It is unlikely you will never accidentally drive by Keaton’s, located as it is on Woodleaf Road far from the town of Statesville. That’s why we are forever grateful to Harrell Powell, the Roadfood tipster who wrote us many years ago to say that Keaton’s was so good that it was well worth a special trip, so good that it made him cry for joy.
We asked around town and found Keaton’s quickly. All the locals know where it is, for it has become a chicken-eating institution since opening in 1953. It looks great … which is to say that by Roadfood standards it looks great: a weather-beaten shack by the side of the road that could be a truck stop or a honky tonk.
Every evening from Wednesday through Saturday, Keaton’s rough-paved parking lot attracts customers who come to eat here or to take home what is surely some of the best chicken anywhere. The menu calls it barbecued, which it is, sort of, but it is also fried. In fact, what happens is that it is first fried to a crisp then momentarily immersed in a bubbling cauldron of founder B.W. Keaton’s fire-hot barbecue sauce. The hot sauce penetrates the crust and meat of the chicken and caramelizes all around its outside edges, resulting in pieces of chicken that are hot, sweet, and savory all at once: a culinary sensation.
Service is basic. Step up to the counter and order an upper or a lower (the polite country terms for breast or thigh), a half or whole. Pick side dishes from a soulful repertoire of mac & cheese, baked beans, hot-sauce slaw or white-mayo slaw, choose ice tea (sweet, of course) or beer, then go to your assigned table or booth, to which a waitress brings the food, which comes on a plate under a sheet of wax paper. Pull back the paper and inhale: no perfume is so intoxicating.
Note that Keaton’s is open only Wednesday through Saturday. Call-in, take-out orders are welcome. As of Spring, 2020, dining-in facilities are temporarily closed.