Fried Chicken Wars I: Which Charlotte supermarket has the best birds?

Photo: CharlotteObserver files
Photo: CharlotteObserver files

We are wallowing in good fried chicken around here. Sure, homemade is best, but we have plenty of choices: Restaurant fried chicken, fast-food fried chicken, even gas station fried chicken.

With picnic and beach-trip season coming up, what we really need is good supermarket fried chicken. We need those boxes, buckets or bags you grab from the grocery when you’re filling the cooler and hitting the lake, or when you’re rushing home at the end of the week and just need something you can toss on the table to get the weekend started.

We decided to check out the options for supermarket-deli fried chicken. There is a lot of talk out there that Publix, that upstart from Florida, has the best. Is that true? Does Publix really top local players like Salisbury-based Food Lion and Charlotte-based Harris Teeter? We had even heard that Walmart has some righteous fried chicken.

I teamed up with Sallie Funderburk of the CharlotteFive staff to try fried chicken from Publix and Harris Teeter on South Boulevard, Food Lion at Sardis Road North and Monroe Road, and the Walmart Supercenter at the Galleria Shopping Center.

We started at 10 a.m., when both Publix and Harris Teeter start putting out their chicken, so it would be as fresh as possible. We got boxes, bags or buckets. And we tried them immediately so they were at their best. We give each one a score from 1-10 on six criteria: Crunch/crispiness, spiciness, juiciness, size of the pieces, and how we thought they’d hold up as cold fried chicken. We also used a napkin to test for greasiness. In fried chicken, a little greasiness is a good thing: A fried thigh that leaves no trace of grease on a paper napkin is probably going to be dry fried chicken.

The results, from worst to best:

Harris Teeter: $7.99 for an eight-piece bucket.

The blandest, with soft crust and the smallest pieces.

1. Crunch/crispiness: 5.5. The crust was soft and flabby. It made no noise when we bit into it, and didn’t shed any crumbs.

2. Spiciness: 5. No discernible flecks of pepper or anything else in the crust. The meat underneath was bland, with no saltiness.

3. Juiciness: 6. It wasn’t too dry, but it also didn’t give off much moisture, particularly in the leg and breast. The thigh was a little juicier, but: It’s a thigh. Thighs are usually the juiciest.

4. Size of pieces: 6. Much smaller than the others. When we held a breast up against an open hand, it was noticeably smaller than the other samples.

5. Potential to be served cold: 4. With no crunchiness to begin with, it’s probably not going to hold up to chilling.

6. Greasiness: 4. It left the smallest number of spots on a paper napkin.

Score: 30.5.

Walmart Supercenter: $5.98 for an eight-piece spicy bucket.

The most disappointing. The crust was spicy and very crunchy, but it tasted of old oil. And it was so overcooked, the thick, hard crust had separated from the meat underneath, leaving it dry and leathery.

1. Crunch/crispiness: 9.3. If you’re a crust fan, this is major crust, with a spicy heat that hits you in the back of the throat. But it was also so hard, you could use it as a weapon.

2. Spiciness: 8.8. It’s definitely spicy, with a lot of pepper. The spiciness had soaked through the skin and into the top layer of meat.

3. Juiciness: 3. The meat was overcooked, with a stringy/chewy texture.

4. Size of pieces: 6. All the pieces were generously sized, but the breast was much smaller than the one from Publix.

5. Potential to be served cold: 2. When the crust cools off, it will lose its crunch, the only thing it had going for it.

6. Greasiness: 4. A thigh left a few spots on a napkin, but the crust was so hard, it didn’t leave much.

Score: 33.1.

Food Lion: $6.99 for an 8-piece bag with drumsticks and thighs. (Breasts and wings weren’t available at testing time.)

The surprise of the bunch, with good crust and juicy meat.

1. Crunch/crispiness: 9. A solidly crunchy crust, with just the right amount of browning.

2. Spiciness: 5. There was no pepper or heat to the crust, and no saltiness in the meat.

3. Juiciness: 8.6. The meat had plenty of moisture, with a freshly cooked flavor.

4. Size of pieces: 9. There was no breast to check, but the thighs and drumsticks were large and meaty.

5. Potential to be served cold: 10. This is a good picnic fried chicken. The crispy crust and juicy meat would hold up well.

6. Greasiness: 8. The crust was moist enough to leave a lot of marks on the paper napkin.

Score: 49.6.

Publix. $7.99 for an eight-piece box.

Add us to the list of fans: Publix definitely makes the best supermarket-deli fried chicken. The crunchy crust, the salty flavor of the meat, the greasiness – even the sizes of the pieces were ahead of every other version.

1. Crunch/crispiness: 9.5. The best crust of the bunch, loud enough to hear it when you bite into it and crisp enough to shed lots of crumbs.

2. Spiciness: 6. While the meat has a definitely salty taste (we’re guessing it’s brined), we wish the crust had a little black or red pepper.

3. Juiciness: 9.7. The meat was visibly moist, so juicy you’d be happy to eat it even without the crust.

4. Size of pieces: 10. The pieces were huge. A breast completely covered my open hand, all the way to the tips of my fingers.

5. Potential to be served cold: 9. Between the crust and the flavor, this is chicken that will hold up to chilling.

6. Greasiness: 9. It leaves a definite mark on a paper napkin.

Score: 53.2. The winner, greasy hands down.

Coming up Thursday: How does Publix’ fried chicken measure up to Charlotte’s cult favorite, the fried chicken from the Shell Quik Shoppe? We’re about to find out.

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