Richards’ Southern Fried is a hot chicken stand in every sense of the word. Chef Todd Richards’ crispy chicken parts are both super-spicy and super-chic served from a retro-swank counter in Krog Street Market. Richards’ birds are also very delicious. Beautifully brined, crispy-skinned, obsession-worthy, who-cares-if-hot-chicken-is-overplayed delicious.
I could admiringly ruminate over that tender-crunchy chicken and its slow-burn hot sauces for several more paragraphs. But there’s something at Richards’ that I find even more captivating. It’s a side that costs a mere $4.25 and it’s called Collard Green “Pho.” Among the other, more picnic-ready sides (a Brussels sprout slaw, a black-eyed pea salad and potato wedges), this murky stew is the odd bird out.
And yet, I think it’s the most remarkable thing on Richards’ brief menu. That’s saying something when virtually everything here is extraordinary, save that Brussels slaw, which is too creamy and sweet, a chalky pimento cheese garnish, and a peach cobbler with a sugar-crisp, flaky crust but mushy, cloying filling.
When I couldn’t stop thinking about Richards’ “pho,” a version of which he created when he was cheffing at the Shed at Glenwood, I called to ask him about it.
“I only use Bobby Britt’s collards,” he noted, speaking of the revered local farmer who purveys to some of Atlanta’s best chefs. That accounts for the greens’ suppleness and exquisite flavor.
Every other detail is just as thoroughly plotted. Tender chicken chunks are fried, then stripped of their crispy skins before they’re added to the soup. Why go to the trouble of frying the meat, only to discard its crunch?
“Oh, we don’t throw away that skin,” Richards corrected me. “We save it and refry it for mac and cheese topping. But I use the fried chicken because it’s been brined and marinated. The seasoning in the flour gets inside the chicken as well.”
All that for a few morsels that you might not even encounter until you’re halfway through your bowl. The broth, by the way, is made from the fried chicken bones. It’s tart and earthy, unctuously meaty and also, somehow, fresh and light.
Into this complex foundation Richards adds more lovely layers: ecru-tinted pickled egg slices, pepper-crusted bacon, explosive jalapeno slivers and those impossibly delicate, sweet collard leaves that undulate with every dip of the spoon. It’s the kind of dish you can revisit over and over, discovering new notes each time.
And how about those other remarkables? They include a catfish sandwich (a weekend special), a fried fillet so lengthy it looks like a surfboard jutting out of its petite potato bun. As with the chicken, the crust on this fish is phenomenal — so feathery it shatters with every bite and packed with herby, salty pluck. The fish inside is moist and flaky and perfect. You don’t want a lot of frou-frou muddying up such a sandwich’s purity, and Richards gets that, adding only a couple of crisp lettuce leaves and a slight mound of fun, fruity chow chow.
The Loaded Potato Wedges are a highbrow version of gooey, movie theater potato skins. The fried wedges are fluffy, crisp-edged and liberally dusted with a smoky spice mix. That fire-kissed aroma is abetted by bacon nubs and bits of hot chicken. Finely chopped scallions give bite and crunch while jalapenos pile on more bite and more crunch. Then the whole business is blanketed with sour cream and silky cheese sauce. It’s the perfect marriage of crunchy zing and creamy decadence.
Richards strikes this kind of balance in many of his dishes. Take his pickled items. That bright yellow chow chow, the pickled cucumber rounds that come with every chicken plate, and a poppy, vinegar-forward salad of black-eyed peas and snaps — each of these accents walks the tightrope between acidity and sweetness with rare grace.
Even the sweet iced tea is understated. I usually find this Southern standard undrinkably sweet. Here, you can actually taste the tea, and there’s just enough sugar to give it a little luxury.
Of course, all this talk of grace and balance brings us back to the subject of Richards’ pretty-much-perfect Southern Fried chicken. At our Sunday lunch, we had an impossibly moist breast “classic” style, with no heat, on a collard-flecked soft waffle. Between the salty crunch of the skin, a drizzle of maple syrup and a hint of sour from the collards, this dish was too exciting to be labeled comfort food.
Even so, the fried chicken doused in hot sauce was even better. There are two levels of heat: “hot” (“Chicken’s got kick,” says the menu) and “Richards’ hot.” (“That’s a spicy bird.”) One is a fiery, bright red and the other is a dark, ominous maroon.
But both sauces are actually tolerable, giving the tongue a blissful burn rather than a lashing. They pair with and celebrate the chicken rather than simply throwing flames at it. It’s one reason, but not the only one, that this hot chicken is a standout among the many to be found around town these days.
And thus it feels fitting that, while most of Richards’ food is made to be taken away in stylishly stenciled cardboard boxes, there are also six seats at the counter. They’re set with sleek placemats, shiny white china and thick paper napkins striped to resemble country kitchen tea towels. Such a cozy-glam setup is a perfect reflection of Richards’ Southern Fried’s homey elegance — and occasional flashes of brilliance.
Richards’ Southern Fried. 99 Krog St. N.E., Atlanta (Krog Street Market). 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. -9 p.m. Sundays. 678-732-9594, richardssouthernfried.com.