Warm, battered and crisp from a dunk in hot oil, fried foods are a fun reminder of times at the fair and a welcome winter treat.
By Sharon Stello
When cold weather creeps in during winter, cravings often turn to warm, comforting classics—maybe even something a little decadent. Fried food fits the bill, offering a hot and savory bite. And after a month of healthy eating, thanks to those New Year’s resolutions, perhaps it’s time for a slight indulgence: From childhood throwbacks like chicken sandwiches to elevated options like fried oysters, there’s no limit to the type of food that can be fried. And no matter what the batter is wrapped around, perhaps it’s that touch of crunch that keeps us coming back for more.
“Texture and mouthfeel is one the most important elements of any culinary experience,” says Oliver Beaver, guest relations manager at Nick’s Laguna Beach. “Enjoying a crispy texture that melts in your mouth is what makes fried food more fun.”
Nick’s Laguna Beach
On the menu since Nick’s opened its Laguna Beach restaurant back in 2008, the lightly fried bacon deviled eggs are a twist on traditional picnic fare. “[They’re] crispy and fun to eat,” Beaver says. “This is our spin on a classic American staple. We flash-fry hard-boiled eggs with a Parmesan-and-panko crust and then fill them with a creamy yolk mixture and generously sprinkle on applewood-smoked bacon.” These sinfully good deviled eggs offer “just the slightest kick of spice and a satisfying crunch,” he adds. “This isn’t your standard deviled egg. Nick’s unique spin combining a crispy texture with a sweet-and-savory flavor profile leaves a lasting impression that makes for the perfect starter.” (949-376-8595; nicksrestaurants.com)
Taking chicken wings up a notch, the Signature Crispy Meyer Lemon and Honey Duck Wings at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook are an explosion of flavor. “Chicken can be bland and dry; duck has an earthier taste and is much more tender,” says Jared Cook, executive chef and partner at Sapphire, who first created the dish about 15 years ago at Sapphire’s sister restaurant, Vine, in San Juan Capistrano. He had ordered whole ducks to use the breast in an entree. “Then, I had a pile of wings sitting there and the lightbulb went off,” he says. His approach is to confit the wings for a fall-off-the bone texture, then they are flash-fried to crisp the outside. Inspired by duck a l’orange, he set out to make a citrus-based sauce, finally settling on lemon combined “with the floral, fruity taste of honey.” Then the drumettes are tossed in chile and chives “for a nice little spice and fresh herbal component on the finish.” (949-715-9888; sapphirelagunabeach.com)
From zucchini to calamari, Lumberyard serves up several fried options. But diners with an appetite will want to try the fried chicken sandwich, which provides a generous portion of battered and fried chicken nestled between two brioche buns with Jack cheese, cilantro slaw made with apple vinaigrette, and roasted jalapeno tartar sauce for a tangy accompaniment. Tender chicken breast is marinated in buttermilk and the restaurant’s own mix of blackening spices, then dipped in a batter with secret spices before it’s fried. Lumberyard co-owner Cary Redfearn says chef Josue Tavares, who goes by Primo, wanted to offer this so locals wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Howlin’ Ray’s in LA for a quality fried chicken sandwich. “I think fried chicken sandwiches have been popular for a long time,” Redfearn says, “but the last decade has brought us the Southern-style Nashville hot fried chicken sandwiches, which took the genre to a whole other level.” (949-715-3900; lblumberyard.com)
Reunion Kitchen & Drink
Premium Alaskan cod is at the center of the beer-battered fish and chips at Reunion Kitchen & Drink, offered since the restaurant’s opening. The fish is made-to-order and hand-battered twice—using batter that incorporates a blonde ale from local brewery Laguna Beach Beer Co.—before being fried to perfection. In addition to house-made tartar sauce and a side of salt-and-pepper shoestring fries (or “chips”), the fish is served with Thai peanut slaw. “We didn’t want to offer a traditional slaw,” says Reunion owner Scott McIntosh. “Our customers love our Thai peanut [version]. … The slaw is on the crunchy side and it’s tossed to order.” As McIntosh says, fried foods like fish and chips are “a modern comfort delight [that] stays within our wheelhouse.” “Crispy and crunchy works well for us,” he adds. (949-226-8393; reunionkitchen.net)
Roux Creole Cuisine
Pairing with entrees like catfish gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp and grits, Roux Creole Cuisine’s fried cornmeal oysters provide an elevated appetizer to start the meal. These decadent bites are served with lemon remoulade and cornichons—those tiny, crunchy pickles—offering a variety of complementing flavors. Chef Robert Villanueva says the oysters are dipped in an egg wash, then dredged in a mix of flour, cornmeal and Creole spices before being lightly fried. ”They’re not overdone; they’re still juicy,” Villanueva says. The remoulade combines mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, lemon juice and zest, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, fresh Italian parsley, green onions and cornichon pickle juice. Offered since Roux opened five years ago, the fried oysters blend French flavors with those of the American South, like in the French Quarter of New Orleans. “For some people, it’s reminiscent … of a region they’ve been to. … It’s a food memory,” Villanueva says of the dish’s popularity. “[One bite and] … a person might remember a song or a person they were sitting at the table with.” (949-715-3707; rouxlaguna.com)