A half order of chicken comes with a split breast, thigh and drumstick — and donut A half order of chicken comes with a split breast, thigh and drumstick — and donut A half order of chicken at Federal Donuts comes with a split breast, thigh and drumstick — and donut. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

City goes crazy for fried chicken with a Mediterranean twist

I found out why chef Michael Solomonov's Federal Donuts is a Philadelphia institution.

When chef Michel Solomonov opened Zahav, a restaurant in Philadelphia, the idea was to introduce his version of modern Israeli cuisine to a new, more sophisticated generation of diners.

People connected with his vision and flocked there in droves. Accolades followed, and he soon had the city's food scene at his doorstep. The Israeli-born chef had brought his homeland's cuisine to American shores and scored.

So of course it made sense to open another chic spot with international dishes to delight people with, right? Nope. Instead, he teamed with a few other Philadelphia restauranteurs to open Federal Donuts, a shop selling fried chicken, donuts and coffee.

Federal Donuts' flagship location in Center City Philadelphia gets crowded during lunch hours.Federal Donuts' location in Center City Philadelphia gets crowded during lunch hours. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

Just like with Zahav, Federal Donuts, opened in 2011, was a hit from day one. On that first day, legend has it, the fried chicken sold out by 9:30 a.m. Since then it has become legendary, with multiple locations opening throughout the city, one even at the baseball stadium, a true sign that your food has become iconic.

Fried chicken that good needs to be tried, so of course when I was in Philadelphia recently, I did just that.

Chef Michael Solomonov runs the Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia.Chef Michael Solomonov has become a star on the Philadelphia food scene, and beyond. (Photo: Steve Legato)

My location of choice was in Center City, a little hole-in-the-wall that sits across from Solomonov's recent hit Dizengoff. It's easy to miss but, judging by the lunchtime crowds, never is.

True to its name, the place offers little beyond fried chicken, donuts and coffee (and brand T-shirts), with a stark cafeteria-style set up implying that all sensory receptors should be directed solely toward the food.

The menu is Federal Donuts' flagship location.The menu is Federal Donuts' flagship location. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

The donuts, of which there are several varieties including strawberry lavender, vanilla spice and guava poppy, are what first greet you, right below the order counter.

An odd combination, it seems to me. Chicken and waffles I've heard of. Even chicken and pancakes are a thing. But chicken and donuts? Well anyway, I thought: two delicious foods in one meal is something I can get on board with.

It's the fried chicken that I am eager for. It's Korean fried, meaning it is fried twice (compared to typical southern fried chicken, which is fried just once) and thus has a crispier skin.

That's not the secret weapon, though, or even what really makes this chicken exquisite. It's in the magic of the spices, which Solomonov procures from Israeli spice master Lior Lev Sercarz of New York's La Boîte.

The donuts in Federal Donuts do not disappoint. The donuts here do not disappoint. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

First the chicken is marinated in a dry brine, with plenty of salt and a secret spice mix made up of Sercarz's spices. After being fried, further flavor is added in the form of six different coatings.

There are the dry rubs: a Mediterranean spice called za'atar that's a nod to Solomonov's Israeli roots; there's also coconut curry and buttermilk ranch. As for glazes, there are also three: chili garlic, honey ginger and sweet soy garlic. I opt for an order of the za'atar and an order of the buttermilk ranch. Why hold back, right?

Having lived in the American South for a few years, I had my fair share of delicious fried chicken, and Federal Donuts definitely cuts it on all counts.

Federal Donuts has opened several locations throughout Philadelphia including this one in the city's Northern Liberties neighborhood. Federal Donuts has opened several locations throughout Philadelphia, including this one in the city's Northern Liberties neighborhood. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

It's not too expensive, only $9.50 for a half order, which consists of a split breast, thigh and drumstick as well as a honey-glazed donut. It has just the right amount of moisture. Knowing that the correct breading-to-meat ratio is a key factor in optimal fried chicken, I am happy to discover an almost perfect balance, something I'm told Solomonov put a lot of thought into.

The spices add several layers of flavor. Usually I rush to find the hot sauce, but there is such a complexity going on here I don't even bother. Between the spices the chicken is marinated in and the za'atar and buttermilk ranch coatings, my tastebuds are content. Very, very content.

After being pulled from the fryer the chicken is coated in your choice of powder or sauce.After being pulled from the fryer the chicken is coated in your choice of powder or sauce. (Photo: Zach Pontz)

Having grown up in Philadelphia, I can attest to the fact that the city has long lacked any viable options for fried chicken. Why that is, I don't know. In truth, the city lacked very few food options beyond the street food it's become known the world over for (cheesesteaks, hoagies, pretzels and Italian Ice). That's all changed in recent years thanks to folks like Solomonov, who have not only introduced cuisines the city has been without, but have added their own twist to them in the process.

Korean fried chicken with a Mediterranean twist? Thank goodness Michael Solomonov thought of it.

MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:

Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Chefs & Restaurants

comments powered by Disqus