Get no-frills, no pants-needed but delicious weeknight fried chicken at Dodge’s gas station.
There is no lack of fine establishments in Charleston serving fried chicken. There is the classic variety, such as the inimitable Martha Lou’s Kitchen, the sandwiched version at Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop and Boxcar Betty’s, and the famous and fussed-over at Husk. The list is long, and opinions on whose version is best run even longer. But this is fried chicken that requires some planning—and putting on pants.
The weeknight variety of fried chicken—the kind you rip into standing over your kitchen sink in your underwear—doesn’t come from these places; it comes from a grocery store, maybe a fast-food chain, or my personal favorite, a gas station about 15 minutes outside of downtown called Dodge’s. Driving south on Savannah Highway, you can’t miss it: the bright red-and-yellow filling station sits on the right just after Main Road, which takes you past the 500-year-old Angel Oak live oak tree and eventually to the fancy beach enclave of Kiawah Island.
Like a circus marquee, the primary colors scream at you to stop. Since 1872, Dodge’s sign says. Above the entrance, a bespectacled cartoon chicken with coiffed gray hair welcomes you with a thumbs-up.
Inside at the counter, where you can also purchase cigarettes and cash a check, a trough of tan, fried things sits under heat lamps. Behind them, deep-fryers simmer and wait for the next batch of chicken. Above, a menu of specials and combos stretches on and on. I always order the no-frills classic: eight pieces of mixed (light and dark meat) fried chicken. But don’t be afraid to branch out. JoJos—starchy, cornflakey potato wedges as thick as your wrist—are infinitely better than the ones sold next door at KFC. The spicy chicken wings, which have a subtle kick, also do not disappoint. Fried pies, corn dogs, turkey legs, chicken kabobs, egg rolls, and something called a “cheesy crispito”—none of which I have tried myself—are also on the menu.
At this particular Dodge’s (there are other locations scattered throughout the South), there is no seating, unless you count your own car. But I find fried chicken tastes even more delicious when devoured speeding down the highway, crumbs pooling in your lap. Or, you can torture yourself and save it for later. To me, eating cold fried chicken is one of the most satisfying of pleasures during Charleston’s swampiest months. It’s a portable crowd-pleaser, demanding only free hands and a semi-cool place. Casual, but still special, cold fried chicken just always seems to fit in. It feels just as right eating it on a boat as it does at a bridal shower. In Charleston, like the rest of the South, cold fried chicken is the everyman answer to, ‘what should we bring?’ And everyone has their preferred go-to—usually Bojangles, the Pig (Piggly Wiggly), and Publix. The latter was mine until a local friend brought Dodge’s to a gathering one day.
On my most recent visit to Dodge’s, I asked an employee how they make their fried chicken. She couldn’t tell me much, except that they fry it there in peanut oil; but she, along with most Charleston locals I know, heartily agreed that it’s better than most. Dodge’s fried chicken has a slightly peppery flavor, its outer crust thick and crunchy, more like a shell than skin. But eaten cold, Dodge’s chicken holds up where other grab-and-go options fail. Out of the fridge, the meat is still juicy and the skin remains crispy and intact instead of falling off in sad, limp clumps (I’m looking at you, Harris Teeter). Often, the coating on the breast pieces is so thick it crunches like candy.
It’s important to note that cold fried chicken shouldn’t be too cold. Never eat it right out of the fridge. Let the chicken sit out for at least 20 minutes—a tad colder than room temperature is perfect. A beer cooler is the ideal habitat for fried chicken. Tucked in between icy cans of Coors Light, it will stay cool for the longest of Southern traditions: the football tailgate. Or, if you’re like me and you hate football, you’ll pack it up for a river float instead.
A float down the Edisto River is a Charleston rite of passage—one that, if not well planned, can take up to seven hours because the water level is too low. Which is exactly what happened on a hot day in late August a few years ago. I might not know how to properly check a river’s water level, but I do know how to feed a large group of sunburned and slightly intoxicated late twenty-somethings. The several Ziplocs of Publix fried chicken (this was B.D.D., Before I Discovered Dodge’s) heartily sustained our journey, but I know now that Dodge’s would have been a superior choice. Publix fried chicken, while arguably more flavorful than Dodge’s, doesn’t fare well in long, stressful situations. And in this ripe, wild climate, hardiness always wins.