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.
March 30th is National Hot Chicken Day, and we're celebrating with a cooking demo with Chef Robert Phalen at Mary Hoopas House of Fried Chicken & Oysters.
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.
Mary Hoopa’s dozen raw oysters with cocktail sauce and mignonette. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
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.
Mary Hoopa’s polenta with braised bacon, an egg, and collard greens. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
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
Vegetarian selections: few
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 4-11 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Sundays
Parking: limited lot and street parking
MARTA station: East Lake Transit Station
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 2371 Hosea L. Williams Drive, Atlanta. 404-254-5236