There is excellent fried chicken almost everywhere in the nation, especially in the South, and most especially in North Carolina. Some of the best of the best is served at Price’s Chicken Coop, an improbable beacon for Charlotteans of every demographic. You can see the chicken fried in tanks of bubbling oil along one wall. When the pieces are golden-brown, the basket is hoisted from the oil and emptied; still glistening, they are instantly boxed and delivered to the hands of grateful customers. We cannot tell you the secret of this chicken’s superiority; but we can tell you that it has a surfeit of crunchy skin that is imbued with the silky, savory goodness of chicken fat; and while the skin is chewy, these pieces that strip off the meat underneath melt in your mouth and transform from crunch into pure, essential chicken flavor.
Both white and dark pieces are available (as are gizzards, livers, and wings) and, expectedly, the meat of the dark parts oozes savory juice. Not so predictably, even the big, meaty breasts are juicy and flavorful in a way that white meat almost never is. If the truth be known, there is much fried chicken that comes in such a delicious envelope of crust that we are tempted to simply strip it off and eat it, leaving much of the meat behind. Not Price’s! The meat is as succulent as the skin.
To call this place informal is extreme understatement. Customers stand in one of seven lines that lead to three cash registers. Everything comes in bags and boxes and the management provides no place to eat it. The only on-site alternative, other than dining in one’s car, is to cross Camden Road and sit on the grassy berm alongside the light rail line and eat fried chicken in the Charlotte sun. Deep-fried dining gets no better than this.
Good fried chicken can be found effortlessly in the Carolinas, and Price’s Chicken Coop serves some of Charlotte’s most famous. Tucked away on a side street parallel to bustling South Boulevard, Price’s was one of the original businesses of Charlotte’s South End, a run-down district of urban deterioration up through the 1970’s. City officials saw the future profit in renovating the neighborhood, and now the “historic” (an epithet often added to urban enhancement) South End is one of the most visited hotspots in the area, thanks to old mills converted to costly loft condos and numerous flashy gourmet cafés and nightclubs.
Price’s, however, has not changed at all to follow the trends of the city glitterati. Housed in a simple brick building, these soul food purveyors do chicken best. When we walked up to the door just after noon, customers nearly filled the small waiting area inside. We queued up and within three minutes were at the front of the line. After we ordered, we barely had enough time to grab the cellophane-wrapped desserts before our dinner box had arrived at the register. A quick pause at the in-house vending machine for two cans of Cheerwine, and we were on our way out the door.
There is no seating area inside Price’s, and naturally all the food is boxed to go, so patrons usually eat in their cars. One might think that the city planners responsible for the South End’s urban renewal would have built a small park, gazebo, or even benches nearby, but there are none in the vicinity. We drove five minutes south to Sedgefield Neighborhood Park on Elmhurst Road, where we found ample picnic tables and paved trails with numerous dog-walkers enjoying the sunny weather.
Price’s prints the entire menu on each box top, and a staffer marks its contents on the lid. We chose the quarter-chicken dinner (white meat), fried apple pie, and sweet potato pie. After opening the box, we observed a napkin draped over the plate, which had blotted some of the chicken’s grease. When we picked up the chicken, a little grease remained on our fingers, but the golden crust nearly retained all the liquids. Every bite was very juicy, and the crispy skin had just enough salt and pepper to send our taste buds into orbit.
The sides are forgettable, however. The mayonnaise-based slaw is texturally sound but bland; the hushpuppies could’ve been frozen: too perfectly ovoid, too doughy, and bordering on gummy. The tater rounds are interesting, at least, in the context of this plate: flattened disks of shredded potatoes, like fat quarters, are reminiscent of those from our elementary school’s cafeteria. The desserts didn’t fare any better: the fried apple pie looked promising, but two bites proved it to be too heavy on the dough, with about as much apple filling as a Pop-Tart. Though made with a commercial crust, the sweet potato pie is palatable, with a filling that is almost not sweet enough, and certainly not worth multiple bites.
Without a doubt, Price’s does chicken best, as long as you stick with the poultry by the piece and skip the superfluous sides. Fried fish is also a steady seller, and the BBQ pork demands attention on our next visit.