Cook fried chicken in oil that isn’t hot enough, and the chicken becomes a greasy, hot mess. Cook it hot enough and the chicken crisps up without absorbing all that nastiness that coats your hands, your face and anything it touches. Ezell’s Famous Chicken gets it just right. The chicken is crispy, light and tender-juicy without that overbearing greasiness that makes me loathe fried chicken that’s mistreated by fry cooks (you know it when you taste it). Ezell’s Famous Chicken opened last week in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. This is at least the fifth time an Ezell’s store has opened in Tacoma. Franchise stores opened from 2000 to 2005 on 56th Street, at the Tacoma Mall, on 72nd Street and on Sixth Avenue. The 56th, Tacoma Mall and Sixth Avenue stores were short-lived, but the 72nd Street restaurant operated for about three years – first by the franchise operator, then by the Ezell’s corporation.
Owner Lewis Rudd told me last month that the franchise operator ran into trouble. “He made a couple of choices we would not have made from a corporate standpoint. It didn’t work out well for him. We believe it’s still a good market in Tacoma,” said Rudd, who co-founded the fried chicken restaurant chain in 1984 in Seattle’s Central Area with Ezell and Faye Stephens (Rudd’s sister) and two other Rudd and Stephens siblings. Rudd and Faye Stephens are the ones who now operate the six Ezell’s corporate-owned restaurants after a legally contentious split with co-founder Ezell. He now owns a restaurant in Renton called Heaven Sent Fried Chicken.
Will this version of Ezell’s make it? Only your dining dollars will tell. During a visit this week, the restaurant nailed the execution of the chicken. It comes in two varieties: regular or spicy breading. Regular was light and ethereal, the breading well-seasoned and crunchy-crispy. Spicy came with a peppery kick and an extra slap of crunch. It’s not truly spicy – you’ll need to order hot sauce to increase the heat. (Beware of add-on fees; they charge 20 cents for the sauce.)
We sampled breasts, legs, wings and thighs, and each piece was as tender as the next, juicy throughout and evenly seasoned in skin and meat. Dinners, priced $6.05-$10.45 for two- to four-piece combos, come with two sides and a dinner roll. Dinner rolls aren’t usually a menu item that draws diners, but here, the fluffy, yeasty dinner rolls with a light brush of sweet were alone worth my visit.
The sides? Passable and serviceable, but nothing truly memorable. The coleslaw tasted fine but a touch too sweet and limp. The mashed potatoes and gravy trended bland. The fries were of the crinkle-cut frozen variety. The corn was palatable, but came in a soupy bath of buttery water. The baked beans had the taste of homemade from an extra kiss of molasses.
If you’re going to spend the extra money for one of the special-order sides (which includes livers and gizzards), do order the fried okra ($2.50 small/$4.65 large). The okra at Ezell’s was breaded and quick fried until it held just the right kind of snap without the wrath of sliminess that overcooked okra can yield.
There’s a full dessert menu, too. Sweet potato pie ($1.95) carries the texture of homemade with an ultra-flaky crust and creamy nutmeg-spiced filling.
The service, which I always considered a problem at the old 72nd Street store, was outstanding and friendly, to the point of being unexpectedly earnest. I don’t recall ever being treated so pleasantly in a fast-food environment.
Do note that fried chicken, when made fresh, comes with a long cooking time. You might have to wait 10 or more minutes, which may irritate or delight you, depending upon what kind of diner you are. The store is clean and bright, although low-tech in a generic fast-food way. The take-out restaurant has only five tables.
I don’t think I can write about the intersection of 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way without noting that that particular intersection might be one of the highest-calorie food corners in Tacoma. I’m calling it The Corner of Cardiac Arrest.
Right next to Ezell’s is Papa Jones BBQ and Soul Food, home to slow-cooked smoked meats with high-calorie sides that I reviewed favorably this summer right after it opened. Across the street is the Fish House Café, home of some of the city’s best fried fish and a knock-out Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. And new to that intersection is the Burrito Express taco truck, which does terrific things to pork carnitas. Yes, all those gut-busting restaurants are at the same intersection, which is also near St. Joseph Medical Center – just in case you need it.
Ezell’s Famous Chicken
Where: 1902 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Information: 253-572-4277, ezellschicken.com
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all reviews are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.