My morning panel at the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference was so early that I barely had time for breakfast, which I grabbed across the street from the conference hotel at John Besh’s Luke Tavern, which was good, if pricey. But after the panel, I decided to run out and see if I could grab lunch at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme, a restaurant I had never gotten to try. I wasn’t at all sure I would get to. There are restaurants like Franklin’s Bar-B-Q in Austin that are just too crowded to get into, and Willie Mae’s has recently been featured on some Food Network TV shows. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and after all, Willie Mae’s is known for one of my favorite dishes, fried chicken, and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the hometown favorite Gus’s in Memphis.
One thing that anyone visiting Willie Mae’s needs to know is that they do things a little differently than most restaurants. Though there is always a wait, there is not a waiting list as such. Instead, you stand outside under a tent, and people are seated as tables become available. Individual diners are encouraged to sit at the bar, and people are seated according to the number in their parties and what tables come open, not the order they first started waiting.
As for the menu, it is a typical soul food menu, but what almost everyone wants is the fried chicken, and with good reason. Like Gus’s in Memphis, it gets a pretty dark-brown coating, but Willie Mae’s seems a little less spicy than Gus’s, although there is a spice-laden finish that grows with Willie Mae’s over time. The crunchy coating encrusts pieces of white meat chicken that are juicy but not greasy at all, and for an up charge, one can get a breast and two wings. Although there are mashed potatoes and greens, I opted for the french fries instead, and they were basically good. The atmosphere, though crowded and bustling, is basically homey, and great soul music plays from overhead.
As for how it stacks up against Gus’s, I would have to call it an even tie, although there are subtle differences of course. As a lover of fried chicken, and both restaurants, I cannot proclaim either one the winner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70119
One of the main differences at this year’s South By Southwest in downtown Austin was something that Memphis people have loved for year, Gus’s Fried Chicken. The venerable Memphis restaurant opened its Austin location earlier this year in a spot that had been a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, but which had been vacant for the last several South By Southwest events. The line for the Memphis-style fried chicken was out the door and down the block.
I must admit that when my stepbrother’s family said we were going to a buffet for Thanksgiving dinner, I was somewhat concerned. But I didn’t know that the buffet they had in mind was the Blue Willow Inn in the little town of Social Circle, Georgia about 30 miles from Atlanta. The Blue Willow Inn is technically a buffet (food is brought out to tables either upstairs or downstairs, and you serve yourself),but it is not cheap, the surroundings are an historic mansion on the town’s main street, and the food is exceptional. While it seems almost strange that such a family establishment would be open on Thanksgiving, it was actually quite crowded, with people loading up on corn muffins, their famous fried chicken, turkey, and one of several desserts including peanut butter pie and red velvet cake. Although I felt sorry for their employees having to work, they seemed cheerful and good-natured about it and actually seemed to be having fun. The gift shop next door was also open, and decorated beautifully for Christmas, with all kinds of gifts and food items available. It was altogether a fun time with family on Thanksgiving Day.
From the Spring & 4th Center, I headed back over to the Melia, and caught the shuttle out to the Old Fourth Ward showcases, and then rode the other shuttle out to East Atlanta Village and the 529 venue before heading back to the Old Fourth Ward. I decided to have dinner at Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar, which is the Atlanta branch of a famous Chicago fried chicken chain. Unlike the Chicago stores, the Atlanta location is a little more upscale, with an “ice bar” that literally stays frozen to keep drinks cold, big screen TV’s and a dance floor. The place was so crowded when I walked in that there was basically no place to move. I thought the chicken was decent, but didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Good chicken? Yes. Best ever? No, at least not in my book. Yet the atmosphere in the place was fun, college football games were on the big screens and a DJ was playing plenty of hip-hop and old-school in the back room so people could dance. And the prices are reasonable in a city where dining out can get expensive.
Harold’s Chicken & Ice Bar
349 S Edgewood Avenue SE
Atlanta, GA 30312-1727
Directly across the street from where I parked my car was a more-or-less permanent food-truck called Ms. P’s Electric Cock that is supposed to be the best fried chicken in Austin. Fortunately, it was still open, and rather busy actually, despite the extremely cold winds that had come up suddenly. While waiting for my fried chicken, I met a family from Colorado who were former Memphians, and whose son was in a band showcasing during SXSW. The chicken took awhile, but it easily made my top 5 all-time greats list. In addition to the great chicken, they feature locally-produced Barton Springs sodas to wash it down with. If you’re in Austin, be sure to visit Ms. P’s for what might be the best fried chicken in Texas.