gooey candy bar pie, it is comprised of bittersweet chocolate and butterscotch morsels with coconut and pecans baked into a graham cracker crust.

Beyond much contest, however, my favorite was the bourbon buttermilk pie.  Sort of like a sweet custard cream pie infused with a soft whisper of Maker's Mark, it was the perfect ending for an exceptional southern meal.

The banana cream pie was also worthy of top honors, with whole chunks of banana buried in a fluffy pudding, crowned with a light-as-a-cloud mountain of fresh whipped cream.

Hopefully it goes without saying that all of this was consumed over the course of a few visits, with enough leftovers to take home to supply meals for a week.  The friends who enjoyed our monstrous doggy bag confirmed that Hill Country is equally delicious cold the next day, if not even better... the true test of great fried chicken.

Hill Country Chicken on Urbanspoon

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Pies 'n' Thighs (166 S. 4th St at Driggs, Brooklyn)

Where Hill Country Chicken could easily pass as a Disney theme park restaurant with its pristine gingham interior, Pies 'n' Thighs in Williamsburg is almost an efforted polar opposite.  I felt somewhat out of place without a knit skull-cap, unbuttoned plaid flannel over a vintage t-shirt, an ear plug, or any visible tattoos at this corner store that feels more like hipster headquarters than a fried chicken joint.  One retro-clad, bubble-gum-punk-glitter nail-polished customer sat buried in a book in the front window with a scowl on her face the entire time, and never even ordered so much as a french fry.

Apropos for Williamsburg, the decor is an exactingly constructed over-the-top attempt to come across effortless.  Mismatched school chairs and dilapidated tables with hand-painted signs, plastic piggy banks, and concession stand snap-letter menu boards essentially achieve the ambiance of a rundown school cafeteria rather than a hip Brooklyn pie shop.  I had to chuckle that such a free-spirited joint uses Frank's Hot Sauce, yet takes the time to transfer it to plastic tabletop condiment squeeze bottles just for effect.  Considering their previous location under the Williamsburg Bridge was shut down by the Department of Health, maybe it's simply more sanitary than marrying partially emptied glass bottles.  

Though atmosphere certainly plays a key role in dining, who goes to a restaurant to lick the walls or chairs?  When it comes to the actual Pies 'n' Thighs menu itself, it actually is no frills, and pretty darn tasty.  Described on the website as southern food with Mexican and hippie influence, sure, the place is probably a pot smoker's dream.  As far as culinary influences go, a drizzle here and there of hot sauce doesn't make for a fusion menu in my opinion (a taco of the week and huevos rancheros are the only two "mexican" items I spotted).  Yet another attempt at edginess, let's call a spade a spade.  The menu is well-executed standard southern fare.  Though they offer fried catfish, brisket, pulled pork, and even a burger, we attempted to stick to the task at hand: fried chicken.  They're called Pies 'n' Thighs, after all... Quite a good deal at $11, the Fried Chicken Box (above) comes with a breast, thigh, and leg, as well as choice of side and a biscuit.

Take a close-up gander at that golden coating.  It's every bit as crunchy as you could hope, salty, and deliciously greasy.  While the chicken inside is actually tender and moist, there's a lot less actual meat than the chicken at Hill Country.  The chicken at P-n-T is the kind you really have to work for, wiggling your fingers between the bones for sloppy slippery bits of meat.  I'd almost rather have a boneless cutlet with a side of fried bits, as my hand began to cramp up after the second bite.  As far as the biscuit goes, it's buttery, but a little too firm.  Crumbled bits break off, and though buttery delicious, teeter on dry.

The perfect solution to a dry biscuit, and reason alone to return to Pies 'n' Thighs again and again, is this little guy pictured above... the Chicken Biscuit for a mere $5.  A simple sandwich of a boneless breaded fried chicken cutlet is drenched in melted honey butter and hot sauce, which runs across the plate like a Dixie sunset.

But the blue ribbon winner of my affection was the B&G (biscuits and gravy) for $8.  The biscuit soaked  up a luxuriously browned country gravy, which was creamy, peppery, and speckled with whole rosemary leaves.  The large lumps of herbed sausage were juicy and delicious, and to my palate, reigned far superior to the chicken.  One of my favorite dishes my mom made for me on Sunday mornings growing up, this was a mouthwatering rendition.

