This is like Argo but with chicken," was the response I got from one of my co-workers when I made us all blindfold ourselves to taste test nine locally sourced fried chicken sandwiches. Sitting in a conference room wearing scarves across our eyes, to a passerby we appeared to be in a hostage situation with poultry. Like an office trust building exercise, we quietly held out our hands as interns delivered sandwich after sandwich.
"Why is this one so wet?" CP news reporter Dustin Waters asked about sammie No. 3. You know what you never want to hear the moment before you chomp into fried chicken? The word wet.
There were other observations. Some sandwiches had hints of honey, others cheese. Without the use of sight, our spidey senses became hyper alert to every subtle nuance, the squish of the bun versus the crunch of the chicken's crust; the vinegar zing of the coleslaw in contrast to a cool smear of mayo. By the end of our taste-off, all of us knew exactly what sandwiches were the winners. It was a tie: Boxcar Betty's and Leon's.
So we reached out to the makers of both asking them if they'd let us in our their signature sammie secrets. Boxcar Betty, saucy minx that she is, politely declined. Apparently a lady never tells. But Leon, well he's an open book. We were invited to visit Chef Ben McLean for a step-by-step tutorial on how to make a Leon's Fried Chicken Sandwich at home, and the best news — this is no 30-plus ingredient, multi-hour affair. With a little prep and our helpful guide, constructing this savory sandwich at home is surprisingly simple.
"I like to cut off a bit of that thick end of the fillet so that you have a flat, even surface," says McLean. He takes about a quarter to half an inch off a 6 oz. fillet to make for even cooking.
The key to a super moist chicken sandwich is proper brining, and McLean recommends at least two hours in a saltwater bath. "I use water, Crystal hot sauce, salt, and a touch of sugar," McClean says. You can adjust your own brine to taste. Just be sure that you don't add more salt than will dissolve. Lay your fillets in the brine, then pop them in the fridge.
McLean recommends a nonfat buttermilk and uses local dairy Lowcountry Creamery for his fried chicken sandwiches. You can buy the same buttermilk at The Sunday Brunch Farmers Market at the Pour House on James Island and at The Mt. Pleasant Farmers Market on Tuesdays.
McLean breads his chicken in a blend of regular all-purpose flour and Old Bay. "You don't need to add salt because the Old Bay already has salt in it and you've brined the chicken," he says.
This step is key. In order to really coat your fillet and ensure a crisp exterior, McLean suggests you place the chicken in the fridge and then forget about it until you're ready to cook the next day. This will allow the breading to absorb the chicken's moisture and will hold the crust together after frying.
Leon's has the benefit of a series of industrial fryers, but if you're making chicken sandwiches at home, a countertop home kitchen fryer (like a FryDaddy) or cast-iron skillet will suffice. Get a fryer thermometer to ensure your oil reaches 325°F. "It takes the fillets about three to four minutes each to cook," says McLean. "They should have an internal temperature of 165°F when you take them out."
Leon's uses Brown's Court Bakery sesame seed rolls. So all you have to do to get the real thing is head on over to the St. Philip Street spot. Place them on the grill until they're slightly crisp, then remove.
To truly make a signature Leon's fried chicken sandwich, you have to have all the component parts. That means you'll need Duke's Mayo because duh, napa and red cabbage slaw (Leon's is dressed in nuoc cham), and bread and butter pickles — McLean recommends Mt. Olive brand unless you want to make your own at home. Coat both top and bottom buns in mayo and slaw. Top the bottom with a handful of pickles, then place your perfect fillet on top. Ta da, a Leon's fried chicken sandwich in the comfort of your own home.
Or you could just, you know, go in and ask McLean to make one for you.