By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
A visit to Price’s Chicken Coop is the fried-chicken-eating experience of a lifetime. Once inside the door of the little South End storefront, two thirds of which is dedicated to cooking and the rest to ordering, the first decision you need to make is which line to stand in. At peak mealtimes there are six or seven of them leading to a counter with three cash registers, each of which is flanked by white-uniformed, hairnet-wearing servers.
Clouds of steam puff up behind them from vats of boiling oil into which Ed Garriett, who has been Price’s head cook since 1963, continuously throws mighty handfuls of floured chicken parts and from which he retrieves glistening, golden hunks of bird.
The cinder-block room thunders with kitchen clatter underscored by the syncopation of bubbling oil, and everything happens double-time. It’s a dizzyingly aromatic spectacle (you’ll smell frying chicken two blocks away), and newcomers who find themselves so intimidated by face time with the counter help that they stammer or hesitate when their turn arrives get no sympathy from the regular chicken eaters behind them, who know how to place an order in seconds: “Quarter, white” or “Half, mixed” or maybe “Gizzards, tea, and fried pie.” Anyone talking on a cell phone instead of tending to the business of ordering lunch becomes a Price’s pariah. A wall sign written in bold felt-tip pen warns customers: “We Will No Longer Refund or Make Exchanges on Orders Placed While YOU Are on Your Phone or 2-Way Radio.”
Boxes of chicken in hand, customers wend their way through the lines of people back to the door and out onto the sidewalk. It’s decision time again: where to eat? There are no seats inside or outside. The tables and chairs often arrayed a few yards from the doorway belong to a neighboring antiques shop, and Price’s customers are not welcome to use them. People who are not taking chicken home or to their work-place lunchroom dine in cars or, when the weather is nice, sit on the grassy berm of the light-rail line across the street.
So the amenities are minimal, but the fried chicken is maximal. It’s the best in North Carolina, maybe the best in the South—and, therefore, the best anywhere. It’s not that there’s anything dramatically unusual about it. The chicken is cooked in peanut oil, and though cousins Steven and Andrew Price keep their seasonings a secret, it isn’t spice that makes it unforgettable. What’s so great is the surfeit of crunchy skin imbued with the silky goodness of chicken fat. The skin is substantially chewy, and pieces that strip away seem to almost dissolve into pure chicken flavor. Not surprisingly, the meat of the dark parts oozes savory juice. Less predictably, even the breasts are moist and big-flavored in a way that white meat almost never is. Truth be told, there are many restaurants that serve fried chicken encased in a sheath of crust that is a joy to tear off, leaving less-than-fabulous meat behind. Not so Price’s. Here, the meat is every bit as succulent as the skin.
Livers and gizzards are popular alternatives to legs, breasts, thighs, and wings, the livers ludicrously rich inside their crisp-fried crust, the gizzards a little more chewy and yet surprisingly tender. “Do you know what gizzards are?” Andrew Price asks, before explaining that they are a strong muscle above the intestine that is part of the digestive tract and that if they aren’t parboiled before frying, they are way too chewy.
Early in the 1960s, when Steven’s father, Talmadge Price, created the Coop from the family’s wholesale chicken market, there were even more items available, but over the years it has become a nearly single-purpose business, which the cousins know inside out. For example, they told us that they sell more white meat at the beginning of each month because that is when customers have their paychecks and feel less restrained about spending. By the third week, money gets scarce and bills come due and dark meat sells better. As for the secret of the chicken’s uniform goodness, Steven explained that it isn’t just a matter of dropping meat in the fryer for a set period of time. “Chickens vary in size and mass. Our cook handles every piece that goes into the oil and can feel exactly what it requires.”
Old-time Charlotteans remember the Chicken Coop’s predecessor, the Dilworth Market, opened by Steven and Andrew’s grandfather in the 1930s. He had been a chicken man well before that, raising broilers that he sold to a trucker who brought them into town to sell. When Steven’s father took over the market, it became known as the place to go to pick out the live bird you wanted for supper. “You pointed to it, and a few minutes later you would be walking out of the store with that chicken wrapped in paper, ready to cook,” Steven says. “Dad was fast with a knife.”
Talmadge Price decided to start cooking chickens to feed workers from a nearby warehouse who told him that they had no place to get something to eat. They wanted food that was substantial but demanded no utensils, and they needed it quickly so they could take it back to their workplace and be finished with lunch in the 30 minutes they were allotted.
Their needs are precisely what defined the way Price’s Chicken Coop operates today. It is quick and it is blue-collar cheap, meals come hot from the fry kettle, and customers are expected to supply their own place to eat. There are no daily specials, the menu never changes, and the fried chicken is exactly the same every day: absolutely perfect.