Houston Is the Country’s Ultimate Fried Chicken Destination

Appreciating the crunchy goodness that is fried chicken is universal. But in Houston, options for the “Gospel Bird” abound like nowhere else. I’ll wager that no other city’s offerings can compare with the caliber of crispy, craggy, juicy poultry on display in the Bayou City. And I’m not alone.

“Houston is a fascinating place for [fried chicken],” says culinary historian and soul food scholar Adrian E. Miller. “I can’t think of too many other places that celebrate the various forms of fried chicken as much as Houston has.”

Miller, who has visited Clutch City to try its various forms of fried fowl, says there are multiple theories about how Houston’s unparalleled appreciation for fried chicken and the various cultural renditions of this iconic Southern dish came to be. For one, Houston — the fourth largest city in the country — is also labeled as the most diverse, home to one of the country’s largest Nigerian populations, vibrant historically Black enclaves, the rapid growth of local Asiatowns, and expansive Latino and immigrant communities. With that comes notable culinary contributions, Miller says.

A local food writer first suggested that chef Kaiser Lashkari start frying up chickens at his restaurant, Himalaya, and the result, laden with spices, has been dampening foreheads and loosening the collars of Houstonians in the five years since. Though he was raised Parsi, Lashkari’s riff on classic fried chicken is fully his own. First he removes the skin, and then he trims the chicken and marinates it in a combination of Indian spices for three days before frying it in what he calls the American Southern way: in vegetable oil in a small Indian fryer. The steps are intricate — Lashkari dumps the frying oil after every four whole chickens emerge from the oil deeply gilded and crisp — and the results are remarkable: flavorful, juicy, and lightly crusted fried chicken served with a side of tangy “magic mustard” sauce billed as one of Houston’s favorites. “You don’t miss the skin because of the way we fry it,” Lashkari says.

Palestinian restaurant Al Aseel also employs a taste of home, seasoning crispy chicken with spices imported from Jerusalem. Though owner Ali Khatib and his kitchen staff are secretive about the specifics, previous reports note spices like sumac, oregano, and za’atar give the chicken its tangy flavor. (Sides of cucumber-tomato salad and earthy, yellow rice don’t hurt, either.)

Across town at Dak & Bop, chef and owner Jason Cho combines his love for wings, his Korean heritage, and his upbringing in the Southwest Houston working-class suburb of Alief to create a unique version of Korean fried chicken with a “paper-thin exterior” for maximum crispiness, he says.

Fried to order, the chicken is butchered in-house, then covered in a secret batter (not cornstarch-based, Cho says), double-fried, and evenly brushed by hand with seasonings and sauces made in South Korea, including sweet-and-savory soy garlic, truffle Parmesan, Sriracha honey lime, buffalo, and a zesty house-made lemon pepper that’s unlike any other in the city. The experience of biting into a piping hot leg or tender is comparable to crunching on a potato chip. “Even if I’m six, seven steps away, I should still hear you biting into the chicken,” Cho says.

Left: A cook at Dak & Bop lifts a large basket of freshly fried chicken out of the fryer. Right: A cook brushes pieces of chicken with sauce.

At Dak & Bop, lifting a large basket of freshly fried chicken out of the fryer.

Brushing pieces of chicken with sauce at Dak & Bop.

That crispy-fried texture is another reason Houston — and Texas in general — is such a hotbed for great fried chicken. This is the state that invented the corn dog and “fried Coke,” after all (the creator of the latter we’ve lovingly dubbed Fried Jesus) and upkeeps its reputation for intensely creative fried fair foods.

“I don’t know if it’s built into the DNA, but we just love the crunch,” says Jay P. Francis, a retired engineer and Houston food blogger who launched the Fried Chicken Blog in 2013. “And there’s something about human beings and fried flour. Think about it: doughnuts, potato chips, you name it. We love things that are fried and battered.”

That cooking tradition, like Houston itself, has its roots in the culture of America’s South. Though the first documented recipe for fried chicken can be found in an 18th-century British cookbook, Americans later adopted their version of this deep-fried delight. White Southerners initially viewed poultry as a delicacy used for indulgent feasts or as prime fuel for farmers looking for a calorically dense meal, says Marshall Scarborough, vice president of menu and culinary innovation for the fried chicken chain restaurant Bojangles. African Americans, who memorized the recipes from their days as enslaved cooks, later transformed the dish into their own, making way for soul food renditions that evolved throughout generations and cemented special gatherings, says Miller.

