After a lot of initial excitement, the Heights' bid to become Houston's primary destination for fried chicken has mostly fizzled. With The Bird House partners Matt Opaleski and Jason Hill focused on donuts and chicken tenders and the Chicken Ranch shuttered, only Funky Chicken remains from 2014's wave of openings.
Still, none of those operators are as accomplished as F.E.E.D TX, which owns three locations of rapidly expanding Liberty Kitchen along with BRC Gastropub and Petite Sweets. On Friday, the company's three year-long effort to open Lee's Fried Chicken & Donuts came to fruition when the doors opened to the public for the first time. Perhaps the company's skill at giving people what they want will break the recent trend of fried chicken failures.
While the building retains the footprint that marks its former life as a Church's Chicken, the interior has been transformed with a fresh look that features white subway tile. Wooden booths and a L-shaped counter account for the 20 or so available seats. Plans to add a patio and the imminent opening of the drive-thru window should help alleviate some of the crowding that's greeted Lee's in its first few days.
Turning to the food, co-owner Lee Ellis told the Chronicle that the restaurant's mix of chicken and donuts is an alternative to the more common chicken and waffles, but the concept clearly owes some of its inspiration to Philadelphia's high profile Federal Donuts chain, which has grown to five locations and earned plenty of national attention.
Unlike Federal, which blends Middle Eastern spices with a Korean-style twice frying technique, Lee's serves a more traditional Southern bird. A three-day process of brining and soaking in buttermilk results in extremely juicy meat, but the crust's flavor was a little bland when I sampled it Saturday night. Thankfully, Lee's serves Liberty Kitchen's hot sauce syrup to perk things up a bit.
Although the chicken still tastes as though some tweaks are needed to match the original at Liberty Kitchen, the donuts are spot on. Despite being cold, a glazed variety matched Shipley's light texture, and a blueberry cake donut exceeded the similar version at Hugs & Donuts for packing lots of fruit flavor into every bite. Even a somewhat baroque-looking bacon-topped donut balanced sweet and smoky flavors.
At $15 for four pieeces with two sides, Lee's prices are more expensive than fast food options like Frenchy's or Popeye's but cheaper than full service restaurants like Bramble and Punk's Simple Southern Food. The chicken itself isn't certified organic, but the birds are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Donuts range from $1.25 to $2 depending on the type.
Expect F.E.E.D. to work out Lee's kinks quickly. Ellis was in Austin on Saturday, but three senior managers, chef Crash Hethcox, front of house ace Ben Neumann and vice president of operations Jim Mills, were onsite assisting the staff shortly before the restaurant closed at 9 pm.
That sort of all hands on deck approach speaks to the company's commitment to getting things right. After all, having waited three years to open the place, it's hard to imagine they'll stop at one location. Best to get the details right before growing.