My Worst Kept Secret

There is no secret worse kept than my love of fried chicken. I spent years perfecting my own recipe after my girlfriend told me that her mom makes the best fried chicken. Challenge accepted, I thought. Now, years later, I’m pretty happy with my own recipe though my girlfriend’s mom’s fried chicken is still out of this world.

When I began planning this trip one of the things that got me most excited was being able to go on the road to find good fried chicken in the South. I’ve been very fortunate that locals have pointed me towards a number of great restaurants. However, I’m going to mention two restaurants in particular both because of the quality of their fried chicken, but also because of the difference in environment.

The first is Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia. I was first told about Mary Mac’s by the barmaid at Grant Central Pizza who said I simply had to go. I knew it would be busy. I was expecting a queue but when I first got to the restaurant, I knew I’d found the right place because there was a line of people going around the block.

“You need to leave your name at the front, then they call you in when they’ve got space for your party,” a woman told me as I joined the line.

I headed to the front and into the packed restaurant.

“How long is the wait?” I asked, though I didn’t really care. I’m always willing to wait if there’s the promise of fried chicken at the end of it.

“It’s an hour. How many in your party?”

“Just one, just me,” I said.

“Oh, well you can just head straight to the bar then – you can eat there.”

It made sense. Plus I didn’t like the idea of taking up an entire table to myself while others are waiting for me to finish. I also wasn’t going to argue about getting to skip the line.

I ordered 4 pieces of fried chicken and chose fried green tomatoes and mac ‘n’ cheese as my two sides. Not the healthiest options, I know, but I’d heard mouth-watering things about them.

The chicken was beautifully crisp. It was seasoned perfectly with salt and as far as I could tell, the coating was simply plain flour. The chicken itself was moist inside. It was some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Sitting in Mary Mac’s is like sitting in someone’s living room but mixed with a high-end restaurant. It’s cosy and furnished to a high standard. The bartenders​ are dressed in smart white shirts with red bow ties and black trousers. Their manners and service cannot be faulted.

It felt like the restaurant could have been used for fine dining if the owner so wished. It felt like the meal should have cost more than it did – and I’m sure a lot of places would have tagged on a higher price based on their reputation – but thankfully there was acknowledgement of what the food was: soul food, cheap to make but rich in the kind of glee that increases your waistline.

The second restaurant I’m going to talk about is called Green Acres Cafe in Birmingham, Alabama.

“If you like fried chicken, go to Green Acres,” Grady, my Uber driver, said as he merged onto the interstate. “It’s a hole in the wall place. Just counter service but it’s good. I try not to go there too much because it ain’t good for you but it’s hard, man, because it tastes so good. If you go, I guarantee you’ll be the only white face in there. Some of the best wings in the city, you’ve got to go.”

When I walked into Green Acres, I was the only face in there other than the two women behind the counter. I ordered 4 pieces of chicken which came with fries and a slice of white bread. I was asked if I wanted salt and pepper on the chicken – which I did – and whether I wanted hot sauce or ketchup. Of course I asked for hot sauce. I was given a numbered ticket then waited to the side for my number to come up.

Green Acres Cafe consists of a large counter at which food is ordered and a small counter at which I decided to eat. There’s also a vending machine and a wall-mounted TV. But that’s about it. There are framed pictures of staff, articles that mention Green Acres as well as acknowledgements, awards, and celebrity photographs. Most striking is a framed newspaper front page from the day in 2009 that it was announced Barack Obama was to become president of the United States.

My food arrived in a cardboard tray inside a brown bag which was quickly becoming stained with grease spots.

The wings were huge! They were outstandingly crispy but with masses of meat. The addition of salt and pepper after frying really lifted the flavour, giving you an extra kick in your sinuses from the pepper. Hot sauce was spackled artistically across everything. The sauce was possibly the popular Louisiana hot sauce I’d seen a lot of, and from what I could tell was a vinegar based sauce.

The next day I went back for more wings. This time I chose 6 wings and was given additional bread. 

Just as I began to tuck into my meal, the sky went so dark that the street lights came on. It was 3pm. The trees in the park began to sway violently, leaves and debris cascaded down the street. There were three flashes then an almighty bang as the sky cracked and the rain quickly pooled in the gutter till it was level with the curb.

I watched as people dashed about in the street, ducking into doorways, or diving into their cars. For some people, no amount of rain was going to get in the way of their goal. These people walked through the door of Green Acres.

If you’re going to get stuck anywhere during a storm, make sure that place has got award winning fried chicken.

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