Grease lightning: 20 ways to get oiled up for summer

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Photo: Ashley Twiggs Photo: Ashley Twiggs

This may not be your quickest path to a bikini body, but how ya gonna argue with fried chicken? Or fried pickles? Or fried Oreos, for that matter? This issue, we’re taking a deep dive into hot oil (metaphorically, of course—safety first!), with a hefty helping of greasy, crispy, fatty treats to satisfy your most sinful summer cravings, plus some advice from the pros on frying foods at home. And don’t miss the coleslaw tips. There’s cabbage in it. It’s basically a health food (comparatively).

By Nathan Alderman, Shea Gibbs, Caite Hamilton and Erin O’Hare

Illustration: Hawk Krall

Cluckin’ delicious

Charlottesville is full of fried chicken, from high-end restaurant menus to the high concentration of chain chicken spots on 29 North that locals have dubbed “the chicken strip.” But it’s no secret that the best fried chicken spots are the ones tucked away at the base of bridges or in gas stations. Each of the following fried chicken vendors offers its own tasty take on the ubiquitous dish, plus more sides than you can shake a stick at. And while no two places fry their chicken the same way, they all have two things in common: It’s fried with love, and it’s the best around.

Brown’s

Quality seems to be the name of the game over at Brown’s convenience store and gas station on Avon Street, where the fried chicken counter takes up most of the front of the store. “We use the best, best, best of everything,” says Kim Brown. High-quality flour, spices (they make their own blend) and grease, plus knowing how to cook it well, is how Brown’s achieves its impossibly moist-but-crispy fried chicken, and that same care goes into the baked chicken, too, for those who want a healthier option. Customers can choose their fried or baked pieces—thigh, breast, leg, wing—and combine them with sides for a meal platter. Use the Brown’s gas pump to put at least 10 gallons of gas in your car and you’ll get a free piece of fried chicken to fill up your other tank—your stomach.

Brownsville Market

“It’s just a down-home country recipe,” says Albert Graves of the Brownsville Market’s fried chicken. “It goes back many, many years. All the local people around here know how good it is.” Graves says they use a special blend of seasonings and quality flour to bread the chicken before giving it a dip in the deep fryer. The market offers the usual fried chicken sides, like potato wedges, mac ‘n’ cheese and cole slaw, but also mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, peas, even onion rings. “We have a little bit of everything,” says Graves.

Cherry Avenue GoCo

David, the fried chicken cook at the Cherry Avenue GoCo, says he only looks for one kind of feedback from the people who try his fried chicken: “Like Campbell’s soup: M’mm m’mm good,” he says. There’s a secret recipe, of course, but the real secret to the GoCo’s fried chicken is proper preparation: the sifting of the flour, keeping the grease at the right temperature and keeping the pieces in the fryer for just the right amount of time. As this reporter headed out the door with a fried wing, David warned her that just as she shouldn’t drink and drive, she shouldn’t eat and drive, because this chicken requires one’s full attention.

Preston Avenue Shell

What’s unique about the fried chicken at the Shell station on Preston Avenue is the way it’s fried: Cook Jim Simpson uses an enormous cast-iron skillet in lieu of a vat, a frying method that’s more like home-fried chicken than anything else, says store manager Elizabeth Girardeau. The Shell station has so many regulars that, more often than not, by the time a customer has walked from the front door to the chicken counter, Simpson’s already dropped her order into the skillet.

Wayside Chicken

Wayside Chicken has been serving fried chicken from the base of the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge for decades, and in all those years, even as the business has changed owners, it’s never changed the recipe or its peppery special spice blend. That consistency is what makes Wayside chicken so good, says operations manager Derek Cummings. That, plus the housemade sides, the house spicy ranch dipping sauce and the fact that you can choose light or dark meat, leg, breast, thigh, wing or drumstick. Wayside also offers baked chicken (again with a special spice blend) for those who need or want a gluten-free option.—EO


A great sandwich? Baloney!

