At SPQR in San Francisco, fried chicken night is on Tuesdays. Meanwhile, just about one hour away, at Ad Hoc in Yountville, fried chicken night currently alternates between Mondays and Wednesdays. Given these two schedules, every single week presents a viable opportunity for the fried chicken connoisseur to enjoy these two dinners on back-to-back evenings. I sincerely hope that someone out there can rise to the occasion, if only on principle. As for myself, I wish that I had taken advantage of such a gluttonous ruse, but my most recent visits to Ad Hoc and SPQR were about two weeks apart (and separated by a heavyweight Thanksgiving). So it goes.
There is an inherent quality to fried chicken that seems to strike a chord with most people. In many ways, it can almost qualify as the sentimental favorite, inexorably tied to summer picnics or a grandmother’s kitchen. Fried chicken is arguably America’s single greatest comfort food, although pizza or hamburgers could also present a legitimate challenge for that title. Even so, there really is a dearth of great fried chicken here in the Bay Area — I suppose that frying up yardbird is simply not the West Coast’s strong suit. But despite this regional handicap, the fried chicken nights at Ad Hoc and SPQR have both benefited from some strong word of mouth — both from critics and from foodies — and each night remains a culinary juggernaut, well-attended even in the worst economy.
For Ad Hoc, the logline is pure and simple: the great Thomas Keller offers his take on a classic comfort food. Ad Hoc’s diners approach this meal under an extremely powerful assumption — that a world-class chef, when approaching simple cooking, should knock any basic dish out of the park. And really, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to sample TK’s version of fried chicken? The other thing working for Ad Hoc is the fact that the restaurant only offers one prix fixe menu each night, which means that literally everyone orders fried chicken on fried chicken night. As a result, this creates a palpable sense of dining-room camaraderie, and it’s truly heart-warming to see platter after platter of fried chicken emerge from the kitchen.
The allure of SPQR is that this restaurant certainly loves to fry things — all sorts of glorious things. Consider: the menu at SPQR features an antipasti section that is divided into three parts: cold, hot and fried. Items offered under the “fried” rubric include pig ears, mozzarella bocconcini, Brussels sprouts, and chicken livers. Then, under the antipasti grande section, guests can order fried beef meatballs or the crispy pork sandwich (the latter of which I extolled in my November 24 entry — click here to read). At a restaurant with such a prodigious fryer, fried chicken is simply a natural.
So which restaurant fries chicken the best? Ultimately, I would have to choose SPQR. The fried chicken at Ad Hoc is dynamite, no doubt — it’s eminently juicy, with meat that falls off the bone. The fried chicken at SPQR is also juicy, but a little less so, and the meat also requires a touch more coaxing. Honestly, both versions are very comparable in these areas, but the skin of the SPQR chicken is what carries the dish and puts it over the top — it’s lightly floured and fully rendered, leaving it taut and super-crispy. The Ad Hoc chicken, on the other hand, features a noticeably heavier batter, and I think that may be the reason why the greasy layer of fat between the skin and the meat does not fully render away.
Perhaps I’m just a Southerner at heart, but I’m willing to sacrifice a very slight degree of juiciness to have skin that is crackling-crispy — I consider that a trade up. The texture of perfectly fried chicken skin, crispy enough to strike a match on it, is why we bother with frying in the first place. That’s the way I see it, anyhow. But let the brave soul who can make back-to-back visits to these restaurants have the final word — it would only be right.