Finger Lickin' Good: A Quest for the Best Fried Chicken in Cleveland

White or dark, batter or breading, mild or spicy: Southern fried chicken is one of our favorite comfort foods. It's a staple, uncomplicated and ridiculously satisfying when done right. There's the crunch, of course, followed by the fatty richness of the skin. Inside, the meat — protected by the crackling shell — is all kinds of juicy.

Not only does fried chicken never go out of fashion, it's one of the hottest foods going, with chefs endlessly toying with recipes and techniques in hopes of building a better bird. From low-rent to high-brow — and even a gas station — these are without question some of the best places to get your fried chicken fix on.

V's Gourmet

When it comes to fried chicken, being told that there will be a wait is a very good thing. It usually means that the chicken will be fried to order. That's definitely the drill here, where even those wise enough to call ahead end up twiddling their thumbs. But the result is quite possibly the best fried chicken in the city. Diners get to choose among seven different breadings, from the subtly sweet Honey Crisp to the aggressively spiced Cajun. After what seems like forever, the owner of this 13-year-old secret hands over the goods, a breast, thigh and wing ($5) shellacked in an armor of flaky, fiercely crunchy batter. The meat, naturally, is screaming hot and dripping with juice. The menu at this wildly decorated take-out shop (there is an Island-themed mural with boats taped to the watery part) is huge, but all we can vouch for is the yardbird.

15418 Lakeshore Blvd., 216-738-7000.

Angie's Soul Café

Angie's always seems to have a nice selection of fried chicken ready and waiting for its mealtime customers. But after 25 years in business, they have mastered a technique for holding that doesn't harm the bird in any appreciable way. So, in return for lightning-quick turnaround, the diner nets a platter of still-hot, golden brown Southern-style fried chicken (two thighs, two legs, $8.25) that tastes almost as fresh as just-made. The batter is light and flaky, and lightly seasoned, allowing the clean chicken flavor to shine right through. This is chicken that benefits immeasurably from a good dousing of hot sauce, which Angie's supplies by the gallon.

Multiple locations.

Mama Joyce's

It's easy to disregard this tiny carry-out shop on Lee Road, one of many earth-shatteringly good soul food joints to inhabit this very strip over the years. Many eastsiders likely lament the passing of Momma's Boy, which dispensed a steady stream of hot fried chicken, fries and sauce in plain white boxes affectionately dubbed "Fun in a Box." Mama Joyce's feels a lot like Momma's Boy, but without the white boxes and drunk white boys. The chicken is fried while you wait — even if you've had the common sense to phone ahead. Not only is the fried chicken hot, crisp and juicy, the prices are ridiculous. I walked out the door with 10 pieces of dark meat — five thighs and five drumsticks — for $8. Granted, the pieces are small, but that usually translates into tender as hell. And that's definitely the case here.

2238 Lee Rd., 216-371-3100.

Greenhouse Tavern

I didn't expect to find some of the best fried chicken that I've tasted in months — and I've tasted buckets of it — at Greenhouse, but there it was. I guess it's not too surprising considering that what these chefs do with chicken wings is nothing short of alchemy, but this wasn't that. This was spicy-ass fried chicken, not unlike what you might find in Nashville, home of "hot chicken." Technically, it's called Barrel-Aged Tabasco Fried Chicken, and it comes anointed with a melting dab of butter. Once you get past the crunch — and dribble of butter — you hit the heat, a fierce and penetrating sensation that lingers long after the meat is gone. Get it by the order ($12) or bucket ($35).

2038 East Fourth St., 216-393-4302,