Dining Out

The fried-chicken triangle in Sydney’s Inner West: an investigation

Along a 300-metre stretch of Newtown's main drag, three restaurants are dishing up some top-notch fried chook. On a wing and a prayer, Tristan Lutze tries them all.
Inside Mary's Newtown.

Inside Mary's Newtown.

Tristan Lutze

Drawn between the vertices of Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico, the Bermuda Triangle was, for a time, feared by ships or planes that would pass through it. Their captains and passengers terrified by the region’s supernatural reputation for dragging unsuspecting vessels to the bottom of the ocean.

With the recent opening of Thirsty Bird’s second Sydney location in Newtown’s King Street, across the road from Mary’s and only metres from Clem’s Chicken Shop, the creation of the Inner West’s own legend-inspiring triangle is complete.

Like religion and politics, fried chicken inspires the kind of zealous belief and impassioned debate that can ruin friendships and drive families apart. There’s something about the combination of fried breading, juicy meat and the cornucopia of possible sides that makes finding (and emphatically proclaiming) your favourite fried chicken a culinary rite of passage.

If you’re yet to tick some of the city’s best fried chicken off your bucket (of chicken) list, you can try them all without walking more than 300 metres. These are the corners of the Newtown Triangle of Fried Chicken.

Thirsty Bird Newtown

In the three-plus years since its hole-in-the-wall takeaway store opened in Kings Cross, Thirsty Bird, by the team behind Oxford Street’s Mr Crackles, is an essential inclusion in any conversation about Sydney’s best fried chicken.

Now, with its larger King Street location offering dine-in facilities and a tight range of tinned beer, it’s destined to win even more fans.

The fried chicken

The chicken, available in “original” or “hot and spicy”, is delivered either as bone-in pieces or burger format. Co-owner and chef Sam Horowitz explains the fried chook has dual points of inspiration. “I tried to emulate a similar crunch to Popeye’s chicken in the USA, and a similar taste to the fried chicken you’d find on the streets of Thailand,” he says.

The Thirsty Bird recipe took over a year to perfect. That crunch, created by double-dipping the brined chicken in buttermilk and the proprietary flour mix, is a difficult thing to nail.

“The secret is in how you handle the last coating of flour,” Horowitz says. “You need the right grip, pressure and technique for each piece of chicken to get the hundreds of crunchy little ribbons. It takes weeks for the chefs to learn, and some just never get it right.”

Best enjoyed with… one of the many available dipping sauces, and a side of coleslaw, waffle fries, loaded tater tots, or the irresistible mac and cheese.

Thirsty Bird Newtown, 226 King St, Newtown, NSW, (02) 8591 2952, thirstybird.com.au

Thirsty Bird Newtown’s original fried chicken pieces.

(Photo: Tristan Lutze)

Mary’s Newtown

Before Mary’s Pizzeria and Mary’s Underground (winner of Gourmet Traveller‘s Wine List of the Year), there was Mary’s Newtown, the flagship metal-blasting diner of Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham’s trash-food empire. The single red light bulb hanging outside marks the original spot for one of the city’s best-loved burgers; but Mary’s is just as revered for its heaving baskets of fried chicken.

The fried chicken

By half-bird, whole-bird or “Larry Bird” (two chickens), the chook is brined in seasoned buttermilk then cooked in a pressure fryer, a contraption Smyth describes as “equal parts thermodynamics and sorcery.”

We have Kentucky Fried Chicken to thank for the popularisation of the fryer – it cooks the chicken at a lower temperature than a traditional deep fryer, forming a crisp skin on the outside while retaining moisture in the meat.

The fryer’s not the only nod to the worldwide chicken chain either. “We took our main inspiration from KFC, but also picked up points from a range of other more ‘legit’ places like [Sean Brock’s Nashville restaurant] Husk, and Momofuku,” says Smyth. “We put a fairly wild mix of herbs and spices into the seasoning in an ode to the Colonel.”

Best enjoyed with… a slug of house hot sauce, a side of mash and gravy, and a beer.

Mary’s, 6 Mary St, Newtown, NSW, (02) 9550 4995, getfat.com.au

Mary’s whole fried chicken with mash and gravy.

(Photo: Tristan Lutze)

Clem’s Chicken Shop

For nearly 40 years, Clem’s has been a beacon to those seeking comfort food in the heart of the Inner West. Illuminated cabinets guard bain-maries filled with rotisserie chickens, gravy, hot chips, and that cheesy potato and cauliflower bake. But for those in the know, another treasure awaits: one of the city’s best renditions of fried chicken.

The fried chicken

Pressure-fried with a thin, salty crust highly evocative of the Colonel’s fine work, Clem’s fried chicken is juicier and tastier than any pre-cooked bird has the right to be. Perhaps it’s the constant stream of customers that ensures that, even though it might be pre-cooked, the chicken never sits around long enough to dry out. Or maybe it’s magic.

Best enjoyed with… your choice of hot sides and salads, filled to overflowing in your preferred size of takeaway tub. For the full experience take a seat by the window, plough into a drumstick as you watch Newtown’s pedestrian wildlife pass you by.

Clem’s Chicken Shop, 210 King St, Newtown, NSW, (02) 9519 6000, clemschickenshop.com.au

Clem’s fried chicken with cheesy cauliflower bake, and chips with chicken salt and gravy.

(Photo: Tristan Lutze)

Notable mentions

Across the road from Clem’s, Vegan Fried Chick’n slings soy and seitan chicken substitutes in burger, fillet and popcorn chick’n form, alongside vegan gravy and vegan cheese sauce.

Wander a little further up the road and cross the suburban border into Enmore and you’ll find Wish Bone, now home to the celebrated fried chicken that originally put Hartsyard on the Inner West’s culinary map.

Vegan Fried Chick’n, 215 King St, Newtown, NSW

Wish Bone, 125 Enmore Rd, Enmore, NSW, wishbonerestaurant.com.au

Related stories