In 2017, Bon Appetit magazine named Charlottesville native Mason Hereford’s New Orleans sandwich shop, Turkey and the Wolf, its best new restaurant of the year—and heaped praise on its fried bologna sandwich. Closer to home, Holly’s Diner owner Robert Truelove saw that write-up and couldn’t resist paying homage.

“I am a huge Mason Hereford fan,” Truelove says, “and given we are one of a handful of restaurants in C’ville that serve food till 2am, I felt our customers would welcome a sandwich that is both Southern and iconic.”

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Holly’s version starts with two quarter-inch slices of Boar’s Head bologna, fried crispy on a griddle (with a weight to keep their edges from curling up). Those two discs of tasty lunchmeat surround a fried egg topped with melted Havarti cheese, with more cheese and fried onion straws on top, all nestled between two slices of Texas toast spread with mayo and Dijon mustard.

“I’ve never been much for bologna,” says kitchen manager Benjamin Linden, “but when combined with all of these amazing flavor combinations, I keep finding myself saying, ‘Please, sir, I’d like some more!’” No wonder Holly’s goes through an estimated 40 sandwiches—and up to 25 pounds of bologna—every week.—NA


Cole conspirator

It’s food pairing 101: If you have a plate of fried chicken in front of you, you need something light and crisp as a complement. Finally, cabbage has a job.

“I like the coleslaw component in any kind of smoked or fried meat dish—the roughage,” says Brian Ashworth of Ace Biscuit & Barbecue. “Sometimes it’s overlooked…but you have to have something fibrous to process the heavy meats. It’s about balance.”

Coleslaw starts with a shaved or chopped cabbage base, but from there it can go in a couple directions. Should it have green and/or red cabbage? Onion? Carrot? Vinegary or creamy dressing?

For Harrison Keevil of Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen, coleslaw is all those veggies, a light, apple cider vinegar-heavy dressing, salt and heaps of black pepper tossed to order to maintain freshness and keep the red cabbage from bleeding. “That way it’s still really bright and crisp and you taste all the flavors,” he says.

For Ashworth, the ideal coleslaw is a similar mayo-based (“always Duke’s”) but not-too-creamy dressing on green cabbage, carrot and julienned red onion. For folks who don’t love raw onion, he says the dressing draws out some of the raw flavor and melds everything together.

The kicker for Ashworth—a hit of horseradish. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe,” he says.—SG


Lard knocks

Plain Oreos are pretty much inedible. So people have been dunking them in milk, mixing them in ice cream and coating them with all manner of ganache for years.

Photo: Tom McGovern

But what happens when you take the detestable plain Oreo, coat it in pancake batter and deep fry it? Dessert magic, Jack Brown’s-style.

“People come here specifically looking for them,” says Amanda Nuckolls, Jack Brown’s general manager.

It’s a simple recipe: Pull cookie from box, coat in pancake batter (also from a box), fry to golden brown in 350-degree peanut oil, shower with powdered sugar.

The treats are pretty simple to eat, too. One local glutton has put away 22 fried sandwich cookies in a sitting. Why is the exact number on record? JB’s runs a year-long fried Oreo-eating contest. “It’s a lot of sugar,” Nuckolls says. “You need recovery time.”—SG


Bubblin’ up

They’re in front of nearly every diner when you walk into Peter Chang China Grill around dinnertime, and they’re hard to miss—puffy, pillow-like rounds of crisped dough, nestled side-by-side along with dipping sauce.

“It is the best appetizer,” says Dine Suseno, restaurant manager. “Every single table orders the bubble pancake.”

Should you be ordering the scallion bubble pancake like everyone else? And what the heck is it? Yes. And: a batter of green onion, flour, egg, canola oil, water, salt and pepper, flash-fried in a wok in smoking vegetable oil. The spherical, hollow cakes are served hot with a yellow curry sauce for dunking freshly torn bits.

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

According to Suseno, it’s the hot cooking oil and use of a quality carbon steel wok that give the scallion pancake its signature bubble look and airy texture.

