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An Austin fried chicken sampler

A dozen places where building a better bird means thinking outside the chains.

Mike Sutter

For Hoover Alexander, fried chicken is a Sunday thing, a service of sorts, held only at the Hoover's Cooking up north on the Seventh Day from 8 a.m. until it runs out around 3 or 4 p.m.

Talking to Alexander, he sounds like a man who wishes every day could be fry-day. But the chicken needs its own fryer bay, he says, set about 50 degrees cooler than the vats reserved for the high-volume chicken-fried steaks and catfish, and only the store on U.S. 183 has the capacity.

But if it has to be just one day, Sunday is it. "That's what I remember from being a kid: Sunday, fried chicken and church," Alexander said.

For breakfast, Alexander challenges the chicken-and-waffle code with chicken and pancakes for $7.99. Gingerbread, buttermilk, sweet potato - they all sound fine. But I'm in for country-style hoe cakes with cornmeal. At lunch, fried chicken is $9.99 for three pieces and a chance to go twice as country with sides like candied yams and mustard greens.

The chicken itself is a marinated study in salt and easy spice, in the style of soft-fried KFC Original Recipe, dappled by tight blooms of tarnished copper. The greasiness caroms with guilty satisfaction off the hoe-cake's gritty corn bread crumble and the syrup's candied gilding.

It's church, for sure - a reverse church where you go on Sundays to give yourself something to atone for.

Tracking the wily yardbird

Fried chicken is hard to make and hard to fake.

It comes down to the basics. How fresh is your bird? How good is your flour, your batter, your breading? How clean is your oil?

Bone-in pieces defy fast cooking. If the oil's too hot, the outside fries up fine, but the meat's speckled pink at the bone. No, the recipe usually calls for lower and slower. So most restaurants leave fried chicken to the Big Three or their regional counterparts: Bush's, Golden Chick, Chicken Express or the grocery stores. At austin360.com/forklore, read how KFC beat Popeye's and Church's.

Even in Austin, just naming 10 general-service restaurants with bone-in fried chicken is no easy thing. But I chased the beast across 10 menus, plus two more with waivers for boneless birds, because they're certainly dipped in the spirit. There are more, but a man has only so many Sundays.

Speaking of Sunday...

Hoover's shares the Sunday-only fried-chicken covenant with Paggi House, where the bird is partnered with waffles and wrapped in a buffet surrounded by eggs Benedict, marbled beef tenderloin and $1 mimosas. And since you have to navigate the bread pudding, cured salmon, smoky shrimp ceviche and the $24 price tag that comes with them to get to the chicken, it bears mentioning that the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. brunch is a solid deal in a classy old house with free valet parking and nice table service for coffee, cheap Bloody Marys and made-to-order omelettes.

Paggi House gets the first boneless waiver, too, because the chicken captures the soul-crunch élan of its vertebrate cousins, bronzed clusters of indeterminate origin, speckled with sea salt. Extra points for the waffle option, even if the buffet rolltop turns them into soggy little syrup sponges.

The Sunday-only club also includes the new Bee Cave location of Bountiful Cafe, plus Royers Round Top Cafe in the Hill Country and the progressive South Austin bistro Olivia. I can't claim personal experience with the chicken at those three places, but I can say that just two hours into Olivia's brunch one Sunday this month , they were flat out of their $15 'picnic-style' chicken. It's made in advance with multistep kitchencraft and served room temperature, our waitress explained, and when it's gone, it's gone. You can't spell 'supply and demand' without 'damn.'

The Old Austin flock

Sundays are the only days you CAN'T get chicken at Nubian Queen LoLa's.

But with the stereo set on Gospel 1060 AM, you're never far from grace at this Cajun soul-food sanctuary . A ceramic black Jesus kneels in prayer at the center of an eight-seat communal table as LoLa Stephens-Bell - sole waiter, sole cook, sole cashier - takes your order with floured hands.

You cannot be in a hurry here. Your chicken wings will be ready when she takes them out of the hot skillet and plates them with stewed greens and musky black-eyed peas. Not a minute sooner. Sip your lemony-sweet Cajun iced tea and take it all in. The Mardi Gras beads icicling from the ceiling, hung with a child's shoe there, an Arabic prayer card there. The altar to President Obama. The commingled aromas of a thousand pork chops and po' boys.

