Go to another country, tell someone you are from Kentucky, and the first blink of recognition likely will be: “Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”
Maybe they mention the Kentucky Derby, and, increasingly, bourbon.
But KFC, unfortunately, is our state touchstone. Certainly, KFC is fried, and it is chicken, but it is not the fried chicken that we in Louisville love most. That’s clear from the number of places to get it made fresh.
So, who makes the best fried chicken?
For this Dining Issue, please join us in an unscientific, highly unrepresentative, friendly showdown between two of the city’s most popular fried chicken shacks:
Indi’s vs. Chicken King.
For this showdown, we assembled a panel of experts and one dilettante. We also pay respect to some of our other favorite fried chicken haunts, as well as Susan Reigler’s search for real fried chicken… and how to make some yourself.
Without any more ado… In this corner…
Who would have thought that fried chicken joints would be so secretive?!
We employed our most-powerful reporter tools and techniques to track down the owners of Indi’s and Chicken King and had only the slightest luck getting the latter to talk with us. So, first, here is what we know about Indi’s:
Weighing in with six restaurants in Louisville, one in Jeffersonville and one in Lexington, Indi’s is known for its distinctive red, turquoise and yellow buildings, some of which were renovated recently. They all have the food behind the glass with two windows for order and pickup. It appears to be a family venture and might have Caribbean roots (explaining the Tabasco-like spice). But that, too, is unclear. We found evidence it existed in 1983, but the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office shows at least one incorporated in 1986, listing someone named Indira as a director. Must be why it is called Indi’s.
Beyond that, all we know is that it offers a range of freshly cooked food and soulful sides, including rib tips and jack fish (whatever that is). From watching people order, it seems fried chicken is by far the No. 1 seller. After all, Indi’s does bill itself as “Home of Spicy Chicken.”
This much we know for certain — Indi’s was doing hot chicken in Louisville long before Nashville hot chicken was even an egg of a dream here.
1033 W. Broadway
4901 Poplar Level Road
5009 S. Third St.
3800 W. Market St.
2978 E 10th St.
4419 Cane Run Road
3353 Fern Valley Road
As mentioned earlier, we had almost as much difficulty finding anyone who would talk with us about Chicken King as we had with Indi’s. Finally, though, intrepid LEO writer Kevin Gibson got the goods through a circuitous route. Here is his report:
A downtown favorite for more than a decade and a half, Chicken King of Louisville, usually just known as “Chicken King,” actually is an offshoot of Kings Famous Fried Chicken on Dixie Highway (See the review on page 15).
Chicken King was opened by the original Kings’ owners; the former is now under different ownership, although the menu remains similar to Chicken King’s. Opened in 2002, Chicken King carries on the tradition today with a menu that has expanded from the original recipes, which were family recipes of one of the owners, who prefer to remain anonymous.
But store manager Kari Doogarsingh, who has run Chicken King from day one, has added items including baked chicken, soups, turkey legs and chicken and dumplings to a menu that focuses on fried chicken but also features fried fish, barbecue and tons of Southern sides. Doogarsingh said the top sellers are spicy chicken, party wings and the baked chicken.
In addition to the red and gold color scheme, one of the notable features of Chicken King is the glass wall and two, small order windows separating the kitchen from the customers. Most assume that’s to stop crime, Doogarsingh said, when, in fact, it’s to keep people from touching the food, which sits in hot plates in full view of those going through the line.
“Customers would come in and try to point and touch what they wanted,” she said. “People think it’s for protection, but it’s more so for health reasons.”
The name Chicken King doesn’t have any specific significance other than the obvious, Doogarsingh said. The owners just liked the name and went with it.
Given the amount of the tasty chicken the restaurant pushes through those order windows, through the drive-through window and out in big catering orders, there surely is some sort of fried chicken hierarchy at work. Even Col. Sanders would be envious of the tasty goodness served up daily at the King. Does a king rank higher than a colonel?
639 E Broadway
By Griffin Paulin | firstname.lastname@example.org
This debate is tough. It’s like asking someone to choose between their vastly different children.
