Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fried Chicken - A Tale of Two Ladies

*This is hopefully the first post of a series about our trip to Savannah and Charleston.

Paula Deen's fried chicken

After a week in Savannah and Charleston, I have learned much about the south - I have stood in the fort where the American Civil War started, read about the secession of South Carolina from the Union and walked through cemeteries of Great Men. And I will get to all that because there is much to share. But right off the bat, I must talk fried chicken.

Like many immigrants before me, I have heard much about the famed Southern fried chicken. I've read about it, I've seen it on television but have never had the courage to tussle with that much hot oil to try cooking it myself. Now, we did not plan to go to the South just to eat fried chicken, but once we were there, we were enthusiastic in our hunt.

Mrs Wilkes and Paula Deen

Two women's names immediately distinguished themselves - Mrs. Wilkes, a home cook whose restaurant is an institution in Savannah and Paula Deen, the purveyor of no-such-thing-as-too-much butter. The decision on which restaurant to try first was taken out of our hands because Mrs. Wilkes' was still closed for the Christmas break when we arrived. Off to Paula Deen's we went to get in line.

Yes, get in line. Google the restaurant and you will find suggestions on how early you should stand outside the restaurant for a taste of that fried chicken. Since we were not in town for very long, we did not want to take any chances. We are after all from Singapore - getting in line for good food is second nature to us. S set-off first from the hotel to get a spot while I was layering for the bewildering cold weather the South had cheekily bestowed on us.

The Lady and Sons restaurant was easy enough to find from our hotel; just look out for the row of shivering people. S was near the top of the line and already making friends with two guys in the line. An hour later, our names were on the list and we walked our self-guided tour before returning for lunch.

Paula Deen's restaurant

Sufficiently ravenous, we were back at the restaurant and led to third level. There was a salad bar but the hot food bar was where the fried chicken was being regularly replenished - this was the buffet. Surprisingly, despite the size of the restaurant, the line does not get long.

Paula Deen's buffet
Mrs Wilke's fried chicken

The buffet is modest - about ten items including fried chicken, roast chicken, collard greens, boiled corn, sweet potato, and mac and cheese. In all honesty, none of the side dishes were memorable (the sweet potatoes and corn were good though) and I did not even bother with the roast chicken. We also ordered the fried green tomatoes from the à la carte menu - this was forgettable. As were the desserts (S had peach cobbler and I tried the gooey cake). But the fried chicken - yum. The chicken skin was crispy without being dry. And with the set-up of the buffet, you could eat as much as you wanted at your own pace. It was the best fried chicken I ever had.

Until we went to Mrs Wilkes' house for lunch the next day.

It did not matter that we waited almost twice as long in line to step into the family-style service restaurant. We met a genial older couple also in line, from the south who gave us tips about more places to visit in the US for great food and history. It is one of the things I love about traveling - meeting random people and discovering new places and sharing viewpoints. We don't have to introduce ourselves and can freely voice opinions because we feel protected by the fact we will never meet again.

When we finally got to the front of line, we were ushered into the ground floor of a home which Mrs Wilkes and her husband bought in 1965. It was a modest room with four large tables, each of which seats ten people, fit snugly. We went into the next room which also had four large tables and if you can count, you will realize that the whole dining room seats 80 people. Unless you came in a group of ten, you would be eating family style with strangers. We walked towards our table where bowls and plates of food had been laid out and we chose seats close to the fried chicken.

Mrs Wilke's buffet and fried chicken

As soon as everyone was seated, one of the servers greeted us in her Southern drawl and offered us unsweetened tea if we preferred that over the the sweetened tea that was on the table. As strangers do, there was some hesitation about starting the meal. But once we started scooping food onto our plate, there was a fluent exchange of plates and bowls. With twenty dishes, yes twenty, we were outspoken about asking for a dish not within our reach. S and I lucked out because there was an empty chair and a kid who did not eat much at our table. This means less waiting for the chicken parts you wanted (yes, it's all about the chicken. Fried chicken).

Let's start with sides - mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, potato salad, 3 (or 4?) types of beans, cabbage, mac and cheese, stuffing, gravy, collard greens, okra, snap peas, jambalaya, corn bread and biscuits. I did not try everything but I liked the rice, potato salad, the black-eyed beans and biscuits. The beef stew was delicious - the meat used was not of the lean kind; it was fatty and flavorful just like the cut my mum uses for some of her dishes.

Mrs Wilke's fried chicken

But what about the fried chicken? It looks crispy enough and then you take that first bite. It was not just crisp, it was richly seasoned without crossing to spicy. S and I looked at each other and we felt grateful that we shared that pleasure together. But beyond the food, the ladies at Mrs Wilkes' who served us defined the meaning of Southern hospitality. Their bright faces reflected sincerity as they ask attentive questions punctuated with words like "honey" and "sweetheart" spoken only like a Southerner can.

Was it the best fried chicken I ever had?


The meal ended with dessert - if you have a choice between a fruit cobbler and banana pudding, I highly recommend the latter. And just as we were done, we were firmly informed that in the tradition Mrs Wilkes' dining room, each of us had to take our own dirty plate and glass to bring them to the sink. Just like home.

The Lady & Sons
102 W Congress St
Savannah, GA 31401
How to get a seat:
The door opens at 9.30 a.m. to make a reservation. People start to line-up at 8 a.m. But on the day we were there, even if you arrived at 9.30 a.m., you could get a reservation. You choose a lunch or dinner time, leave and then return for your meal. At lunch time, we saw a couple walk-in without a reservation and another make a reservation for dinner. So if you can't join the line in the morning, you can still try to see if you can get a spot.

Mrs Wilkes' Dining Room
107 West Jones Str
Savannah, GA 31401
How to get a seat:
You must get in line and you will be seated for your meal when you get to the front of the line. A line starts to form as early as 9 a.m. and the door opens at 11.30 a.m. We heard that locals have a way of getting a seat - no one told us how but we could guess after our second visit. Make sure you have enough quarters for the parking meters if you are driving.


jordan. said...

This is all making me very hungry! I can't wait to hear all the details about the food and sites from your trip.

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