I’m a longtime advocate of making southern fried chicken America’s national food. Burgers and hot dogs are fine miniature flag bearers of our fake empire, but in the United States, discerning individuals know that the bird is the word. Sadly, like the zombified burgers and dogs who dominate global markets, our country’s leading export of so-called fried chicken is an abomination of the form. As a result, in life outside of the these United States, the bird is in fact not equal to or greater than the word. It is a slimy, sloppy perversion of America’s heartiest heartland heartthrob.
What then, makes the difference between the world’s most powerfully positioned fried chicken and its very best? Many a hungry American has formulated the answer to this question: the weightless crisp of a minimally floured chicken skin. Fluffy folds of heavily layered, deep fried bread crumbs. Herbs and spices robbed from the grave of an alcoholic Confederate brigadier general. White meat that is juicy to the bone and dark meat that practically falls off it when eaten. The ability to remain crisp and, dare I say, refreshing, after a night in the refrigerator- and the ability to completely dehydrate a human being if he’s too cavalier with his fried chicken intake. All of the above, with an above-ground pool of brown gravy ladled atop. Who is the real hero?
I realized my own litmus test for fried chicken at a shack in Pomona, California. Donahoo’s Golden Chicken is a southern fried chicken joint run by an extended Chinese family that doesn’t allow anyone to photograph their business, which houses two rows of deep fryers, a couple of heat lamp trays and a take-out counter. The design of the building predates Thriller and the giant chicken perched high above the marquee may have served in Patton’s army. The luckiest Donahoo’s customers will have their order taken by a cheerful high school student who has more pride in that chicken than your next door neighbor has in her dry, joyless, homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Donahoo’s fried chicken is supposedly descended from a Donahoo family. I’m fairly certain that the Donahoos of the 50s were a shade less Chinese than their successors, just as I’m certain that their successors are responsible for the wonder that it is today. In Pomona, Donahoo’s fried chicken is an extra nail in Harland Sanders’ casket: the crunchy, chewy folds of floured and fried chicken skin seem to be designed with the Kentucky Colonel’s surrender in mind, aiming for the same heavy duty goal of KFC without the curse of its greasy, slippery, charmless execution. Rich golden brown and speckled with black, it packs a powerful punch of salt and pepper, sending herbs and spices running for the deceptively simple taste of a real home recipe. The texture of Donahoo’s chicken manages to skirt all of southern fried chicken’s hallmarks at once, from stick-to-the-meat pan fry to slide-off-the-meat shell to bunched-in-a-corner deposits of savory deep fried fat.
At times the white meat at Donahoo’s can be dry, but when your chicken is made to order there are few things more succulent than a strip of their fried chicken torn right off the breastbone. On my most recent visit to the golden bird, I ordered the half-chicken dinner special and carried my white donut box of fried chicken, steak fries and homemade dinner rolls out to my car, then sat for a moment to watch the man in the parking spot next to mine. He had ordered his fried chicken less than a minute ahead of me and was wasting no time eating all of it in the driver’s seat of his 90′s Lincoln sedan, windows down and self-consciousness sitting at home, waiting for dinner.
So: The true test of southern fried chicken is how long it takes for a man to break down and eat it straight out of the box (or if he’s a lucky man, straight out of the bucket). After seeing that, I couldn’t recall a time I was near a freshly fried bird and made it all the way home without eating at least one piece in the car. I tried taking my chicken at least to a local park, but made it only as far as the local Jack in the Box parking lot. After devouring my meal, reeling from salt shock and barely able to walk, I knew I was a fool to leave Donahoo’s without taking a single bite.
Donahoo’s Golden Chicken
1074 N Garey Ave
Pomona, CA 91767