Fried chicken abounds in Charleston, from fast-food chains to local joints to the first-come, first-served Tuesday night fried chicken plate at the Glass Onion. Even supermarket chicken is decent; we used to grab boxes of Mrs. Mac's at the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly before its untimely demise. It was good — tender and juicy on the inside, shatteringly crisp on the outside, with just the right touch of grease — an art many in Charleston understand well.
So why the hype for another chicken place? Perhaps it was the anticipation of James Beard-winning chef Robert Stehling and his business partner Dave Uecke — who have dished up Southern favorites for two decades at Hominy Grill — creating another culinary destination.
Chick's Fry House is a beautiful space. Architect Reggie Gibson channeled the classic Americana look right down to the red-white-and-blue color scheme. You feel like you're eating fried chicken while wrapped in an American flag. The large picture windows beckoning toward the street harken back to the building's earlier life in the 1930s as the Tower Drive-In Restaurant and flood the place with light.
But it's the food we're after, not the shtick. Chick's peppers us with promises of Southern-fried goodness with all the fixings from Grandma's kitchen, plus sweet tea, craft beers, and hot donuts. Have mercy! For months local news outlets (this one included) played ping-pong with speculative reports. What would the name be? When would it open? Did Bill Murray really show up for the invitation-only sneak peek?
Chick's opened its doors two months ago. There were early kinks, customers complaining about lack of salt and pepper on tables, or no hot sauce, both of which have since been remedied. The pick-up window does a brisk business already (though you must call ahead for your order). You can grab 12 pieces of chicken for a few friends, four sides, some biscuits, and five sodas. For $57. That's a bit pricier than the delicious bucket of eight, plus four sides, biscuits, and five sodas across town at Dodge's gas station available for $25.
As for Chick's, the chicken tastes fine. The meat itself, moderately juicy and a little salty from a dry rub, remains nothing revolutionary, just decent fried chicken.
Meanwhile the sides are also perfectly average: vinegary collards, Uncle Ben's-like rice with dark brown gravy, mildly seasoned limas, crunchy slaw with a touch of dill, and cafeteria-style crinkle fries. The only standout, a thick and doughy scratch biscuit.
Although I've eaten here numerous times, I'm yet to understand how to justify Chick's prices compared to its competitors. And the prices only increase. One month ago, the price for four sides was $10. Now it's $12 — same across the board. Who's paying? Not the immediate neighborhood, as far as I can tell. On my visits, multiple residents walked by with nary a glance through the glass of this spaceship that landed in North Central. Maybe they're too wise to come in and pay $15 for eight pieces of fried chicken that had been sitting under a heat lamp, when they could get that same amount at the Food Lion next door for $7.29 and watch the lady behind the counter fry it up.
The reality of the situation deserves reflection, even if it's a situation neither unique to Chick's nor particularly germane to the quality of the food. Dinner at Chick's means dining with an almost exclusively white clientele — in a predominantly black neighborhood. That's bothersome. But young Charleston professionals eat it up, right down to the $6 serving of industrial crinkle cut fries I watched being unloaded in boxes from the SYSCO delivery truck out back.
Other menu items prove somewhat mediocre as well. The fried pork chop came flattened, the shape of a large shoe insole. I got it as a basket (formerly $12, now $13) with the aforesaid white, fluffy biscuit, pickled chow chow, and a side of "tomato pudding" — an inedible sweet mixture of stewed tomatoes, crumbled cornbread, butter, and sugar. The fried catfish basket (formerly $10, now $11) was succulent, encrusted in paper-thin cornmeal, bland on its own but saved by a dip in lemony house-made tartar sauce.
Surely the donuts would provide some pastry salvation? Word was that Chick's planned to serve its own glazed, chocolate-covered, and stuffed donuts. Perhaps the original fillings will make them shine, but no such luck yet. Stehling and his crew are still experimenting with donut fillings back in the Hominy Grill test kitchen. For now we were relegated to the glazed and chocolate-covered donuts which are thick, spongy, and disappointing. For the price of one Chick's donut, one can source two dreamy, airy, warm Krispy Kreme glazed donuts straight off the conveyor.
In theory, a place like Chick's could be great. The concept of bringing fine-dining quality to fast food is a great and profitable idea, if the quality is there. Danny Meyer's success with the Shake Shack burger chain seems an inspirational tale here. But Chick's is no Shake Shack. Shake Shack brands itself on sourcing vegetarian-fed 100 percent Angus beef that is humanely raised with no hormones or antibiotics. Chick's, by contrast, doesn't advertise anything about its sourcing which includes GrowFood Carolina and Springer Mountain Farms chicken. True, Springer Mountain Farms certifies its chicken as 100 percent natural, humanely raised, and free from antibiotics, hormones, or growth stimulants, high standards we wish all chicken growers would adopt. Still, at Chick's prices, I would expect those hens to have dined on truffles and listened to opera.
Chick's must reassess quality and originality if it is to compete as the replicable concept it appears to aspire to. After all, the buttermilk fried chicken lunch plate at Poogan's Porch, complete with a generous sides of collard greens, whipped potatoes, and sage gravy, goes for a measly $12.95, and you don't have to bus your own table.
For now, I'll choose to get my Upper Peninsula chicken fix at Martha Lou's Kitchen, greeted by Martha Lou herself, her hands covered in flour from breading chicken. I'll specify meats and sides, then watch her walk into the open kitchen and cook it up to order. She'll wrench that chicken from the grease, plop it on my plate, and walk it straight out to me, so piping hot I can't even touch it for five minutes. I'll feast among guests of varied ethnicity, from near and far. And as I leave, Martha Lou will graciously ask me to sign her guest book. All for less than I would pay at Chick's, and with a lot more Charleston soul.