On one hand, you have Indi’s — consummately consistent. It’s the same every time — and really good. Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Just greasy enough, just juicy enough. This isn’t life changing stuff, but damn is it tasty.
On the other, Chicken King — the impulsive troublemaker with high potential. There’s a slight air of arrogance about this place, which I personally like. They’re very straightforward and blunt. The “Hey, man, fuck you want? We’re busy” type of chicken joint. My kind of place, but that really works only when your food is hitting. I’ve had some dry-ass, skin-burnt and falling-off-in-sheets, straight-up awful chicken from Chicken King. But, when it’s good… man. Juicy, tender, perfectly spicy.
It doesn’t get much better, in this city, than Chicken King when it’s Kinging.
Ultimately, for me, outside of consistency issues, it comes down to two things — the keel and a sandwich. Indi’s keel is always good. Chicken Kings’ is not (and they’ll give you a sandwich if you really want one… but it’ll be bone-in chicken).
So, if I’m on Second and Broadway with $8 burning a hole in my pocket — I’m heading west. I’ll still love and check in on Chicken King, and pray, one day, they finally get their act together. But if I need someone I can count on?
Griffin Paulin is the owner and executive chef at Mirin on Frankfort Avenue and an inveterate wingman.
That Indi’s hot sauce
By Meghan Levins | email@example.com
OK, look — I drink Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee basically every day; when I moved from my New England town, where they were on every block, to a state that had none, I had dreams about finding one mysteriously tucked into the back of a local grocery. And the fact is, I objectively know that Dunks isn’t even near as good as any of the numerous amazing, independently-owned coffee shops in Louisville. But, going there has been a cultural touchstone for me since I first became a long-distance commuter, like so many Yankees, lining up like lemmings for our faithful choice of brown water.
Brand loyalty is an emotional attachment, regardless of competition prices or brand image. Robert Wolcott, cofounder and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network, said: “Brands earn trust by being authentic and by being seen to be authentic.”
So… ha, ha, figure this one out: Indi’s vs. Chicken King.
Plus or minus a few items, dime price differences, a drive-through — these restaurants are exactly the same. You order through the glass. Everything is batch cooked.
My trusted sidekick and I ordered from both places to accurately compare. I was biased toward Indi’s because that’s just where I go, and I secretly believe its hot sauce is what puts them over the top. More reminiscent of a Caribbean pepper sauce than a standard vinegar-based one, coupled with its spicy chicken, it puts most hot chicken joints to shame. Our house’s standing order is spicy and dark in massive quantities, because I love cold, fried chicken. Seriously, take my idea Indi’s and sell cold, fried chicken!
Side by side though, I had to admit Chicken King’s chicken was tastier. Crunchier. Even its shitty rolls had a slight edge over Indi’s, more like a roll and less like a dough ball. But I probably will never go back.
Where we go is who we are. I unofficially polled so many damn people who were all just as passionate about Chicken King or Indi’s as political affiliation. Chicken King’s chicken may have that down and dirty flavor of a fryer in dire need of changing that makes it soooo good, but we kept reaching for that Indi’s hot sauce.
Meghan Levins is executive chef at Monnik Beer Co. and crossed the road to Louisville from New England.
The spicy hot addict
Chicken King by a beak
By Kevin Gibson | firstname.lastname@example.org
Much to the delight of my taste buds (yet much to the dismay of my major arteries), I went to Indi’s for lunch on a Monday, and then to Chicken King for lunch the following day to contrast, compare and declare a fried chicken winner.
It wasn’t easy, but here are my observations:
At Indi’s, I ordered a two-piece white snack box (spicy), which comes with a breast, a wing, three massive potato wedges and a boring, square roll. Overall, the flavor was well-balanced, even if the heat was nonexistent for the first couple of bites. Once that moderate heat kicked in, though, it reached its plateau and hung in there, while the peppery, but not too salty, pieces were quality, perfectly juicy and flavorful. My key complaint was that I really wanted a more crunchy, thick breading. Still, a tasty and satisfying lunch at a great price.