When the wings come, they're lined up five across, symphonic intervals of crunch and seasoned salt, hotter than the place the radio's trying to save you from. The whole plate for $7.95, corn bread included. 'When praises goes up, blessings fall down,' reads a note scrawled on the menu board. It's a satisfying benediction.

Nostalgia rules at Top Notch, the most photogenic burger joint in Austin, its drive-in marquee touching the ice-blue sky and a sign over the carhop stations declaring 'fried chicken' in tall red letters. The charcoal-fired burger deserves poetry of its own, but save a short verse for the chicken, with crust like lazy drops of molten gold on a bird in no rush to break new flavor boundaries. A three-piece mixed order with fries, cole slaw and Texas toast is $6.79. Patch-quilt brick, dark wood, red vinyl and the chance to choose between a malt and a shake, and you're in another time zone altogether.

Arkie's Grill abides by that same time stamp. White work trucks line up outside the low-ceilinged shotgun diner, the tables and booths resonant with business baritones and easy laughter. Fried chicken is a lunch special on each of Arkie's five working weekdays for $6.99 with three vegetables, yeasty rolls and dense sticks of corn bread.

On the leg and breast pieces, a crust like the rocky surface of Mars was almost as barren of life, and at least one of the veggies tasted straight from the can. But I liked the peppered hominy and the hot diner coffee in an 'Aloha!' mug. A cordial waitress kept close tabs on my table and offered to pour me a cup for the road. Out of the blue, the people at the next table invited me to see their Music of the Spheres wind-chime shop a few buildings away. I'll go to Arkie's again, if not for chicken then for pork ribs with sauerkraut or a New York strip. Or just the company.

The Bill Miller Bar-B-Q shops in Austin are hardly as personal as Arkie's, but they fry chicken seven days a week at prices you can live with, and I won't be the first to say I like the bird better than the barbecue.

The new birds on the block

Among the boldest standard bearers of the counterintuitive 'high-end comfort food' movement, Max's Wine Dive hit downtown last year with the seven-day promise that fried chicken and champagne can work together. Makes sense. The acidity and fizz of most sparklers will cut through the oil to sharpen the flavors. At $15 for three pieces, the 'Dive' part is pure ironic window dressing, but the chicken is real enough, with waves of batter like the chop of an angry sea and the salt air that follows it, plated with mashers and greens. A touch of jalapeño in the crust and a side of brassy chipotle honey add layers of flavor, and the honey transforms slabs of brioche Texas toast into something like dessert. On Saturdays and Sundays for brunch, fried chicken becomes an all-you-can-eat commodity for $19.

In that oh-Lord-it's-hâute-to-be-humble category, Max's beats two other contenders: the Highball and Jasper's.

In the Highball's defense, it serves fried chicken all week just like Max's - and for a few dollars less - with bowling, karaoke and skee-ball on the side. But the pieces were shy and small, with a trail-worn serape of a crust that tasted like old oil and afterthoughts. The Highball's full-tilt boogie generates some racket, too, even more than Max's.

But Jasper's, the restaurant that finished first in my summer tour of fixed-price dinner deals, landed at the bottom of the fried chicken pile. At celebrity chef Kent Rathbun's high-design home of 'gourmet backyard cuisine' at the Domain, fried chicken clocks in on Saturdays and Sundays, $16 for three small pieces with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Greasy knolls of dun-colored crust gave way to meat that oozed bloody red at the core, undercooked inside and out.

This story's second boneless waiver goes to 24 Diner for its chicken and waffles, a $9.45 constant on its 'round-the-clock breakfast menu. Battered like the Saharan dunes at dusk, shadowed and arid, the rough-cut bird forms a knuckled caravan across the sturdy, color-matched sections of deep-welled waffle quarters. Even in its thick and dehydrating carapace, the boneless chicken hangs on to flavors from the bone. I woke up the dish's potential (and washed it down) with a pint of North Coast's Brother Thelonious, a sweet, stupefying abbey-style ale from a seasonal tap lineup.

