Back in August, Local Habit hosted the inaugural Fried Chicken Challenge--the brainchild of Edwin Real of Eating and Drinking in San Diego. I was one of the lucky invitees and decided at the time to feature the winner in this space.
Six chefs competed and you'd be surprised at how much variety there can be in fried chicken--mostly involving the spices, but also the textures. So, it must have been tough for the judges and the crowd to make a decision based on juiciness, crunchiness, and overall taste. But the decision was made and the kudos went to Bradrick Cooper, owner of Coop's West Texas Barbecue in Lemon Grove.
It took awhile for Cooper to set aside time with me to show me how he makes his chicken. He's a busy guy. Not only is he operating the 28-seat barbecue eatery, but he's constructing a new spot across the parking lot that he's calling Da Chicken Coop, which will, of course, be all about fried chicken, as well as fried fish, French fries, and, well, pulled pork. He expects Da Chicken Coop to open in January. But that's not all. Cooper also tossed out that he's working on a food truck concept.
Coop's West Texas Barbecue doesn't usually have fried chicken on the menu, but oh, the barbecue! The day I visited, the special was a pork rib tip platter, served with two sides and homemade cornbread. I got to munch on some of the rib tips and fell in love with the tender, juicy meat just perfectly seasoned. Also on the menu are pork and beef ribs, beef brisket, Southwestern jerk chicken, and hot links. They're accompanied by collard greens, red beans and rice, and mac n' cheese. There's also an intriguing Spuds n' Que. This is a large baked potato filled with either pulled pork, jerk chicken, or brisket, and topped with butter and sour cream. Oy! Ready for dessert? Try their homemade sweet potato or buttermilk pie.
Cooper comes by his fried chicken-making chops honestly. He grew up in a household with not much money. "Fried chicken was a staple because it was so cheap," he said. Growing up, Cooper went back and forth between Midland, Texas, where his grandma and extended family lived, and San Diego, where his mom and aunt settled. When he was a young kid in San Diego his mom and aunt worked in a soul food restaurant in Sherman Heights. He and his sister Lori would go there after school to wait for their mom's shift to end. Guess who got put to work at the restaurant? Because his mother worked two jobs, she taught him to cook so he could make dinner for himself and Lori. In Midland, his grandma, with whom he lived when he was 12 and when he went to high school, taught him all sorts of traditional dishes. It's where he learned to make collard greens, cornbread, and pinto beans. "And I had this thing," he added. "I liked cooking for my family every Sunday for dinner."
He returned to San Diego after high school in 1986, but then returned to Midland when his grandmother became ill. At that point, his repertoire had expanded to fried chicken and oxtails for the big family Sunday dinner. "It brought me a lot of joy," he said.
Eventually, Cooper became a nurse, married, and had a couple of daughters. One of them, Tara, is now one of the restaurant's managers. Coop's West Texas Barbecue isn't his first foray into the restaurant business. Back in 1996, he and Lori tried their hand at opening a soul food restaurant on El Cajon Blvd. at Idaho, even making up plates of food to sell to the hairdressers and barbers on the block. But it didn't work. After his first wife passed away, he returned to Texas and learned how to make barbecue. The desire to run a restaurant didn't fade and five years ago, he found this location, with its big brick oven just waiting for him to fire it up with wood and charcoal. This time, he found success, with customers now coming from around San Diego as well as Orange County and LA to get some authentic barbecue.
So, what did I learn about making fried chicken? First, while you don't have to use buttermilk for the crust, it gives the chicken a marvelous tang and thickens the crust. Second, Cooper advises bringing the oil up to temperature, but then frying up one piece ahead of the rest to test the texture. And third, develop a spice blend that you like. Cooper uses a rub that he's created but nicely declined to share--after all some things have to be proprietary--but basically we're dealing with black pepper, granulated garlic, and seasoning salt.
Coop's Winning Fried Chicken
from Bradrick Cooper of Coop's West Texas Barbecue
Makes 8 pieces
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon seasoning salt
8 pieces of chicken, skin on (Cooper prefers to use thighs and drumsticks)
4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons seasoning salt
2 tablespoons paprika
Mix together the first four ingredients in a bowl and transfer to a large freezer bag. Add the chicken pieces and make sure they're all encompassed by the buttermilk marinade. Marinate the chicken for an hour or up to overnight.
Shake off excess marinade from the chicken and lightly sprinkle the pieces with garlic salt before dredging in the flour mixture.
When the oil is at the right temperature, carefully add the chicken pieces. The chicken will take about 15 minutes to cook and should reach an interior temperature of 165 degrees.
Have a sheet pan lined with paper towels ready and place the fried chicken on the towels to drain excess oil. Serve with collard greens, red beans and rice, and cornbread.
Coop's West Texas Barbecue is located at 2625 Lemon Grove Ave. in Lemon Grove.