And while there’s some internet squabble about the origin of the scallion bubble cake, Suseno says it’s traditional to Chinese culture, and Peter Chang’s version is a faithful rendition: “We make it oniony, but not too oniony.” He says in China, similar cakes are often eaten as a snack and beloved by adults and youth alike. “It is like having fun with the kids—it’s something different,” he says. “The kids get very excited about it.”—SG


Go ape

Love Sushi King in Seminole Square lures diners with the promise of all-you-can eat sushi rolls and sashimi, plus a bevy of other treats. But hiding amid its chef’s special rolls, you’ll find something truly unexpected: the Crazy Monkey Roll, built around a core of deep-fried banana.

Photo: Tom McGovern

Banana? Fried? In sushi? “Crazy” sounds about right, but we’re here to tell you it works. Chunks of squishy, caramelized, tempura-battered banana provide just the right amount of sweetness—intense but not overwhelming—with surprising floral, tropical notes. The banana’s joined by rice-flour crunchies for a nice contrast in texture. Then it’s wrapped in rice, nori and a thin blanket of crabmeat, drizzled with savory mayo and special sauce.—NA


Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Deep-fried side

While Boylan Heights’ version of potato salad—a homemade recipe that champions bacon, sweet pickles and a special blend of spices—would be a real crowd-pleaser at a Fourth of July picnic, we wouldn’t recommend it. You’d miss the just-out-of-the-fryer crispy skin that tops the dish and makes it particularly noteworthy. We’re talking fireworks.—CH


Pickle perfection

Smoked Kitchen & Tap’s fried pickles stand out from the first bite.

Other local deep-fried dills come out mushy and bland, with batter that sloughs off as you try to eat them. But Smoked’s thin-sliced chips pack a satisfying crunch, even after a trip home in a takeout container. The pickles themselves—pungently sour, with a surprising kick of heat—seem to become one with the batter.

Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Kitchen manager Daniel Shifflett and Smoked co-owners Justin van der Linde and Kelley Tripp first cooked up fried pickles as a monthly special around the end of last year, choosing chips over spears as a personal pickle preference. “We experimented with the spears,” Shifflett says, “and we just couldn’t get the right crunch and the batter to stay on there the way we like to.”

Smoked dredges its pickles in the same mix of flour and spices it uses for its fried chicken. “We fry them really fast and at a high temp,” Shifflett says, “so they crisp up well. At a lower temp, they have a tendency to soak up the grease.”—NA


Smoke pointers

When choosing an oil for frying, it’s all about smoke point (or temperature where the fat starts to burn), according to Maya Restaurant chef Christian Kelly.

“Basically, it boils down to how clean an oil is, so my go-to is pretty standard issue canola oil,” he says.

Oils with lots of particulates—looking at you extra virgin olive oil—have the lowest smoke points. Heat ’em high, and the little organic
bits start to burn, your house fills with smoke and any food you cook in the oil tastes bitter
and acrid.

While higher smoke point oils are often desirable, each has drawbacks. Kelly admits some folks have an aversion to canola oil for health reasons. Clean oils are typically neutral, so you don’t get the flavor of a good EVOO. And some high smoke point oils—now looking your way, peanut—can trigger allergic reactions. “I wish I could use peanut oil, but I try to steer clear of it,” says Harrison Keevil of Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen.

The sweet spot for cooking most dishes, fried or otherwise, is 350 degrees. Canola, vegetable, peanut and sunflower oil don’t start smoking until at least 400. Kelly uses deep fryers with canola oil for his oysters and renowned pimento cheese fritters. “350 seems to be the perfect temperature for crisping things up without much oil saturation,” he says.

Kelly pivots for fried chicken on Sunday nights. Pan-frying the bird so moisture escapes through the top, he uses a house mixture of canola and olive oil that’s brought right to the smoke point. “You’re looking for the shimmer on the surface
of the oil,” he says. “It’s usually just before it starts smoking.”

Keevil does fried chicken at a slightly lower temp—300 degrees. That ensures the poultry is cooked through before the outer breading begins to burn.

