Updated: Jul 7, 2021
The fried chicken sandwich craze is far from over. In 2019, Twitter wars escalated as major food brands competed for the crown of best fried chicken while selling crispy birds to long lines and sold-out crowds. Instagram timelines were flooded with every version of the crispy treat. Honey butter fried chicken, Nashville hot fried chicken, even some kimchi versions of the classic made their way into the canon of popular food trends. Now, despite the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on the restaurant industry, demand continues to grow and more fast food companies are wading into the growing fried chicken sandwich market.
But something is missing in the war to crown the best fried chicken sandwich. Discussions of this fad tend to frame it as an ahistorical "crunchy bit of bird," or solely discuss market share and demand. These narratives obscure fried chicken's roots as a culinary tradition from the slave-holding South. It erases fried chicken's indelible ties to Blackness.
Some researchers believe that the Scots first brought fried chicken to the United States and to the South upon immigration, though frying is common in many cultures. When that preparation method was combined with spices imported alongside enslaved Black peoples through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the popular version of fried chicken as it is known in the United States today and in the broader food canon was created. Black enslaved labor was critical to that creation -- "From the mid-eighteenth century through Emancipation, dishes like fried chicken were developed and prepared by enslaved cooks." Following emancipation, formerly enslaved Africans, particularly women, used their fried chicken expertise to start successful entrepreneurial ventures. They sold chicken far and wide to support their families. Through their efforts, Black migration, and the theft of the recipes and methods of enslaved Blacks by White authors, "Southern" fried chicken became the new culinary standard.
Yet despite being directly tied to the Black American experience in its creation and playing an important role in Black entrepreneurship, fried chicken has long been marketed and sold at the expense of Blackness and Black culture. Incredible profits have been made on the sale of crispy fried chicken through advertisements that dehumanize Blacks and rely on racist tropes.
Because of that history, many members of the Black community have a complex relationship with fried chicken. Kay Kingsman, blogger and founder of The Awkward Traveller, says, "as a Black woman who had to hitch a ride out of my neighborhood to make it to my very White high school, kids always immediately looked my way when fried chicken was served at lunch. It made me feel so small and targeted, to the point where I would sometimes turn down fried chicken as if to prove a point." Kay emphasizes that it wasn't until she grew older that she began to feel more confident eating fried chicken in public. "I became more comfortable in my skin. In my Black skin. With my Black experiences. LOVING FRIED CHICKEN."
My evolution mirrors Kay's and I've grown to embrace my status as a fried chicken fangirl and longtime admirer. As a Black woman, I will not and should not have to deny my love for this staple of American cuisine for the sake of rising above a dated stereotype.
And at this moment where fried chicken is so celebrated and venerated Black restaurant owners should also be recognized for their continuing contributions to our collective fried chicken obsession. Especially in DC, home to a large Black-business community and a population that's 46% Black or African American, Black contributions to fried chicken should be explicitly celebrated.
So find below tasty, creative, and unique fried chicken offerings from Black-owned establishments in the District. Though not exhaustive, below are some of the best fried chicken sandwiches in the area, including options for takeout and patio dining. Consider them as a starting point to truly understanding the fried chicken sandwich scene in DC.
Chicken in Chocolate City: Black-Owned Fried Chicken Sandwiches in DC
Melange: Bringing Ethiopian Flair
449 K St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Mélange, a fast-casual restaurant from a chef who spent most of his career in fine dining, recently opened in Mt. Vernon Triangle. Mélange use local ingredients and infuses a little Ethiopian flair into the menu to represent the chef's heritage.
Though Mélange is known for its burgers, do not skip the fried chicken sandwiches. The Original is crispy on the outside, with a juicy interior, and smoked Duke's mayo. It's a great take on a classic chicken sandwich. The real star of the show however is The National, a Doro Wat-style fried chicken sandwich with kebe aioli, turmeric slaw, and a fried or hard-boiled egg. The National seamlessly marries the flavors of Doro Wat, what many call Ethiopia's national dish, to a chicken sandwich. Order online.
Roaming Rooster: The Crowd Pleaser
3176 Bladensburg Rd NE, Washington, DC 20018, plus roaming food trucks
Founded in 2015, Roaming Rooster has become one of DC's favorite spots for fried chicken sandwiches. In just a few short years the business has grown from a single food truck to four, along with a brick and mortar location in Woodridge and another opening soon on U Street.
Of the five chicken sandwiches on the menu, the Honey Butter Fried Chicken is the best seller and the sandwich you'll see in many Instagram posts. However, my personal favorite is the Nashville Hot. It has just the right combination of heat and crispy to make my eyes water just a little, but leave me wanting more. You can also customize the spice level for all the sandwiches on the menu, so everyone can find something just right for them. Order online or check their food truck locations on Instagram.
Po Boy Jim's: Decadent Takeout
709 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002
Po Boy Jim is a family-owned restaurant specializing in po' boy sandwiches. Known for classic po' boys and a relaxed atmosphere, during pre-pandemic days Po Boy Jim was a place to sip a drink, watch a game, and get down on some comforting food with friends.
For those seeking a less traditional po' boy, the Fried Chicken Po' Boy is fully customizable. You can add shrimp, lobster, and cheese, or keep it simple. It's up to you. The po' boy above had both shrimp and bacon in addition to the fried chicken. While it was a hearty meal, the crispy, well-seasoned batter on the chicken and shrimp paired well with Po Boy Jim's chipotle sauce. And don't skip the Cajun fries that are served with every po' boy order. They're delicious. Order online.