On the humbler end of the fried-chicken tent revival is Lucky J's Chicken and Waffles, which closed its Burnet Road trailer two weeks ago to get ready for a move near the University of Texas in February. Lucky J's made its bones and struggled for consistency last spring with big mounds of chicken studded with stalagmites of mahogany crust, paired with small prices and waffles hot off the irons. Even in this brief dormant period, Lucky J's has opened a second trailer in East Austin across from the Iron Gate Lounge at Sixth and Waller streets. For now, a $5 boneless chicken wrapped in a waffle with guest stars like Swiss cheese, bacon and honey hot sauce in the late weekend hours will have to do.

Southern Comfort food

At Hyde Park Bar & Grill, fried chicken has turned the restaurant world's slowest nights into an occasion.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Tony Herring pays homage to the chicken that anchored his Tony's Southern Comfort restaurant until it closed in 2007. And while Herring boils the oil at the West Gate Boulevard location, his brother Dwayne keeps an eye on Tony's legacy at the Duval Street shop.

The legacy? Gnarls of artery-defying crunch and a hot shot of garlic and pepper, with a wet sound in the middle, a sound Herring imitated with sonic precision on the phone.

'A lot of people will trim the fat and trim the skin off,' he said. 'But if it's done correctly, and you bite down to it, and you hit that KERR-IKKTCH, that crunch, that's what that is.'

The chicken on the two-piece dinner special is flanked by curled knobs of fat and skin, a bonus unless you'd rather have more meat on the bone. For $9.95, the plate includes a big biscuit, mashed potatoes and another side. Tired of half-hearted mashers, I was granted relief with rich three-cheese macaroni and impossibly green wok-seared collard greens with bacon. As star-powered as the chicken is, the sides warrant co-star props: spice-roasted sweet potatoes, corn tamales, a sauté of corn and edamame, lentil soup.

Herring went reverent when I mentioned chicken and waffles, the dish that put Tony's on the map. What makes that work? 'It's the sweet and spicy. Just like you go out and have the Oriental dinner, the sweet and sour. It's pretty much the same technique there.' He hasn't let go of bringing it back somewhere, someday.

Meanwhile, his work is cut out for him at Hyde Park, where demand has grown in the past year from 20 or 30 orders a night to upwards of 60, he says. 'Mondays and Tuesdays are 75 percent fried chicken. It flies.'

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Fried chicken in Austin: Thinking outside the chains

• Arkie's Grill. Chicken Mondays through Fridays at 4827 E. Cesar Chavez St. 385-2986.

• Bill Miller Bar-B-Q. Chicken every day at multiple Austin locations. See www.billmillerbbq.com.

• The Highball. Chicken every day at 1142 S. Lamar Blvd. 383-8309, www.thehighball.com.

• Hoover's Cooking. Chicken on Sundays, only at the 13376 U.S. 183 N. location. 335-0300, www.hooverscooking.com.

• Hyde Park Bar and Grill. Chicken on Mondays and Tuesdays for dinner at both locations. 4206 Duval St., 458-3168. 4521 West Gate Blvd., 289-2700. www.hydeparkbarandgrill.com.

• Jasper's. Chicken on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 11506 Century Oaks Terrace in the Domain. 834-4111, www.jaspers-restaurant.com.

• Lucky J's Chicken and Waffles. Chicken waffle cones from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at Sixth and Waller streets. Bone-in chicken expected to return in February in a trailer at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Rio Grande Street. www.luckyjs.com.

• Max's Wine Dive. Chicken every day at 207 San Jacinto Blvd. 904-0111, www.maxswinedive.com.

• Nubian Queen LoLa's. Chicken Mondays through Saturdays at 1815 Rosewood Ave. 474-5652, www.nubianqueenlolas.com.

• Paggi House. Chicken on Sundays for brunch at 200 Lee Barton Drive. 473-3700, www.paggihouse.com.

• Top Notch. Chicken Mondays through Saturdays at 7525 Burnet Road, 452-2181.

• 24 Diner. Chicken and waffles every day at 600 N. Lamar Blvd. 472-5400, www.24diner.com.

Also...

• Bountiful Cafe. Chicken for lunch on Sundays, only at the 3201 Bee Cave Road location. 402-0043, www.atriptobountiful.com.

• Royers Round Top Cafe. Chicken on Sundays at 105 Main St., Round Top. 979-249-3611, www.royersroundtopcafe.com.

• Olivia. Chicken for brunch on Sundays at 2043 S. Lamar Blvd. 804-2700, www.olivia-austin.com.