On Friday night at Mary Hoopa's House of Fried Chicken and Oysters, I could detect a certain kind of fear in the eyes of the man standing behind the host stand. The front of the restaurant was packed with customers: two couples with strollers in tow, a gaggle of teens hanging irritatingly in the way of the door, a three-top here, a four-top there. If one more customer walked in, there wouldn't be a tile for them to stand on. The man behind the host stand surveyed this situation and let out one exasperated word: "Chaos." He had the look of a sea captain whose sailboat is heading into a storm.
One of my dining companions, let’s call him the professor, had arrived earlier than me and explained the situation. The professor had asked for a table several minutes prior, but the host had neglected to take his name. Same with everyone who followed. Now people were stacked up to the host stand like sardines. Just when it seemed to me that we had walked into a Friday night, dinner-rush disaster, the host began to right his ship. He was methodical and efficient, sorting out this party from that, and within a matter of minutes, every customer standing around had been shown to a table.
I mention this because, despite the initial error, the recovery impressed me. Any restaurant can end up in the weeds on Friday night, just as any sailor can end up in a storm; what matters is how you navigate once you’re there. On a busy night, stay on the ship at Mary Hoopa’s and you’ll arrive, eventually, at a plate of fried chicken worth the journey.
This is the latest restaurant from Robert Phalen, the chef and owner of One Eared Stag in Inman Park. Phalen has earned a reputation as an impressive, almost too-creative chef. I count myself as a longtime admirer of his risk-taking style. Over the years, I’ve had meals as impressive as any I’ve ever been served in this city — I can still recall every detail of a roast tuna collar I ate on that patio years ago — as well as meals that have left me scratching my head and wondering, “What exactly just happened?” Such is the fate of a true culinary risk-taker, I suppose.
Mary Hoopa’s is the work of a maturing chef, one who is able to set aside the whims of creativity for something more reliable and familiar. Perched on the corner of Hosea L. Williams Drive and Second Avenue, it unabashedly aims to be a family-friendly joint, welcoming the young families who live in the neighborhood. (Phalen is among them. He lives one block from the restaurant.) The price point is approachable, and the dishes include everything one needs for a proper Southern family meal of fried chicken and sides.
Served in half bird, whole bird, and two bird portions, the fried chicken is cooked to a deep golden brown and arrives on a platter with a scattering of finishing salt. The meat will burst with your first bite. It is that juicy.
As Phalen explained to me, the chicken is battered in a three-step process of dry flour and seasoning, wet batter, and followed by another round of dry ingredients. The frying process happens in two steps, first in oil at a high temperature followed by a second dip in lower temperature oil. That unusual five-step process yields uncommonly excellent fried chicken. Every single piece I’ve ordered has been both impressively juicy and tender while retaining a crunchy, flavorful batter that can stand on its own.
<<Video: Making fried chicken at Mary Hoopa’s
To go alongside, you’ll want a few house-made rolls with sweet honey butter and maybe a bowl of the rich and savory Sapelo Island red peas. A side of shredded, wilted Brussels sprouts and soppressata makes for a fine, light vegetable addition. Fingerling potatoes, roasted and tender, are topped with shavings from a cured egg yolk. The yolk will melt and leave the potatoes almost as rich and creamy as a potato salad.
This is an excellent family meal, perfect for passing around the sides and fighting over who gets the last piece of dark meat. Outside of that meal format, the kitchen at Mary Hoopa’s seems to be still figuring it out.
At dinner with the professor, we were excited to try a plate of heirloom tomatoes topped with salsa verde, whipped dabs of avocado, and torn nuggets of fresh cheese. It sounded like a perfect beginning-of-summer dish. As it turned out, it was too early. The tomatoes weren’t anywhere near ripe, making what might have been a transcendent plate of produce into an odd clash of flavors on flavorless, hard red wedges.
On a different night, I ordered a bowl of fried oysters, pickles and grilled bread. The dish was billed “Nashville” hot on the menu, but arrived at the table more bland than any fried oyster I can recall eating. In fact, I’m not quite sure how it is possible that oysters sporting such a bright red color could have so little flavor, not to mention heat. Perhaps the kitchen is wary of scaring off customers with too-spicy fare, but this is a plate that does no favors to anyone.
The raw oysters are fine, but not offered in the refined lists of origin and species that have become de rigueur in oyster houses these days. Instead, they’re ordered by the half dozen and you get whichever the kitchen shucks for you. I was more pleased by the buttery, garlicky grilled oysters, which had just enough extra oyster liquor to sop up with a piece of grilled bread.
One fine dish is a creamy bowl of polenta topped with braised bacon, collard greens and a runny egg. A rich jus brings the execution to levels of Southern decadence rarely seen outside of a bowl of shrimp and grits. I’d be happy to make a small meal of it, even if I think it is silly the menu doesn’t call it grits.
But if I was eating alone, it would be hard for me to order anything but the fried chicken sandwich, which matches the juicy, crispy qualities of the fried chicken here with a rich, fermented pile of yogurt-drenched coleslaw. (You can glimpse jars filled with that slaw along the restaurant’s back wall.) It is an exciting, unexpected umami blast hiding in what could otherwise be a boring sandwich. That’s the sort of trick I’ve come to expect from Phalen. Even if he’s happy to make food for families, he hasn’t settled down completely.
Mary Hoopa’s House of Fried Chicken & Oysters
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Southern fried chicken
Service: still improving
Best dishes: fried chicken, fried chicken sandwich, polenta, red peas, potatoes, rolls