For hearty vegetables, like sweet potatoes, Kelly subscribes to the twice-fried method. Blanch the veggies at 250, he says, then crisp at 350 right before serving. And remember to change your oil frequently. “Sweet potatoes have a lot of sugar in them that comes out while they’re being fried,” he says. “That can give them a slightly more bitter flavor.”—SG


Oceans ate

Local restaurant kitchens don’t clam up when it comes to fried seafood

One hot New England summer day long ago, my dad took my brother and me to a fair, not far from the ocean, complete with skee-ball games, bumper cars and, of course, fried dough and seafood stands as far as the eye could see. When the sun went down and a breeze started to come in off the water, we sat under a party tent to eat from red and white food trays full of French fries, chicken nuggets and lobster rolls.

As the people at the picnic table next to ours slurped steamed littleneck clams from the shell, my dad asserted, “Can you imagine the poor bastard who was so hungry he decided to eat one of those?”

“Ewww!” my brother and I cried, our noses wrinkling at the thought of a cold, slimy clam sliding down the backs of our throats.

But you’d be hard-pressed to feel sorry for anyone who had a plate of fried seafood in front of them—fried clams, fried oysters, fish ‘n’ chips, calamari, the smooth, briny flesh ensconced in a hot, seasoned crust. Mmm.

Charlottesville may be a few hours from the coast, but that doesn’t stop some local restaurants from going out of their way to secure delicious seafood to serve here in the mountains, bringing the spirit of shore summers in New England, the mid-Atlantic and even the Gulf Coast to our tables.

Dipped in buttermilk, then breaded in cornmeal, the fried oysters at Public are more popular than French fries. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Fried oysters: Public Fish & Oyster

This seafood restaurant and raw bar offers oysters many ways: raw, roasted and wrapped in bacon, broiled oysters Rockefeller, in ceviche, and fried, the most popular option.

The fried oysters are the only appetizer more popular than French fries, and it’s easy to see why: Raw oysters are dipped in buttermilk, then breaded in seasoned cornmeal rather than flour (keepin’ it gluten-free) before they’re fried and served hot with a vermouth aioli and pickled red onion for some bite. Public brings in oysters from all over—coastal Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay, New England and elsewhere —and uses whatever’s most abundantly available for the fried bivalves, which tend to lose their flavor fried in a seasoned breading.

Southern Crescent’s shrimp po’boy are authentic, each served on New Orleans’ own Leidenheimer Baking Company French bread. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Shrimp po’boy: Southern Crescent

This small New Orleans-infused eatery located on the first floor of a house on Hinton Avenue in Belmont has quite a bit of seafood on its menu, from eggs Chesapeake to gumbo and no fewer than four po’boy sandwich options, all stuffed with seafood.

For its fried shrimp po’boy, Southern Crescent uses wild-caught shrimp from either the Gulf or Carolina Coast, breading and dropping it into 100 percent peanut oil for a clean fry. The sandwich comes fully dressed, with sliced heirloom tomatoes and remoulade, plus a side of housemade purple potato chips.

All of Southern Crescent’s po’boys are served on Leidenheimer Baking Company’s New Orleans French bread, a key ingredient for an authentic po’boy. Southern Crescent co-owner Lucinda Ewell says that after Hurricane Katrina put much of New Orleans under water in 2005, no true New Orleans restaurant would make and serve a po’boy until Leidenheimer Bakery was back up and running.

Fried clams: Tavola

Fried clams aren’t a regular offering at Italian eatery Tavola, but when they’re on the menu, they go fast, gobbled up just a day or two after arriving, fresh, at the restaurant.

As with any fried seafood dish, “The most important thing is the ingredient itself,” says Tavola co-owner and chef Michael Keaveny, which is why he gets clams from Ipswich, Massachusetts (where the fried clam originated, according to New England lore). A high-quality, briny clam is flavorful on its own, which is why Keaveny uses a simple but classic breading technique and frying method that involves dipping the clam in whole milk, then in all-purpose flour before sending it for a swim in very hot canola oil.

Keaveny keeps the oil hot because a higher oil temperature means a faster fry, which usually results in a crispier crust and a less soggy clam.

“We don’t make a dime off them because we eat most of them,” Keaveny says, laughing. “It’s about me being able to indulge myself, my staff, our customers.”—EO

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