Photography – Rebekah Robinson. Art Direction – Jessica Allen. Video – Melissa Tapper
Tastes like chicken
Metro's Kate Richards takes one for the team to find some of the best fried chicken in Auckland.
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An eight-course dinner on top of all that chicken had tipped me over the edge – afterwards I stayed crouched over the toilet, panting and full of regret. My body felt heavy and I wiped the chickeny residue from the corners of my mouth, with some relief. I cleaned the bowl, quietly admiring the contents, and feeling I was now a chicken connoisseur capable of distinguishing one expelled chunk of bird from another. I flushed and went to wash my mouth out – the past day or two had seen an insipid film form over my gums and teeth that brushing and mouthwash couldn’t fully remove. Defeated, I went back to bed.
I’d started to feel lethargic only a couple of days into the experiment, but I wasn’t sleeping well either. At night my stomach felt tight and bloated, and breathing was harder than usual. I’d wake with severe stabbing abdominal pain and have to hold a hot water bottle. At the point my body started rejecting food, I should have listened. Sadly, I’m an idiot, so instead, the very next day, drunk on the laughs and praise I was getting from colleagues and friends, I tore enthusiastically through a nine-variety sampler of Pocha Korean restaurant’s best chicken (and a beer), followed by a serve of buttermilk fried thigh at Ralph’s on Dominion Road (a highly commendable dish, I might add).
I was delirious, almost high, as I ambled to dinner that evening. I ordered a small vegetarian thali at Ras Vatika and grabbed a seat at the rear-most table. Food was the last thing I wanted, but these were the final days of Metro Cheap Eats judging and because chicken eating had consumed most of my time, I was behind on visits. I scrolled idly through Bumble on my phone while waiting for my meal; my carefully curated internet persona so far removed from the inglorious mess of a human now sat alone at this vinyl-topped table. A soundless but foul-smelling burp left my body like the ghosts of a thousand dead chickens. I’d be sick again that night, into a plastic bucket next to my bed.
I’m a sucker for jokes, and the idea that one person could endure a period of three weeks eating mostly fried chicken was amusing to me. Crucially though, it was amusing to others – if there’s one thing I love it’s other people finding me funny. I compiled a spreadsheet of chicken from around the world – Korean, North American, Japanese, Indian and so on – then asked for advice on the longlist from that sage encyclopaedia of knowledge, the internet. After some feedback and a few days of Googling I whittled the list down until it felt like I’d be hitting the best spots within my short timeframe.
Being something of a self-serving mission, there was no editorial budget for chicken, so I emailed restaurants, inviting them to participate in my informal competition by supplying their best fried chicken dish to judge. The response was overwhelming. Almost every restaurant I approached was keen and as I began to schedule visits, the enormity of the Supersize Me-style project began to set in. I visited the following restaurants:
Burger Burger, Bird on a Wire, Boy and Bird, Mexico, Chicka, Electric Chicken, Temaki Truck, Fukuko, Ken Yakitori, Ramen Takara, Renkon (now Tokyo Loco Bowl), Seven at Seafarers, Zool Zool, Dak Hanmari, Little and Kitchen, No1 Chicken, Nuna, Pocha, Simon and Lee, Treasure Kitchen, Mexico, Bawarchi, Paradise Indian Food, Peach’s Hot Chicken, Spicy House, Tianze Dumpling House, Satya Spice and Chai Shop, Kai Eatery, The Bite, Sunflower Vegetarian, Orleans, Ralph’s, and Lord of the Fries.
The origins of fried chicken are disputed, but one of the earliest known recipes dates back to the 4th century Roman Empire in a book called Apicius. Fried chicken in the USA has been traced back to both Scottish and West African migrants. Scottish frying and African seasoning techniques were used in the American South by enslaved and segregated African women in the 1730s who used poultry sales and cooking as a means of autonomy.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC, dirty bird, K-Fry) made fried chicken popular during the 1950s when Harland Sanders opened the first store in Utah. By the 1960s, the fast food chain had not only expanded across the US, but also to the UK, Canada and Jamaica. At the time of writing there are an estimated 20,404 branches worldwide.
But what is fried chicken? It’s certainly universally loved. While techniques, seasonings and cut of chicken vary between cuisines, it is nearly always as simple as jointed chicken dredged in seasoned flour and fried in either vegetable oil, or sometimes lard. And that’s the beauty of it – no matter what way you slice it, it’s greasy and salty and crunchy, all the things we’re conditioned to enjoy.
It’s also something, I learned, that you shouldn’t eat too much of. Below are 12 of the best fried chicken dishes in the city. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, that’s more than a one woman job, but if you’re hungover, sad, trying to gain a couple of kilos or just plain hungry try one of the places below.
