May It Please the Palate: A Fried Chicken Odyssey

By Nick Roumel

I occasionally freelance for another magazine and get to explore tough questions, like, “Who has the best pizza in Washtenaw County? The best hamburgers? The best beer?” This month, it’s fried chicken.
That means it’s time to get the band back together — my intrepid “Odyssey” crew — and start our arduous quest.

But like writing a brief, reviewing fried chicken joints involves strict rules, meticulous research, searching inquiry and investigation, and careful editing.

The flecks of grease on my chin are just bonus.

First, the rules.

The restaurants reviewed in my “Odyssey” series must be in Washtenaw County.

Second, I do not review chains.

Third, they must meet certain standards; in this case, they had to feature genuine Southern fried pieces of whole chicken. That meant no boneless pieces, no chicken tenders, no wings, and certainly no nuggets.

Next is the research.

There are many restaurants I may not know about that are someone’s favorite hidden gem. To make sure I don’t miss any, even after I thoroughly search the internet, I’ll post on listservs and on Facebook (for example): “Who has the best fried chicken in Washtenaw County?”

Fortunately with the Chicken Odyssey, the final list was a manageable nine places

We hit five the first night and will finish the rest later in the week.

But for some Odysseys — namely, the pizza and hamburger ones — we had to narrow the list down considerably.

I did this in a subjective way, by choosing those that had the better reputations and/or online reviews.

That prompted one very angry letter to my editor from a popular local pizza joint saying I was biased against them because I didn’t choose them as one of the places we reviewed.

Let’s just say they were damned lucky that I didn’t write about them or their soggy, bland, crappy pies or the way they rigged the local paper’s pizza poll by promising a free t-shirt to everyone who voted.
And that is one of my most important rules: if I don’t like a place, I simply don’t write about it.

As fun as it would be to flex my sarcasm muscles over a bad experience, I don’t.

I know how hard those business people work — in a very difficult profession — and no one needs me to trash them.

Ultimately, diners vote with their feet and their pocketbooks.

Restaurants are a prime example of “survival of the fittest.”

Back to our Fried Chicken Odyssey.

The original plan was to meet at Restaurant #3 with takeout from Restaurants #1 and #2, then go to the local park pavilion and start our work.

But Restaurant #3 suffered two problems: first, not to be picky, but they were out of fried chicken. Sigh. Except for wings, which I reluctantly ordered. Leading to the second problem — they took 55 minutes to make!

This made the first two restaurant’s orders suffer, getting soggy and cold as we waited.

But you know what?

The owner of Restaurant #3 remembered me. He knew my name and asked me about last year’s BBQ Odyssey, in which his place fared pretty well. He’s a super nice guy and I want him to succeed. He’ll get another chance.

So our first three orders weren’t so special, but then we went to a couple of venerable Ypsilanti institutions: the Chick Inn — an old-fashioned drive in restaurant with excellent chicken and milkshakes — and the timeless Haab’s, whose famous “chicken in a basket” well deserves its great reputation.

Even though it was our fifth chicken of the night, we ate every morsel and could have had more; it was that good.

Think of restaurant hit-or-misses like legal research.

You will inevitably run into bad food, or precedent that goes against you.

But when you do find that spot-on case — or that perfectly fried piece of juicy chicken — it makes it all worthwhile.

In the end, whether writing a brief or a review, the trick is to emphasize the good, rationalize the bad, and persuade the reader.

But I can’t shake the feeling that I would be a more effective advocate if I simply presented the judge with a bucket of fried chicken.

Just hold it out and say, “May it please the court.”

Wink at my opponent, and sit down.

Then watch the judge munching away, turning to my opponent to ask, “Any response, counselor?”

One of these days, I swear I’ll do it!
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor.
He occasionally updates his blog at