There’s a curious plethora of chicken shops in London named after US cities and states, as if the right name will make their customers forget that they’re sitting in a takeaway in Croydon, desolate. Too poor to buy a plane ticket, I decided to tour America exclusively through the medium of London’s fried chicken restaurants, cycling from one to another. A slightly remorseful but avowed enthusiast of fast food, the prospect of sampling the capital’s finest fried chicken excited me, despite the 45 miles I had to cycle and sheer volume of poultry that lay in my path. After all, how often do you get to visit an entire country in an afternoon?
Tennessee Fried Chicken, 502 Kingsland Road, Dalston
As I ride towards Dalston I’m struck by how hungry I am; in the queue of lunchtime diners I briefly consider the ferociously-cheap meal deal, but remind myself that marathon runners don’t start off sprinting.
I read once that taste tests are usually rigged, as most people prefer the first version of something they try. Sure enough, my food is delicious. I understand why my fellow customers have chosen to dine at Tennessee Fried Chicken out of the many anonymous chicken shops that dot Kingsland Road. The chicken is tender, the breadcrumbs spicy and floury. The grease soaks through the wrapping onto my notebook. I sit in the yard of a nearby church and wish I’d bought the meal deal after all.
Chicago Fried Chicken, 138 Fortess Road, Tufnell Park
Approaching Chicago Fried Chicken, my stomach affects a sensation halfway between a yowl and a lurch. I ignore the feeling.
Inside, the server fiddles with his phone, pretending I don’t exist. Stubbornly refusing to draw attention to myself, I act as if I’m perusing my options. Eventually he asks me what I want, not looking up.
The chicken here is smaller and comes in a burger box. A few doors down is an establishment that describes itself as a literary café, bustling with young, earnest, bearded people who are reading, chatting and typing on laptops. As I lean against my bike and eat my unsatisfying chicken, I start to wonder if I’ve gone wrong somewhere in my life.
3. texas (first attempt)
Dollar Fried Chicken, 320 Kennington Lane, Vauxhall
After a long journey that takes me south of the river to Vauxhall, a place half suburb, half industrial estate, I find that Dallas Fried Chicken has become a Dollar Fried Chicken. It’s difficult to properly articulate the effect this revelation has on my fraying state of mind: the cruel pain of cycling through an entire city only to discover that the ‘Texan’ chicken shop I’d been heading towards had decided to change its name.
The adjustment is baffling: the word ‘dollar’ is still suggestively American, but hardly connotes fried chicken. Are the owners trying to imply that their chicken is good value (only a dollar) or that it tastes expensive (worth lots of dollars)? The man behind the counter just shrugs when I try to engage him in conversation. Despondent, I order a chicken burger. I eat it in view of the animals of Vauxhall City Farm. The horses whinny, indifferent to my plight.
Hollywood Fried Chicken, 10 Lillie Road, Fulham
Hollywood Fried Chicken sits on a strange little street near Earl’s Court that seems incongruous in its proximity to Chelsea.
On the way to the shop I think I see the actor Tim Robbins, but it’s just a random person. (Here in my grease-fingerprinted notebook I’ve written: “Are chicken hallucinations a thing? Google when home.”) I wonder if any movie stars own property in Chelsea, and whether they’ve ever passed Hollywood Fried Chicken and been tempted to check it out. The chicken is mostly bone and gristle; I try to think of a devastating metaphor about the Hollywood experience but my brain is too clogged with grease.
Kansas Chicken and Ribs, 102 High Street, Hornsey
The journey from Earl’s Court to Hornsey takes in most of the city. It’s roughly the same distance as my earlier north-to-south transit but feels longer due to fatigue, over-eating and the onslaught of rush hour traffic. I console myself by thinking of the great explorers who first charted North America. Am I really so different from Lewis and Clarke?
I go inside and ask the man for the smallest piece of chicken he has. He looks at me apprehensively but accedes to my request. I’ve lost all ability to analyse the food I’m eating and can’t distinguish what makes Kansas’ fried chicken any better or worse than anywhere else’s. My hunger may never return again, I fear: I’m more chicken now than man.
6. texas (second attempt)
Texas Fried Chicken, 405 Fore Street, Edmonton
Dismayed by my earlier failure to visit Dallas, I add a final destination to my journey: Texas Fried Chicken. My final quarry sits at the edge of a shopping park opposite over-sized outlets of ASDA and Argos.
When I enter Texas Fried Chicken the man at the counter looks at me like I’m a normal person, like I’m not the sort of person who would spend a day cycling around London eating endless chicken. Glassy-eyed and with fingers that won’t stop feeling greasy, I order a meal deal. I sit by the window and watch the customers trickle in and out.
It’s the evening and my body is filled with chicken and regret. I’m not sure if I’ve discovered anything new in the name of science, except that it’s impossible to visit six fried chicken restaurants in one day and not feel unwell, and you probably knew that already. I finish my meal, wipe my hands with another insufficiently-cleansing napkin, and head home for a bowl of Weetabix and a good cry.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Sixteen.