Butter Me Up: Breakfast Cravings
651 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Butter Me Up, a breakfast sandwich concept out of Halfsmoke in Shaw, launched mid-COVID shutdown. One of many recent pop-up concepts, Butter Me Up serves breakfast sandwiches, coffee, and cocktails from 8 am to 3 pm daily. The menu features a range of sandwiches including a vegan option and also incorporates local products like Logan's Sausage and pickles from Gordy’s Pickle Jar.
While many wouldn't think of eating a fried chicken sandwich for breakfast, Butter Me Up has the option for those, like myself, who would. The Feels Like Home has buttermilk brined fried chicken, soft scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, Gordy's pickles, smoked cheddar cheese, and sriracha mayo, all on a toasty bun that holds up well to the crispy, cheesy filling. Order online.
Service Bar: Streatery Dining
926-928 U St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Many think of Service Bar, a popular U Street bar, as a hotspot for seasonal cocktails and brunch. However, they also serve fried chicken that deserves recognition here. I once went to a Black bloggers meetup at Service Bar where the group ordered fried chicken to share. Upon trying it someone exclaimed, "is there somebody Black in the kitchen? Is this place Black-owned? Cause DANG."
The menu at Service Bar contains a variety of fried chicken sandwiches, including a rotating option created by local chefs. I'm a fan of the Original Chicken Sandwich, a crispy chicken thigh with special sauce and pickles on a sesame seed bun. The chicken is perfectly crispy and juicy and the pickle adds a nice balance to the sandwich. You can't go wrong with a well-executed classic. Order online or find them on various delivery apps. Service Bar also has an outdoor patio or "streatery" for dining.
Open Crumb: Tasty Carryout
1243 Good Hope Rd SE, Washington, DC 20020
Open Crumb, a casual family-owned carryout spot in the historically Black Anacostia neighborhood is known for its West African dishes and also makes its bread and desserts in house. In addition to a variety of other stellar menu options, the fried chicken sandwich should not be missed. It's perfectly crispy and well-seasoned, with the option to add bacon and cheese. This sandwich is a crowd-pleaser.
Work in Progress: Black-Owned Fried Chicken Sandwiches in MD and VA
I haven't forgotten about MD and VA, which make up an essential part of the "DMV" and the area's food scene. Especially as gentrification has pushed many Black communities out to the surrounding states, we can't ignore the broader region when discussing Black food and contributions to the food space. I am, however, a single person with a limited budget who can only eat so much fried chicken. So please continue to check back here. I will update the MD and VA sections of this post when I can. For now, here's a couple of spots to start you off.
Queen Mother's: For the Culture
918 S Lincoln St, Arlington, VA 22204
Chef Rock Harper opened Queen Mother's to reclaim fried chicken and honor "all of the women who have informed and built our culture." After departing its original location in Glover Park and relocating to La Cocina VA, a non-profit in Arlington with shared kitchen space, Queen Mother's has reopened with a slightly updated menu.
Harper says he created Queen Mother's as a tribute to his mother, grandmother, and "to all of the women who have informed and built our culture." Through this project, Harper emphasizes that he aims to honor fried chicken as a part of Black culture and also stake a claim in the growing fried chicken sandwich market for Black restaurateurs and food professional. Menu offerings include Virginia Honey Butter and Nashville Hot fried chicken sandwiches, as well as a Classic Fried Chicken Sandwich featuring Virginia pickles and a house-made sauce. Order online.
The Rub: Meal Deals
801 King St 1st Floor, Alexandria, VA 22314
The Rub, along with other local spots like Matchbox and Hen Quarter, is a Thompson Hospitality restaurant. Thompson Hospitality is the largest Black-owned food and facility services company in the US and the largest owned by a minority. Located in Alexandria, VA, The Rub specializes in "hot chicken + cold beer," and serves a variety of options for fried chicken sandwich lovers. It also offers regular specials that are great deals, including lunch specials and meal/drink combos. Keep an eye on Instagram as that's the easiest place to find current specials.
After trying a few sandwiches from The Rub, I've been impressed by the consistency. As with most fried chicken places, I typically order the Nashville Hot as I love spicy chicken. Theirs is always a favorite of mine. And for more adventurous folks, The Rub also offers a creative Krispy Chicken Collab sandwich featuring Carolina reaper hot honey, mustard coleslaw, pickle chips, and a donut bun. Talk about a comfort food explosion. Order online. There is also limited outdoor seating available.
A Place To Walk To: Creative Decadence
6451 America Blvd Ste 101, Hyattsville, MD 20782
A Place To Walk To is a Black-owned breakfast and brunch spot in Hyattsville, MD. After starting as a food truck and growing into a brick and mortar space, it has built up quite the local following for its jerk chicken served over mac and cheese. A Place To Walk To also changes the menu frequently when inspiration strikes. You'll be sure to find a few creative options no matter when you visit.
A Place To Walk To's fried chicken sandwich is a decadent creation. I would almost describe it as a fried chicken grilled cheese. Crispy fried chicken is surrounded by melty cheese and slaw and instead of a bun, it's served on thick toast with a hint of a sweet sauce. Cheese lovers take note of this one. Order here, find them on various delivery apps, or call 301-779-4129.