Alas, Ezell Stephens no longer owns the chicken shacks named by Esquire the Most Life-Changing Fried Chicken in America. The family partnership busted up in legal wranglings that left his former partners with the Ezell’s Famous Chicken name, but Stephens with the recipes that made it. Now that there are seven Ezell’s flung across the Seattle area, an Ezell’s Express truck franchised by relatives of the restaurant’s cofounder, and three locations of Stephens’s Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, we thought a good old-fashioned taste-off might be in order.
Ezell’s Famous Chicken
501 23rd Ave, 206-324-4141; ezellschicken.com
The skinny The joint that started it all, across from Garfield High School, had the swiftest and most accurate service of the spots we tested—which is saying almost nothing, but testifies to 29 years of practice. The meat was generally tender; the (regular recipe) fried batter lacking as ever in seasoning and, only on half our visits, crispy enough. (Not sure if this is policy, but we’ve found they’ll sometimes throw in an extra piece if the chicken has been sitting around for a while.) The legendary sweet-potato pie features stunning filling on lackluster crust; we gobbled it anyway.
Don’t miss A couple of perfect rolls (pillowy and sweet as Hawaiian bread), refreshing coleslaw (the best of the sides), thighs (dark meat is most reliable here), spicy recipe (just the right amount of cayenne)
Avoid at all costs Garfield’s lunch hour, anything made of potatoes. Fries are deadly average; mashed potatoes and gravy worse; the potato salad is great—bright tasting and pickly—but we’re not convinced it had potatoes in it.
The skinny A single truck that operates in multiple locations means less flexibility for diners, who have to look up the location anew each day (and may have to guess, as the website is under construction and Facebook postings are often last minute). Visits to the SoDo Center parking lot (Thursday lunches at this writing) featured the greatest variability of wait time—on one visit 30 seconds; on another 15 minutes—and the truck offers the least variety of menu items: only strips and wings, mini rolls, fries, and Faygo soda pop. Fried to order, the chicken’s crunch is pretty reliable and the grease quotient just right; wings are much juicier than strips, which we found consistently dry. Rolls feature that same sublime sweetness but, here in mini form, less pillowy softness. And…no dessert? What?
Don’t miss Order spicy (essential here, as there are fewer sides for flavor interest), dipping sauce (choices are honey mustard, ranch, barbecue sauce, and Louisiana hot sauce)
Avoid at all costs Strips, fries, and dreaming about the peach cobbler at the brick-and-mortar Ezell’s
Renton and Lake City
509B S Third St, Renton, 425-917-3000 and 14330 Lake City Way NE, Lake City, 206-363-1167
The skinny The digs aren’t fancy, but Heaven Sent understands that eating fried chicken requires a chair and a table. In both Renton and Lake City, service was spectacularly disorganized (bumbled orders, long waits), but that service was also the sweetest and most concerned with our afterlife. HS also passed the all-important Breast Test, earning a perfect record of tender, juicy breast meat. The crust was sometimes crackly enough, sometimes not, but held marginally more flavor—even in the bland regular recipe—than Ezell’s. Everything we tasted in Renton was greaseless, testifying perhaps to the frying prowess of Ezell Stephens, whom we spied cooking on all our visits. Lake City’s dark meat was too greasy. HS also features the widest selection of sides: all the usuals from Ezell’s plus collards, peppery mac and cheese, and—oh yes—ice cream versions of the famous peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.
Don’t miss Chicken breasts, a pint of ridiculous peach cobbler ice cream, a high-five for Ezell
Avoid at all costs Being in a rush, admitting you’re an atheist
Published: August 2013