A new bird enters the fray in Louisville’s fried chicken wars.
While Royal’s Hot Chicken and Joella’s have competed to capture the imaginations of local diners over the last year and a half, new Southern-inspired restaurants from Gospel Bird to Finn’s Southern Kitchen have been making traditional fried fowl a staple of their menus.
Of course, Kentucky has had a bit of a connection to fried chicken for a few years now, thanks in part to a man named Col. Harlan Sanders, so it’s no surprise the dish graces many menus around Louisville. But this new entry is just a tad different: River Road BBQ, which recently celebrated its fifth year in business in the shadow of the Water Tower at 3017 River Road, has added smoked fried chicken to its menu.
So far, it’s been a hit, according to owner Jon Gudmundsson Jr., who decided to try it on a whim after having previously seen it mentioned on “Secrets of Louisville Chefs” as a menu item at the Harrison-Smith House in Bardstown.
He decided to create his own version, so he smoked whole, unbrined chickens, then quartered and fried them in a batter he developed just for the new dish. What he got was a bird with crispy skin, smoky flavor, a hint of Southern spice, and a tender, juicy consistency. It really was quite delicious — but after he began promoting the chicken and selling it, he tried a piece himself just days ago and found a piece of skin on a thigh he deemed too tough.
“I felt if we could just eliminate that, we would have a much better mouthfeel in the product,” Gudmundsson says.
So, he decided to smoke the bird, remove the skin, and then fry it. What he got was something decidedly different, as the focus of the flavor shifted from smoke to the spicy batter.
Where previously the crispy coating turned into a sort of shell that flaked off in chunks as the chicken was devoured, with the skin removed, it became more akin to traditional fried chicken, but with a hint of smoke and bolder spice. Moreover, the chicken inside becomes much easier to eat.
Smoked chicken going into a fryer isn’t a unique concept, as essentially it is like a double dose of Southern tradition. So, it isn’t actually a new thing, but it sure comes at an interesting time, as fried chicken has been a focal point of Louisville dining recently.
Gudmundsson doesn’t deny the timing is more than simple coincidence. “This town is so fried chicken crazy, I had to try it,” he says. But at the same time, he isn’t exactly jumping on a bandwagon of adding something to the market that always exists. Gudmundsson creates his own sauces and recipes, and does so with a personal flair.
For instance, to go with the chicken, he created what River Road BBQ is calling “Chickendippinsauce,” a unique blend of tangy and sweet but with a bit of spicy bite in the aftertaste. It complements the peppery, dark orange batter on the chicken, which yields delicious, fresh meat that falls off the bone.
So is it like Nashville hot chicken? A bit, yes. But it relies on flavor far more than spice level, and the smoke provides a very different flavor profile — so not really. For his part, Gudmundsson isn’t interested in comparisons, even though he knows they are inevitable.
“I don’t want my food to taste like other people’s food,” he says. “I want it to taste like my food.”
Reaching the five-year milestone and seeing interest grow with the arrival of smoked fried chicken, Gudmundsson says sometime in mid-November, River Road BBQ will expand its hours. Currently, it is more of a lunch and carry-out spot that is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday hours recently extended to 8:30 p.m. to accommodate demand for the chicken, and soon, Tuesday through Thursday’s schedule will reflect the same (Sunday and Monday hours will remain the same, with the chicken available after noon on Sundays). In addition, River Road BBQ has procured a beer license and soon will begin serving bottled beer for dine-in.
Meantime, he believes the batter, texture and process of his smoked fried chicken are where they need to be — “We’ve been tweaking it all along,” he says — making the move forward after five years well timed. He’s hired four new employees to ramp up and believes the chicken will help continue the traditionally quiet success of the restaurant.
He describes his response when he first tried the new iteration of the chicken as reason to believe: “I couldn’t stop eating. I didn’t even want to put it down. I said, ‘That’s the best piece of fried chicken I’ve ever eaten — it’s just got so much going on. And I’ve eaten chicken all over the South.”
Prices for the smoked fried chicken are $6.75 for a leg-thigh quarter or $7.75 for a breast-wing quarter; adding two sides is $2. There also is a family pack for $28 that feeds four.