Although many fried chicken places refer to their chicken as “famous,” Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken can actually back it up. After a chicken tattoo ad at the Lookouts Stadium was published by TMZ and went viral and then being visited by HLN’s “Making It in America,” the restaurant has gained some national attention in addition to all the word-of-mouth publicity it receives.
526 East M.L. King Blvd.
Chattanooga, TN 37403
10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Owners Seth and Crissy Champion first set up shop in 2009 near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-their restaurant anchored by fried chicken made from a 40-year-old Mississippi Delta family recipe. They have since expanded to three more locations in Alabama, but I recently roamed to the funky building on M.L. King Boulevard that started it all.
Atmosphere and service
The inside of the restaurant was low-lit with red string lights and adorned with music memorabilia keeping with their Delta blues theme. Dollar bills personalized by customers were also stapled to the walls-and don’t try to steal them, or voodoo shall befall you.
With their jukebox loaded with bluesy tunes and a packed house of customers, it can get loud, but this lively atmosphere is all part of Champy’s draw-and being next to UTC, there is a substantial college crowd. This is one of the only restaurants in the city that you can order a 40-ounce bottle of beer, complete with a koozie to keep it cold.
My server was attentive and friendly. She had a large party at one of her other tables but stayed on top of things with us. Because everything is cooked to order, the food doesn’t come out fast, so be prepared to wait. However, it came out relatively quickly this afternoon-albeit too quickly with the main courses.
I began with their fried pickles ($8.75), which were coated in a light buttermilk batter and freshly fried to a crispy consistency. These pickle spears were HOT, and to eat them right away required a few tongue juggles to cool each bite down. The fresh housemade ranch dressing served to the side was a tasty coolant, adding some seasoned creaminess to the pickles’ heated garlic and dill flavor attack.
Champy’s is also known for their hot tamales ($9.50), which are a staple of the Delta region and widely popularized by Delta blues-particularly Robert Johnson’s iconic song, “They’re Red Hot.” I didn’t have tamales on this occasion, but I’ve had Champy’s version before, and they are indeed “red hot” and full of flavor. I highly recommend them as well.
I began the main entrées with the two-piece white meat plate ($7.35). Champy’s website says that their method of frying yields “chicken that is moist on the inside, without being greasy.” Though it was moist and juicy, it was monstrously greasy. It was good chicken for the most part, and the fried batter and meat itself were nicely seasoned with a slight spicy kick. However, this oil spill coming off the chicken was extreme.
With the chicken saturating its surroundings, using Styrofoam plates to serve the chicken was also a major problem. There were several gaping holes where the hot chicken had decimated the plate. I avoided the parts of the chicken that had come in contact with the melted plate, because as unhealthful as fried chicken is anyway, consuming melted Styrofoam would be even worse-and I doubt it tastes very good.
This chicken dish was served with two sides. The baked beans were an excellent mix of white beans, kidney beans, bacon, onions and peppers in a sweet, tangy sauce that was lightly spicy. The mashed potatoes and gravy were lukewarm-at best-and bland, and I wished I hadn’t wasted 25 cents to substitute them for the coleslaw. Plain white toast was served under the chicken, so, of course, it endured a similar fate as the Styrofoam plate and was rendered extremely soggy.
The plate was able to hold up to the fried catfish meal ($10.75), however, which was far less greasy than the chicken. It included fries, hushpuppies, coleslaw and toast, and it was topped with raw red onion. The catfish was moist and flaky, and the fried batter was very lightly seasoned. This was good catfish, and the onion was a great addition to give it more bite.
The hushpuppies were spicy with jalapeño pieces distributing their flavors throughout the fried corn batter. However, although the crispy outside and much of the interior were delightful, they had been pulled out of the fryer prematurely, and the core was still raw.
The fries were lightly coated with batter and strongly seasoned without being extremely salty. They had a soft, fully cooked interior and were crispy but not overly greasy. The coleslaw mixture was heavy on the mayo with slight tones of sweetness and a light vinegar tang.
I finished things off with the key lime pie ($3.25), which was brought out in a plastic to-go container. I’d certainly prefer a thicker meringue, but it had a bright, tart flavor with a good, crumbly crust. It was enjoyable, but I had to dig rather than slice for a bite because of the plastic walls surrounding this pre-portioned pie. It was a wasteful presentation, but a good product.
I am giving Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken 2 stars. The atmosphere and service were impressive, and the flavors of the food were overall excellent, but the cooking on this evening was subpar at best, and the melted Styrofoam really left a bad taste in my mouth-even though I made sure to avoid consuming it.
Although this will certainly ruffle some feathers, Champy’s chicken is good, but I don’t think it’s the best in the city. However, I don’t discount opinions from people who feel it is, nor the Bea’s folks, or backers of Lamar’s and other places because, after all, fried chicken can be highly subjective-and I’m standing behind my previous pick in this heavyweight chicken fight.
So, now I ask, what do you think? Does Champy’s have the best chicken in the city?
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.