Beyond the Beltway

Finger lickin' good: Houston's ethnic fried chicken gives new meaning to the Southern classic

Finger lickin' good: Houston's ethnic fried chicken gives new meaning to the Southern classic

Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, Banana Leaf
Banana Leaf's fried chicken is dry rubbed with a Malaysian spice blend before frying. Photo by Ruthie Miller Johnson
Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, Mala Sichuan
Mala Sichuan makes fried chicken into bite-sized, juicy bits of joy. Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, ToreOre
You'll find the city's best Korean fried chicken at ToreOre inside the Super H Mart. Seek it out. Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, Banana Leaf
Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, Mala Sichuan
Ruthie, fried chicken, June 2012, ToreOre

What is it that makes fried chicken taste best in summer? The Sticky Months bring a hellfire that reigns over us like a dictator spurned — yet somehow a plate of hot-hot-hot fried chicken fits right into the forecast. There’s just something ritualistic about burning your hands on a searing drumstick, biting into it and letting the juices run down your chin, and then coming away with glistening fingers — all in the name of crisp greatness.

“Fried chicken” here often refers to the Southern classic, and we’ve got plenty of great ones in town at places like the Barbecue Inn, Frenchy’s, Max’s Wine Dive, and Bistro Zelko. Other restaurants — Haven, Beaver’s, and Revival Market among them — offer it as an occasional summer special.

 There’s just something ritualistic about burning your hands on a searing drumstick, biting into it and letting the juices run down your chin, and then coming away with glistening fingers — all in the name of crisp greatness.

 But in Houston’s cultural Cuisinart of a culinary landscape, we’ve got a veritable jackpot of ethnic variations, too. Sample your way through them to note the delicious cultural variations. Here are a few favorites.

Toreore (Korean)

Just inside the front door of the Super H Mart on Blalock is ToreOre, a fantastic Korean fast-food chain that serves fried chicken and fried chicken only. Like most Asian versions, the chicken is seasoned after frying; thus, while the regular version is decent, the flavored versions (like the hot-sweet-spicy chicken or garlic chicken) are your best bet for a karate chomp. Every order at ToreOre comes with a side of pickled radishes, adding a lovely vinegary crunch to your meal.

Mala Sichuan (Szechuan)

Fried chicken is a festive dish in in the Szechuan cuisine of southwestern China, traditionally served at weddings, banquets, and family celebrations. It’s typically a peppercorn-laden dish that’s explosive, alluring, and addictive. The chicken is chopped into bite-sized pieces, then wok-fried at super-high temps. The skin becomes quickly crunchalicious, while the ulterior meat remains relatively soft. The version at Mala Sichuan is delicious and fiery, albeit a bit too salty for me.

Pollo Campero (Guatemalan)

While fried chicken in China is a celebratory dish, in the Americas it sits squarely in the comfort zone. Pollo Campero is a Guatemalan chain that revolves around a cozy old family recipe for fried chicken. Unlike most versions — where much of the flavor is in the breading — Pollo Campero’s chicken first marinates in a citrus bath, and then gets a Latin spice blend, to ensure that the wow factor goes from skin to bone. The breading is thinner than our southern staple, yet crispy, crunchy, and undeniably caliente.

Banana Leaf (Malaysian)

Malaysia, which borrows some culinary traditions from other Asian cultures, offers a distinct version of fried chicken. The chicken is usually rubbed with a dry mix of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and curry powder before wok-frying. Banana Leaf’s version has an incredible, intense flavor on the mostly dark meat pieces, but was lacking in moisture. The surrounding onions, peppers, and mangos added a nice sweetness to match the heat found in the sauce.

These fried chickens are decadent, distinct, and delicious. Who’s up for a fried chicken crawl?