Peach’s Hot Chicken
Tennessee Hot Chicken (extra hot and spicy)
An hour-long wait for Peach’s at the inaugural Auckland Fried Chicken festival in July sums up its popularity – luckily an hour and half was time enough to get slightly turnt on the takeaway mulled wine another stall was selling. Owners Alex and Olivia George serve authentic Nashville hot chicken, made using a recipe passed down to Alex from his grandma. Be warned, dishes are spicy, even mild packs a heavy cayenne hit. The fearless should opt for extra hot wings – three fried wings tossed in a fiery rub of cayenne and “secret spices” and served on a slice of white bread. Home-made sweet-sour-juicy pickles cut through the fat. Easily some of, if not the, best chicken in town.
Bird on a Wire
Buttermilk Fried Chicken (boneless)
Deceptively un-spicy considering two of the main seasoning components are cayenne and chilli powder, but overall flavourful and nicely salted. Pieces arrive neatly stacked like Jenga with a sprinkling of microgreens giving the illusion of healthfulness. There’s a slight residual oiliness left on the fingers as you eat, which is somewhat displeasing. Grease aside, BOAW’s chicken was crispy and golden and the batter not too thick. The thigh meat used held up well to frying, remaining juicy, even if the way it’d been portioned left some thinner, dry, edge-bits. It was very hard to stop eating, but that’s possibly because I was hungover the day I went.
Ponsonby Central, 136/146 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby; 40 Hurstmere Road, Takapuna; 234B Orakei Road, Remuera
Lord of the Fries
Vegan Southern Fried Chick’n (boneless)
NB: I rated vegan chicken independently of real chicken.
The most chicken-y non-chicken I’ve ever eaten, from the taste, to the texture, to the way it’s shaped and breaded. Undeniably tasty, I liked the nugget-style crumb, and how the ‘flesh’ pulls apart the same way chicken does (LOTF have a special soy protein made for them in Australia). While there’s some way to go in making this as good as real chicken, if I had to switch to a plant-based diet tomorrow I would happily eat these on the reg. LOTF’s stated goal is to convert omnivores to a plant-based lifestyle in a non-confronting way and I’d say a few people would be fooled in a blind tasting. A squirt of fast food BBQ sauce rounds off the vegan junk food experience in the truest way.
Shop 10, Snickle Lane, central city; Shop 2, St Kevins Arcade, K’Rd precinct
Karaage Chicken (boneless)
While this chicken is very good – one of the juiciest I ate – the karaage at Zool Zool is more about the sauce than the chicken itself. Instead of a traditional wedge of lemon on the side, Zool Zool tosses their chicken in a vinegar-based dressing and tops it with a squirt of Kewpie mayo before serving. It’s the perfect lift to a traditionally heavy dish. Don’t get me wrong, the chicken is a crucial element. It’s marinated overnight in the usual mix of ginger, garlic, sake, soy, sugar before being coated in tempura batter and fried to order. The lightness of the coating made this the most satisfying karaage I tried – easy on the tummy.
405 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden
Kai Eatery | Reserve table
XL Fried Chicken (boneless)
The recipe is a secret for a reason but you can smell the garlic and pepper as you come round the corner of Queen Street to this little orange container, which has been converted into a food truck. Owners Tanya Huang and Allen Yeh are from Taiwan where, they claim, across the country fried chicken sells at an average of 300 pieces every three minutes. Huang and Yeh spent half a year developing their chicken recipe, not only thinking about the brine and the coating and the cut of meat, but also how long and at what temperature they should fry, and how long they should marinate the meat for. Huang tells me she gained five kilos during the recipe development stages – the dish’s high status as a staple market dish in Taiwan meant she felt immense pressure to get it right for Taiwanese expats.
A single breast is flattened to roughly the size of a human head then marinated for up to 24 hours. It is periodically massaged to keep the juices in. Then, it’s dredged in a wet batter, then a dry one – a mix of tapioca flour, wheat flour, salt, pepper and secrets. Thigh may be juicy and tasty but it takes too long to cook, explains Huang, and when you see the lunchtime queues for a piece of bird here it makes sense that she’d use a quicker cooking cut.
This chicken is the business. Firstly, it’s huge. One serve could probably feed two people. It’s fatty and tender, sweet and spicy. The tapioca flour gives a slightly bubbly texture. The custom cardboard sleeve it comes in makes for easy eating, too – no grease on those paws! I’d hazard a guess and say there’s ginger, garlic, five spice, and soy in there but Huang won’t tell me so we’ll never actually know. Shout out to the wings, which are also ace.
1 Rutland St, central city
Chicken Bites and Chicken Skin (boneless)
Did you know it was possible to buy raw chicken skin in bulk? Neither, but turns out you can and every bar in Auckland should start doing it so they can serve fried chicken skin like Cherry Yang does at her Taiwanese snack stall inside NJK Supermarket. Yang bulk orders skin, then staff spend hours trimming the fat from it, cutting and coating it before frying. Move over pork crackling, there’s a new hot snack in town.
