As a medical professional who watches her diet, Cathie Jankowski, a nurse practitioner at Roswell Park, believes that if she wants fried chicken, she'd better make it count.
So when the mood strikes, it's Fat Bob's Smokehouse for her, Jankowski said. The Virginia Place barbecue restaurant's crusty, juicy fried chicken is "my ultimate comfort food," she said.
"I would go more often if my husband would let me," Jankowski confessed recently, "but I get it two or three times a year."
Many fried chicken lovers don't allow themselves this indulgence often, so The News decided to ask people for tips to their favorite chicken places, to help them make those caloric splurges count. We're not going to crown a champion, but guide fried chicken aficionados to worthy contenders recommended by our readers.
After all, fried chicken can be found plenty of places besides Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets (now officially named KFC). Besides its 10 local outlets, Western New York has plenty more crispy birds to offer.
Interpretations don't count, no matter how tasty. SeaBar's tempura-battered chicken thighs and savory waffles won mentions. So did Kuni's "KFC," Kuni's Fried Chicken, breast chunks expertly fried into nuggets -- but that's another category altogether.
No, it was fried chicken we were after -- chicken with bones and crispy skin that's so good we did not regret, even for an instant, the grease on our fingers.
At Fat Bob's, the fried chicken arrives, without apology, with a side of sausage gravy for dunking drumsticks. It's the Southern version of wings in blue cheese dressing.
"It's got to be very moist, and the batter has to have a good flavor to it," Jankowski said of the fried chicken dinner ($14.50 with two sides, like sweet potato fries and gooey mac and cheese).
Much of the fried chicken sold in Buffalo has a lighter coating of seasoned flour, still crispy but not crunchy like the buttermilk-soaked versions. A good example is the fried chicken at McKenzie's Southern Meats, a food stand at the Broadway Market.
At lunchtime recently, a line of hungry people waited for one of McKenzie's soul food lunches, dished up for about $8 with sides like okra with corn, and black-eyed peas.
"That's my favorite fried chicken spot," said Erin Ash, a senior caseworker with the Erie County Department of Social Services. "It's crispy on the outside with a nice, moist inside -- a perfect piece of chicken to me."
Ash said that she didn't really get into fried chicken before moving to Buffalo 10 years ago. "We never had fried chicken growing up. It was baked, or in soup," she said. Since arriving in Buffalo, she's tried the fried chicken in about 15 places, and set her standards.
"I like the Southern style, rolled in flour and fried," she said. "The outside, the skin has to be completely cooked and crisped."
The chicken at Pandora's Sports Bar on Fillmore Avenue won her approval, but Ash comes back to McKenzie's. "The wings are my favorite," she said. On the side, she likes the mac and cheese, stewed cabbage and peach cobbler.
At Buckeye's Chicken, in a former KFC building on Michigan Avenue, we enjoyed more thin-skinned chicken, at $7.99 for a four-piece, with two sides and a biscuit. We found some pieces cooler than the rest. While still tasty, it was chewier than the hotter, fresher piece, which suggested a good rule for fried chicken: look for the heat lamp.
Places that fry a bunch of chicken and wait for people to buy it can't deliver the same level of crispiness. As soon as the chicken is out of the fryer, its steaming moisture starts to undo its glorious surface texture.
At Mattie's, an East Side soul food standard, our chicken was fried to order and worth the wait. It was hot enough to make you think twice and tasty enough to keep you eating. It's $8.10 for a dinner (breast, wing, two sides) and $6.15 for a value meal (thigh, leg, fries).
Matt Kresconko doesn't have to go far for a fried chicken fix. He's a Tops supermarket pharmacist, and the chicken the store's hot food section prepares does hit the spot, especially fresh out of the fryer. "That's key," he said.
But when he gets the chance, nothing beats the buttermilk fried chicken at Allen Street Hardware, Kresconko said. It's $15 for a breast with wing, thigh and leg, plus two sides (usually the collard greens, cooked with smoked ham hocks, and mac and cheese).
It's the crust that makes the difference, he said.
"Whatever goes in to the actual breading, whatever they season it with, it's so good," said Kresconko. "The skin is just so different than any fried chicken I usually eat -- it keeps all the flavors in there well. It's a cocoon of crunch that keeps all the juiciness and flavor on the inside."
Allen Street Hardware Chef Dunbar Berdine said there's two important points to the crust. Berdine soaks his chicken in buttermilk, for two hours to two days. The chicken gradually gains tenderness the longer it soaks, he said. "It won't affect the crust much, but it tenderizes the chicken for sure."
Then the chicken gets dropped into a lidded container with seasoned flour and shaken vigorously. When the buttermilk clinging to the chicken mixes with the flour, "it creates almost like a batter," he said, which fries up into a wavy, mahogany-colored crust.
After buttermilk and a floury shake, timing is key to great fried chicken, Berdine said. "The trick, really, is to not let it sit around too long after it comes out of the fryer."
>Reader recommendations for fried chicken:
Allen Street Hardware, 245 Allen St., 882-8843. Buttermilk fried chicken.
Buckeye's Chicken, 401 Michigan Ave., 852-1829. Fried chicken.
Fat Bob's Smokehouse, 41 Virginia Place, 887-2971. Buttermilk fried chicken.
Fiamma Steak, 1735 Hertel Ave., 8342662. Buttermilk fried chicken.
Garris' Bar-B-Cue, 200 William St., 854-4005. Fried chicken.
Gigi's, 257 E. Ferry St., 883-1438. Fried chicken; chicken and waffles.
Mattie's, 1412 Fillmore Ave., 597-0755. Fried chicken; chicken and waffles.
McKenzie's Southern Meats, 999 Broadway (Broadway Market) 897-4052. Fried chicken.
Pandora's Sports Bar, 2261 Fillmore Ave., 803-1335. Fried chicken.RTR Breakfast Unlimited, 1738 Pierce Ave., Niagara Falls, 371-7685. Fried chicken.