As far as side dishes go, I'd skip the fries.  Lift this image from my blog, and you'd probably guess this was a pile of McDonald's fries, no?  They're decent enough, and crispy, but don't hold heat very well.  My friend really wanted to try them, and so we did, but I'd recommend the other options instead.

I actually loved the mac 'n cheese for it's simplicity.  Elbow macaroni boiled to al dente with creamy cheese sauce is hard to beat.  Too many restaurants offer jazzed up baked versions with artisan cheese blends, but when it comes to comfort food that yanks you back to childhood, this version is topnotch.  The slight drizzle of hot sauce adds just enough vinegar and cayenne to cut the creaminess for a surprisingly brightly flavored side dish.

The spicy black eyed peas are served cold as a salad, and despite the name, stir up only a mild kick.  Sweet and zippy, it's not what you might typically expect, but it offers a nice contrast to the other sides.  You can even make a meal of the sides for $10, called a superbowl, which includes your choice of any three along with a biscuit (other sides include creamed spinach, collards, grits, baked beans, potato salad,  and hush puppies).

Exhibit caution when it comes to ordering dessert.  The pie that caught our eye was labeled peanut butter chocolate, and so we ordered a slice based solely on its appearance.  What's the point of a display case with cute little handwritten labels if the labels are misleading?

It turns out that we should have asked for the chocolate pudding pie, but our server had dropped the plate and napkins and disappeared before we had time to realize the faux pas.  Figuring any pie would be good, we simply dug in.  It was exactly what the label one shelf below the real pie claimed it to be.  A dense wedge of peanut butter with a thin layer of chocolate on top.  One slice of this pie could have kept Mister Ed's horse chomps moving for few half hour episodes, at the very least.  I've already smacked my lips five times since uploading this picture to the blog a few seconds ago.

The apple fry, however, was far superior to the apple cheddar pie at Hill Country Chicken.  This fried turnover pastry is filled with caramelized, spiced apples, and the perfect balance of sweet and tart, served with a scoop of ice cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar.  An all around delicious (and fried) version of an all-American classic.  Apple pie is also available by the slice, or served with a slice of sharp cheddar.  Pie flavors vary by the day, and sometimes feature unique spins like guava cheesecake alongside the standards.  Slices range from $4.50 to $6, and whole pies are available for $30 with at least  one day's advance notice.  Their cinnamon & sugar dusted cake doughnut for $2 was voted the best by New York Magazine.

Drinks include lemonade, fresh-squeezed OJ, sweet tea, a morir soñando (milk & citrus beverage over crushed ice, like a central american creamsicle), and a selection of beer (Brooklyn brewery, of course) and wine (actually crafted by a sister of one of the owners in France.)

Service balanced the tightrope between pleasant and terse, though the waitstaff seemed cheerful with one another, as well as the non-eating clients gathered in the front of the store.  Our handwritten check was presented before our pie was even delivered, without the option to order coffee or another drink before our ephemeral waitress again vanished into oblivion.  A cutesy heart on the bottom corner doesn't compensate for lackluster service that slighted us several times throughout our meal.  I don't care if you change my fork between plates.  I can lick off the hot sauce before I dig into the apple pie.  But when I hand my server the cash for the bill (of course, they're cash only) and ask for just $5 back (resulting in a 25% tip, despite the marginal hospitality one could assume would be better to accompany the southern cusine), there's no excuse that we're sitting thirsty and waiting for change fifteen minutes later.  Too tired to argue, we simply left.

I hope the extra tip went toward something extra special.  Because despite the fact I really enjoyed a few things, when you factor in the service with the somewhat off the beaten path location, it's more likely I'll stop by Hill Country Chicken each time than take a gamble at Pies 'n' Thighs.

Pies 'n' Thighs on Urbanspoon


Ben said...

Thanks for the great review! I really enjoy your blogs. I was just that check at Pies 'n' Thighs supposed to be $47.90 as opposed to $7.90? Thanks.

Kim said...

Thank you for the thorough post on these 2 fried chicken places. I'm going to NYC this week and want to have some fried chicken while I'm there. After reading the post and looking at your excellent pics, you'd got me convinced to try Hill Country Chicken and save myself the trek to Brooklyn.

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