I ordered the same meal at Chicken King (roughly the same price). The pieces, especially the breast, were noticeably larger than at Indi’s. I noted as I sat, preparing to dig in, that two small pools of grease were quickly forming under the chicken. Hmm. The spice was there from the first bite but seemed to flatten out a bit, yet the overall flavor quality kept pace with Indi’s, and the grease didn’t end up being a big issue. The best part was the presence of a thick, crunchy crust enveloping the chicken, which is always a win for me. Tastiness.
Verdict: Chicken King by a beak, but it was close. Very, very close.
Kevin Gibson writes LEO’s Taste Bud and I’d Tap That… Beer columns, and he’s somewhat of a spicy-hot thrill seeker (he makes his own hot sauce).
Indi’s never misses
By Keith Stone | email@example.com
I had spicy keel dinners at Indi’s and Chicken King, and halfway through my first bite I had this troubling question: What is a keel anyway?
It is defined as: “a ridge along the breastbone of many birds to which the flight muscles are attached; the carina.”
In tastier terms, it is a big helping of white meat with a little bit of bone. It is the best value for the buck, and it is all I eat when I see it on the menu at chicken shacks.
That brings me to Chicken King. I had the two spicy keel meal, and I was pleasantly surprised. The crust was flaky and light, and the meat was juicy and sweet. As it should be. The spice level was on the weak side, unfortunately. I could see the pepper sauce-infused skin, but… no lip burn here. Not what I was looking for in a spicy keel. And, I have to say, these must have been keels on dinghies, not full-sized boats. My encounter with the CK keel was similar to my past ones, all of them meh!
But my Indi’s experiences are consistent — consistently good. Maybe it has to do with volume: Just about all of the Indi’s I visit have lines around mealtimes, which means trays of chicken are freshly fried. The spicy keel will burn the lips and clear the sinuses, complementing the slightly salty, not-too-oily crust and sweet meat. Never misses.
Keith Stone is managing editor at LEO Weekly and claims he has eaten more chicken any man ever seen.
I call it a draw
By Robin Garr | firstname.lastname@example.org
Some people like Pepsi. Some like Coke. That’s what the long-running Pepsi Challenge is all about: Make people actually taste the two competing colas, and reality suddenly confronts their long-held privileges.
LEO Weekly’s Indi’s vs. Chicken King challenge is something like that, too, and that’s why I recently found myself sitting down in front of boxes of fried chicken from Indi’s and Chicken King. I would calculate the sum of crust, spice, juicy meat and overall deliciousness.
From each institution’s Broadway shop we ordered a breast, thigh and wing, along with a chicken wedge just because chicken wedges come as close as humanly possible to turning baked potato logs into fried chicken, and that’s a good thing.
If popularity is any guide, Indi’s runs off with the crown: A long line of hungry supplicants snaked around the interior. It took us about 30 minutes to make our way to the front, where you holler your order through a small window in the bulletproof glass windows. At Chicken King at about the same time, there was a five-minute wait at most.
Enough! Let’s talk about chicken! Both places do an exemplary job of flour-based breading that yields a crisp, almost glassy, fried crust that shatters. Indi’s may have the edge here, for its crust forms large, crunchy flakes, but Chicken King’s is flaky too.
We ordered a hot breast and regular thighs and wings at both places and were happy with the spicy mix of red and black pepper on both breasts. Even the regular crust at Indi’s still offered perceptible heat, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Chicken King’s mild was truly mild, allowing a subtle taste of cooked flour crust to show through. Indi’s chef had a heavier hand on salt, but not out of line.
All the chicken meat was good, with no clear leader. All was juicy, with good chicken flavor, the thigh naturally being darker and more moist. Perhaps randomly, Chicken King’s breast and thigh pieces were perceptibly larger than Indi’s.
Indi’s or Chicken King? Pepsi or Coke? Pay your money and take your choice. I call it a draw.
Robin Garr is LEO’s longtime and long-suffering food critic.
…And the winner is!
Indi’s… by a score of 3-1, with one draw.
It was a tough battle, despite the obvious consensus, but another panel could have decided differently on a different day.
If we learned anything from this exercise it is that there are plenty of reasons to cross the road in Louisville to try new fried chicken joints, even if the stomach is not willing.