Shiny new restaurants are everywhere in the Seattle area, but our old-school, solid-gold greats deserve the love and the limelight, too. Well-priced, locally owned, community-centered and timelessly tasty is what we’re after in this series featuring Seattle restaurant classics.
Ezell’s Famous Chicken: 12 Seattle-area branches, one slated to open in June, and one already in Spokane, ezellschicken.com
The story of Ezell’s Famous Chicken involves family and struggle, setbacks and success, a whole lot of golden-fried goodness and one Oprah. It’s been 35 years since the original location opened its doors and started scenting the air across the street from Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District (go Bulldogs!). The logo features a cartoon chicken with a halo running happily to its fate, promising, “I’M FRESH, GOOD, AND FAST!” Co-founder Lewis Rudd says not much has changed on the menu — everything is, in fact, made fresh, meaning a lot of potatoes have been peeled over the years for the super-creamy potato salad, made with plenty of pickle and mustard to wake it up, and for the silky-smooth mashed potatoes, just-right salty and heavenly cafeteria-delicious. Sweet potatoes, too: The pies, spiced like Christmas, soft and rich, are baked daily.
There’s slaw, beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, okra and gizzards, too, but the bird proper, of course, is the star. Ezell’s original recipe seeks and finds the happy medium of fried-chicken greatness; Rudd says the beautifully basic batter is low-seasoned by design. Those who scoff at anything but the glory of dark meat might want to try a chicken tender here, undeniably tasty, the extra-crispy breading making an extra-loud crunch. But those who swear by Ezell’s spicy-style are onto something: The red-gold shell, with just enough cayenne heat, encases meat that’s deeply flavored, having been favored with a Creole-accented marinade.
But let us not forget Ezell’s fresh-baked dinner rolls, golden-pillowy-soft and noticeably a bit sweet. Confession: I cannot see a tray of these waiting on the rack without wanting to rest my head on them, inhaling, dreaming and every so often taking a bite. Rudd will neither confirm or deny the presence of sugar or honey in the rolls — “I just put my finger in the water and stir it up before I put the flour in it,” he says, laughing.
Ezell’s game-changing superfan has been known to have all this goodness FedExed directly to her mouth in Chicago. It was 1989 when Oprah happened to be in town, happened to be hungry and happened upon someone who knew about the magic bird; her assistant called up and asked for some to be sent to the hotel, stat, only to be told they didn’t deliver on Saturdays. “Gimme that phone!” she herself was heard to say. “This is Oprah Winfrey and I want some of that chicken and I want it now,” came the decree. “She enjoyed it so much on Saturday,” Rudd relates, “she ordered it again on Sunday.” It was the most worth-it weekend delivery ever: Oprah mentioned Ezell’s on her show. “The phone just started ringing off the hook,” Rudd says. People came and lined up for hours, “waiting on their turn to get some chicken. For the next 90 days, we could not cook enough chicken.”
Oprah likes her Ezell’s spicy, the dark meat — thighs. Other big fans include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, local TV star Jesse Jones, former Seattle mayor Norm Rice, Norm from “Cheers” and Quincy Jones. Danny Glover’s been spotted in line, and in his pre-grill boxing days, George Foreman ate an entire eight-piece dinner, paired with a glass of wine at his hotel.
The Ezell of the name — Ezell Stephens — parted ways with the company along the way. Rudd says simply, “We reached a fork in the road where we had a different vision … he chose his direction and path, and we chose one, and here we are.” They’d grown up together, working at a fried-chicken place in tiny Marshall, Texas; Ezell was Rudd’s sister’s high-school sweetheart, and they were married for a time. Now Rudd and his sister, Faye Stephens — also a co-founder — run Ezell’s, with more family members. Ezell Stephens went on to open his own Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, now on Lake City Way and in Everett (a Renton branch recently closed). We won’t wade into the which-is-better debate here — the truly curious will want to taste test for themselves, anyway.
Ezell’s now has 13 outlets around the region, “a dream become a reality,” as Rudd calls it. In the beginning, raising capital was next to impossible, he says, especially as a black-owned business. “In the last five to six years, we’ve grown more than we did the first 20 years. It does make a difference when you come across people that believe in you,” he says. It does make a difference, too, when you give back to those around you — Rudd can’t begin to quantify Ezell’s community involvement over the decades. “Lots,” he simply says. “Some companies now, some brands, are beginning to look at it as part of their marketing strategy — donations and partnering with different organizations. We did it from the beginning, just because it was from the heart.” In 1985, still struggling to pay the bills, Ezell’s fed attendees of the Martin Luther King Jr. march for free, donating maybe 150 pieces of chicken, “a lot back then.” This year, Rudd says, the rally at Garfield was huge, and they gave away 2,500 pieces to hungry marchers. The list of other organizations and causes Ezell’s has supported is long, including cancer research and Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.
And in honor of the 35th anniversary, Ezell’s is founding its own nonprofit. “We really want to be known for the impact that we had on the community … and primarily in the African American community, where we all started,” Rudd says. At a gala birthday party in February, awards went to the likes of Community Passageways, a local restorative-justice program working with youth caught up in the criminal-justice system.
Meanwhile, more chicken: The 14th Ezell’s is slated to open in June in Federal Way. And Rudd says the company now has the financial support and resources to go even further. Maybe even all the way to Oprah and beyond, across the country? “Yes, yes,” Rudd says. “And we will be blessed to be able to serve ’em up.”