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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Perfect Pickin’ - Gas Station Chicken

Lindsay MacKay of Water View squeals with delight over a picnic spread at the Urbanna pool. Photo by Tom Chillemi

Next time you stop to fill up the gas tank, follow the irresistible smells of frying chicken drifting from the store. If the station has a deli, there’s a certain inevitability there will be a basket load of chicken cooking in the Henny Penny fryer behind the counter. 

Whether it’s one of the chains like Get & Zip, The Buoy and Quarles, or a mom and pop shop, each has its own special recipe for frying up wonderfully crispy yet tender chicken.

Let’s face it, how many folks want to stand over a boiling pot of grease in the middle of a hot summer day trying to reproduce grandma’s award-winning southern fried chicken?

I remember the apocalyptic mess that exploded in the kitchen on my last try. And when I asked for a little help cleaning up—I was nearly trampled into the greasy floor in the mayhem of my loved ones jumping ship. 

Does grease splatter ever come off drywall? The last time I fired up the fryer, I had to renovate the kitchen.

The simple fact is that modern, multi-tasking, career fast-trackers with a half-dozen kids and grandkids tagging along do not have to juggle frying up a bird when they stay at “the rivah.”

All they need to do is make a chicken run.

A convenience store chicken run has two major advantages:

  • Someone else cooks the chicken all the way through without burning the outside.
  • Cleanup involves sweeping an arm across the table to clear everything into the recycle bin.

Where does one find the best convenience store fried chicken?

In search of the answer, I drove over hill and dale and county to county. I crossed the “scary” bridge and some not-so-scary ones. Over the past month, I sampled enough wings that I should be able to fly as well as any chicken were it not for the heftier “drumsticks” now keeping me grounded.

Lesson 1: Follow the construction workers.

Construction workers know the best places and they say the quality even varies between stores of the same chain. They go so far as to see who is cooking in the kitchen that day because “it makes a world of difference.” So they say.

Gas station convenience stores all start with fresh (never frozen) chicken delivered twice a week. The locations I sampled all cook up 1,000 pieces or more each week.

The stores use their own style of light, yet powerfully flavorful breading. All the mixes are supplier brands and not homemade. While almost everyone was happy to show me the ropes, The Buoy in White Stone guarded its secrets as fervently as any world famous chef.

At Get & Zip in Lottsburg, Robin Cudd washes the raw pieces in warm water because she said the dry batter adheres better to warm skin. She then coats the pieces in a medium spicy dry batter mix. The Buoy and Quarles in Locust Hill wash in cold water before coating with a dry batter that is much milder and not at all spicy.

At this point, I discovered my biggest blunder, and Lesson 2 in making great fried chicken: Do not attempt to learn southern cooking from the Hungarians.

I learned to cook at my mother’s elbow. One of the things she taught me about frying chicken was to dip the pieces into raw egg before coating them with flour.

Not so, according to the convenience store chefs.

They put a big nix on the paprika, as well.

This is what happens when your mother (and cooking inspiration) is Hungarian. While she can make a mean goulash, no one is rushing home for mom’s fried chicken.

Sorry, mom.

Another breakthrough discovery was that convenience stores cook in a deep fat pressure cooker, unlike my mom’s shallow frying pan (thus, the grease stains on the drywall). One exception to pressure-cooked chicken was The Buoy. They use the same cooker, but do not cook under pressure.

The commercial grade “Henny Penny” cooker automatically signals when the chicken is done to a crispy golden color—10 to 15 minutes. Then it is plucked from the boiling oil and is ready for purchase.

In case you’re wondering how often the fryers are cleaned, Get & Zip changes the cooking oil and cleans every other batch. The Buoy and Quarles clean often, but only change the oil every few days.

I read somewhere that “Fried chicken feeds the soul of the South.”

Talking to construction workers I found that it ranks right up there with God, mom and country.

So how could a hot-blooded, reasonably intelligent Hungarian from California be foolish enough to step into the midst of a debate over which is the best? Not me. I will leave it to the readers to pick their personal favorites.

So forget the family mayhem. Put happy faces on your vacationing brood by making a chicken run. You’ll find a great reason to give up the diet for chicken that is cooked to perfection at one of the area’s finest convenience stores.

posted 07.31.2008

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