Back in the late 19th century, Gordonsville, Virginia, was known as the Chicken Leg Center of the Universe. After the Civil War, the town’s “chicken ladies,” gained national renown for standing on the train platform and offering trays full of fried chicken and biscuits to travelers, who could reach out the window of a stopped train, grab what they wanted, and pay. When I visited Gordonsville, I hoped to find modern-day renditions of the legendary fried chicken. Although the town does host a yearly Fried Chicken Festival in May, I discovered no great fried chicken restaurants there. However, the nearby city of Charlottesville proved to be a 21st century fried chicken bonanza.
I had dreamy chicken and waffles at Ace Biscuit & Barbecue and superb drumsticks and thighs at Wayside Takeout & Catering and I ate countless excellent pieces of fried chicken at the most unlikely eateries in and around the city. By unlikely, I mean that these places appear to be standard-issue service stations or convenience stores with a basic mini-mart inventory of beef jerky, beer, cigarettes, sundries, and lottery tickets. But somewhere to the side or at the back is a place where great fried chicken is cooked and served.
Brown’s is one of the best. Until 2011, it was known as Stoney’s Grocery, but it is now helmed by Mike Brown, who became known to local chicken devotees for the superior quality of what he served at his mini-mart in Esmont, south of Charlottesville.
From the outside, you’d never know it’s worth a stop. But once you walk in the door, a first drawn breath will sound the good-eats alert, for the air is redolent of good cooking – not just fried chicken, but also collard greens, spuds, and fruit cobblers to accompany it. Yes, this nondescript place serves four-star bird: drippy and juicy, fine and fatty, tingling with pepper and a shot of some subtle, sneaky spice that veritably glows on your tongue, commanding you to want more and more. At first crunch through the luscious crust, it seems merely well-salted, but as you devour it, intriguing spices keep rolling across your tongue, making this an endlessly intriguing eating experience.
There is no place to eat at Brown’s. All business is take-out. Gas customers get a free piece of chicken with a fill-up.