I also love Yang’s chicken bites which are definitely worth the horrid burps you’ll have to endure for the rest of the evening – they absolutely whack of garlic. You could use all the most universally hated food descriptors to talk about how good they are including, but not limited to, succulent, moist, and juicy. Like Huang and Yeh, Yang will never reveal what’s in her marinades or coating. She makes them in complete secrecy, late at night after finishing at her day job.
3 Kent St, Newmarket
Almond Chicken (boneless)
New Zealand could learn a few things from Korea, like how to have a good time and a good meal at the same time. It’s an oddity of New Zealand culture that we’re either out to eat or we’re out to get shitfaced. Good news – at Pocha you can do both (kind of). It’s a specialist chicken and beer bar where dinner meets party.
This isn’t an anomaly. In Korea, fried chicken joints like Pocha are common, and many offer a delivery service. In fact the spicy fried chicken dish ‘yangnyeom-chickin’ is so ubiquitous it’s almost Korea’s national dish. Pocha serve yangnyeom style but you’re here for the almond and cornflake crusted version: nibbly little bites of thigh meat with a jagged coating are served with house made pickled daikon, and that traditional Korean accompaniment, jalapenos. Being salty, fatty and bite-sized it’s the perfect match with, you guessed it, a beer.
Chancery Square, 50 Kitchener St, central city
Little and Kitchen
Sweet soy fried chicken (boneless, gloves required)
Glen Innes is a lively little township and home to some of the best op shops around, the Dove shop and Salvation Army are particular highlights. It’s also where you’ll find Little and Kitchen, a family-run takeaway with a couple of tables where you can perch and wait for your order, or eat in if you felt so inclined. Their short, hodgepodge menu covers Korean and Japanese food and burgers, but they specialise in Korean fried chicken. I like the sweet-soy version which is boneless fried chicken drizzled in a sweet, salty sauce and topped with a special chopped-nut blend. The sweet-savoury thing works in the same way a donut burger works – you know you shouldn’t, but it’s hard to resist.
22 Mayfair Pl, Glen Innes
Simon and Lee
Original and Danger Spicy Fried Chicken (extra hot and spicy, gloves required)
I was so sick of chicken by the time I got to Simon and Lee but despite that, and even though I had to go to the fried chicken festival afterwards, I just about finished a whole tray. It’s easy to admire the cool-looking staff and slick branding of this Parnell cafe and think they’re all style, no substance, but the fried chicken here is really good. Firstly, it’s double fried – a technique that not every restaurant nails, but Simon and Lee have got it down to a fine art. The coating is obnoxiously crispy, hiding tender meat within. Then there are the sauces. Personally I wouldn’t bother with anything other than original or danger spicy. The OG is a salty, fatty, crunchy mouthful with nothing distracting from the chicken flavour. Danger spicy is 100% hyperbole, but the sauce is pretty hot, very sticky and is the kind of fun thing you should share on a first date to test the waters.
115 St Georges Bay Rd, Parnell
Tianze Dumpling House
Crispy fried chicken in hot chilli sauce (boneless)
The way Levi Sun first fries his chicken in oil, then again in a wok with his special sauce and fistfuls of dry Sichuan chillis means the batter takes on a whole new dimension of flavour. The spice averse should note this dish looks fearsome but it’s smoky and slightly hot, rather than overwhelming. Sun’s technique means the sauce is absorbed into the batter and the chicken. The chillis add a pleasant numbing heat but you wouldn't want to eat a whole one. Extremely addictive and still delicious cold.
695 Sandringham Rd, Sandringham
Chilli chicken (boneless)
When does a restaurant hit peak popularity? Surely it’s when a fancy High Street boutique starts selling t-shirts with their name on. Spicy House has achieved cult status in some circles thanks in no small part to long-time diner and rapper David Dallas and his wife and Metro columnist Leilani Momoisea, who visit once a week. I don’t know if they eat the chicken – they probably do – but it’s certainly a well-loved dish. It has to be eaten piping hot as it lands on the table. Break through the smoky coating into alarmingly hot meat. Eating it will make you do that funny thing where you do lots of small quick bites while simultaneously blowing hot steam out of your mouth.
557 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Satya Spice and Chai Shop
Chicken 65 (boneless)
“Everything here is fried at least once.” That’s what Sammy Akuthota proudly told me when he opened the first branch of his popular Chai Shops in Sandringham in 2016. I’m yet to have a dud dish off his menu, but the cream of the crop is the chicken 65 – a mildly spiced deep fried chicken dish from Tamil Nadu, India. It originated at the Buhari Hotel chain in 1965. Succulent little nuggets of meat are marinated in spices (these vary from recipe to recipe) and then fried. There’s no distinct crunch to this dish but the crispy, fragrant curry leaves add texture while the spices in the marinade aren’t just hot, they have real depth of flavour.
515A Sandringham Rd, Sandringham; 271 Karangahape Rd, K’Rd precinct