Along the way, Houston consistently served as a destination for European and East Asian immigrants, enslaved Africans and formerly enslaved Black Americans, and other communities from across the American South fleeing racial oppression, poverty, and natural disasters like the Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The founding of Freedmen’s Town in the city’s Fourth Ward further attracted former slaves who were looking to live free from the constant violence and discrimination they’d experienced while on plantations and in other extremely segregated Southern cities. As these communities flowed into Houston, they adapted their own cultural practices and culinary traditions involving the ingredients they brought with them and the local ingredients they were met with upon their arrival. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, those many adjustments evolved into new styles and treatments of what are now iconic dishes — dishes like fried chicken.

A cook empties a basket of crisp, freshly fried chicken onto a wire rack under warming lamps.

A cook at Frenchy’s empties a basket of crisp, freshly fried chicken onto a wire rack under warming lamps.

That legacy can be seen today in stalwarts like Frenchy’s, a Black-owned franchise that opened in 1969 when Percy “Frenchy’s” Creuzot introduced New Orleans-style Creole food to Houston in a quick-service format. Now with 11 locations and a new outpost opening this spring, the Southern-style fast-food chain has become an undeniable city staple, known for attracting long lines that stretch into the streets and chicken that’s earned a seal of approval from lifelong customers as well as celebrities, including Houston’s own Beyoncé.

“After church on Sundays, people would get in that line and stay for 45 minutes, and it would wrap around the block,” Frenchy’s architect Paul Heisler says. “It boggles the mind that someone would sit in a line for 45 minutes and enjoy themselves, but it’s a testament to how good the food is and how traditional it is.”

The recipe behind the beloved chicken “is so simple that it would be unbelievable,” says King Creuzot, 73, who took over the company in 1989 following his father’s retirement. Fresh chicken, never frozen or marinated, gets covered in a special breading and fried in a way that’s “no different than someone would do at their house on a Sunday,” Creuzot says. “We drop it in the fryer and magic happens.”

A spread of fried catfish, fried shrimp, jalapeños, egg rolls, hush puppies, greens, and a biscuit from Frenchy’s.

Frenchy’s other offerings include fried catfish and shrimp, greens, egg rolls, hush puppies, jalapeños, and biscuits.

The city’s Southern spirit also lives on at the Barbecue Inn, a comfort food haven that has served fried chicken to four generations since opening in 1946. Though the offerings here are straightforward, including a crunchy fried chicken platter served with fries and a lettuce-and-tomato salad, the restaurant prides itself on the consistency of both its loyal customers and the quality of its food. “It’s like what your mom would make,” says David Skrehot, who co-owns the space with his father, Wayne.

In addition to the plethora of diverse homegrown establishments and Southern-style institutions, Houston boasts arguably more national and international chicken chains than almost any other city in America. That includes tried-and-true American favorites like Popeyes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s Chicken, and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, but also Jollibee from the Philippines and South Korea’s BonChon. And it’s only expected to get better. Following a modest online campaign of begging Bojangles to come to Houston, the franchise will soon make the city its home, and more options are on the way, including NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal’s franchise, Big Chicken, which will open 50 locations across Texas.

In Houston, fried chicken is more than a dish — it’s a highly accessible art form, supported by locals and inspired by the unique mix of cultures and history that make Houston tick. From the just-like-your-momma-made purists to the vibrant sauces and shatteringly crisp coatings of the new establishments popping up daily, fried chicken will always be Houston’s object of obsession. “It’s nostalgic. It’s comfort food. It’s something you can eat as a family, and when you get it in a different way,” says Dak & Bop’s Cho, “it’s the best.”

“Fried chicken – done the right way – brings people together. It’s sharing food. It’s comforting,” Scarborough says. “We eat it when we’re celebrating, we eat it when we’re grieving … For centuries, it’s been a staple in the kitchens of many moms and grandmas. Recipes are passed down, tweaked, perfected.”

Arnea Williams is a Houston-based photographer.
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