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

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Caribe Bake Shop

On weekends, it seems like every single resident in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood is in this combination carry-out and eat-in market loading up on empanadas, roast pork, rice and beans, pastries and what is very likely Cleveland's best Cubano sandwich. But I go for the pollo frito (and a Cubano), which goes for $2 a bone. It's not made to order — a good thing considering how long it can take to get a sandwich here. What it loses in crackle from the steam table, it more than makes up for in fatty juiciness. The thin coating is aggressively seasoned — bordering on salty — but this isn't health food to begin with. Wash it all down with a cold Goya Malta beverage.

2906 Fulton Rd., 216-281-8194.

Mahall's

The dirty little secret behind fried chicken too often is the origin of the birds we're consuming. I'm guessing the corner bodega isn't doing its shopping at the North Union Farmers' Market. But Mahall's is using all fresh, never frozen, locally raised poultry, just one of the reasons why the fried chicken at this bowling alley/bar/restaurant/music club has earned a reputation as the best on the west side. The meat is brined, coated in specially seasoned breading, and fried to order. It comes out too hot to eat, but that didn't stop us from attacking it the second it landed on the bar — tongue blisters be damned. Buy it by the piece ($3), trio ($10, includes side), or bucket ($38).

13200 Madison Ave., 216-521-3280, mahalls20lanes.com

SoHo Kitchen and Bar

As a "New Southern" bistro, SoHo was one of the first upscale restaurants to really get behind the fried chicken trend, launching Wednesday Night Chicken Pickin'. The popularity of those a la carte nights spawned multiple regular-menu items built around the bird. Each piece of chicken is brined, double coated in buttermilk and seasoned flour, and fried to order. It's a no-frills, technique- and ingredient-driven formula that results in textbook fried chicken. Each order comes with a mild or spicy boneless breast and thigh and all the fixin's ($16.50).

1899 W. 25th St., 216-298-9090, sohocleveland.com.

The Argument for Gas Station Fried Chicken

Roll into the Valero Gas Station off Chester (1930 East 79th St., 216-431-2484) and in addition to your gas, smokes and cold beer, you can pick up an order of freshly fried chicken. I know, because I've done it on more than one occasion, eating the crispy, double-battered pieces out of the grease-stained wax paper wrapper at 40 miles per hour. The tiny set-up is a cog in the Charley Biggs' Chicken n' Sauce company, a franchise outfit that sells everything but the cluck — seasonings, sauces, oil, training — to quick-serve outposts like gas stations, convenience stores and corner markets. It's such a great product that there are more than 600 locations sprinkled across the nation. The breading is crackling crisp and well seasoned, especially the hot and spicy coating. Prices are rock bottom too, with two thighs, a leg and four JoJos setting a person back just $4.

A Few Words on Barberton-Style Fried Chicken

Being just 45 minutes away from the "Fried Chicken Capital of America," we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Barberton-style fried chicken. Down there, a handful of longstanding restaurants like Belgrade Gardens, White House Chicken and Hopocan Gardens have been doing things the exact same way for decades. We just lost Milich's Village Inn, which closed after 60 years in business (translation: don't wait to get down there if you haven't yet). Barberton-style chicken starts with fresh, never frozen, Ohio Amish-raised birds that are cut up into many pieces, including the back. The meat is lightly salted, dusted with flour, tossed in an egg wash, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried to order in lard — aka pig fat. The copper-colored armor-like crust locks in every last drop of chickeny goodness. Yes, it's worth the drive. Don't forget the "hot sauce," which down here means a stewed tomato and rice dish with Serbian origins.

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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