“Fried chicken just isn’t going out of style,” says Tanya Holland, chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. The former Top Chef contestant has a point: Few foods are at once as deeply loved and wildly versatile as fried chicken. After all, how many dishes taste just as good served piping hot over waffles at breakfast as they do ice cold from the fridge as a late-night snack?
“I’ve heard vegetarians call it the ‘gateway drug,’” Holland laughs.
National Fried Chicken Day, celebrated July 6th, is the perfect excuse to dig into some of the good stuff—and California features some of the best versions in the world. Even Disneyland is serving up two different versions during its Fried Chicken Celebration July 6th through 8th.
From James Beard Award-winning chefs to roadside fry stops, we’ve chosen nine favorites from around the state. Consider this list, arranged north to south, a mere starting point for your next fried chicken-inspired road trip.
South — Sacramento
Hot take: Southern-style chicken served straight up (bucket to share) or with a Cali-twist (atop a kale salad). Americana meets “new American” at this Sacramento spot that takes its bird so seriously the owners chose “weheartfriedchicken.com” as their restaurant’s Web address. Order at the counter and then roll up your sleeves.
ad hoc — Yountville
Hot take: Lemon-brined birds are served with fried herbs and seasonal sides (think: yellow corn mac & cheese). Superstar chef Thomas Keller takes a straightforward approach to the classic dish, served every other Monday at his family-style restaurant in the heart of Napa Valley. Can’t wait? Hit up the lunch-only offshoot Addendum, open Thursday through Sunday, for a bucket to go.
Brown Sugar Kitchen — Oakland
Hot take: Local chicken is marinated overnight with special seasoning and served with cornmeal waffles for brunch. Holland’s classic take on chicken and waffles is so popular that the city of Oakland granted the chef her own holiday (Tanya Holland Day). The kitchen is currently open Friday through Sunday for breakfast and brunch. Be ready for a well-worth-it wait.
Kickin Chicken — Santa Cruz
Hot take: After soaking in a seasoned brine, the chicken is first cooked using the sous vide method before getting the fry treatment. This fried chicken delivery service created a cult following for delectable chicken only a phone call away. The owners currently have a walk-in spot above a downtown night club, slinging the regular fry and the crowd favorite: their sriracha chicken sandwich.
Tokyo Fried Chicken — Monterey
Hot take: Chicken pieces are marinated overnight with soy, ginger, and garlic, fried in rice bran oil, and served with spicy ponzu sauce. Southern-style fry and Japanese karaage collide to create an only-in-California flavor. This Monterey establishment serves extra crunchy chicken along fusion-fueled sides like dashi braised collard greens with bacon.
Catalan — Rancho Mirage
Hot take: Jidori chicken (the Kobe beef of birds) is bathed in buttermilk before hitting the fryer. The first Sunday of each month, Chef Drew Davis transitions his tapas-focused restaurant to a family-style fry. The reservations-only dinner sells out months in advance.
Howlin’ Ray’s — Los Angeles
Hot take: Both the batter and the rub are amped up with a hot pepper mix; after a dredge and batter, the chicken crisps in 100-percent peanut oil. It’s not uncommon for customers to wait four hours (yup!) for a taste of Chef Johnny Ray Zone’s Nashville-style hot chicken. Choose from six levels of heat (country to howlin’) and get ready to reach for peach tea relief.
Grandma’s Chicken House — Cypress
Hot take: Instead of a simple fry, the chicken is battered and “broasted,” a high-pressure technique popularized by the famous “FC” chain. Grandma’s opened its doors in 1958 and not much has changed in the last 60 years. The broasted chicken is still just as juicy and you can feed a family of four for twenty bucks with the State Fair combo. (Cash only, of course).
The Crack Shack — San Diego, Encinitas, Costa Mesa
Hot take: Free-range chicken is infused with pickle juice, tenderized with buttermilk, seasoned, and fried. What started as a single open-air eatery in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood has blossomed into a SoCal chain with additional outposts in Encinitas, Costa Mesa, Pasadena, and Century City. Chef Richard Blais makes poultry mind-bendingly good. Come for the chicken; stay for the schmaltz fries and dipping sauce bar.