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Sticky and Soulful

Maple Bourbon serves some of the best fried chicken in town, and don’t skip the house-made syrup.

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Don't talk to me about fried chicken being a guilty pleasure.

Fried chicken is essential comfort food, a fact gleaned from my Richmond-born grandmother who lived with us and fried up chicken for nine every other Sunday for supper. To this day, I'll happily debate which is better, hot fried chicken or cold fried chicken, preferably while eating it.

But even without a lifetime of memories of how hot the kitchen got while she was frying or how satisfying it was to pull off crispy bits of skin while the chicken rested on a platter, I'd like to think most people can agree on the place of culinary honor this inexpensive but labor-intensive dish is. I may rarely go to the trouble of frying it myself, but my goodness, I'm always happy to find it done right by somebody else.

So, let's cut right to the chase: Maple Bourbon, the cozy corner spot downtown with the vibrant blue walls and sunny vibe, is doing fried chicken right. And if you're open-minded enough to accept variations on a theme, it has that covered, too. For those who've not yet come to accept that fried chicken can make a gray sky blue, rest assured, the menu includes some unfried options too, like soup, salads, grilled cheese, chicken salad and BLTs.

If you're any kind of fan of vintage soul music, you'll dig the menu as much as I did. Look to "Coltrane Cool" for the listing of chilled beverages — yes, there's a bar — "Marvin Hot!" for warm drinks, sandwiches like Betcha By Golly Wow and an entree dubbed Soul Man for a solid refresher course in classic R&B that matches the groove-heavy music playing overhead. My favorite play on words: "On the Side (like Mrs. Jones)," a list of stellar sides such as candied yams and collard greens with a nod to Billy Paul.

Variations on chicken and waffles abound, and all are available with regular maple syrup, the restaurant's signature maple-bourbon syrup ($1.50) and brown-sugar butter ($1), which, we're told, is referred to as crack by the staff. When I choose the maple-bourbon syrup, our server inquires if I'm going back to work because, she assures me, the bourbon will remain on my breath. It's worth every boozy exhale.

I test out that syrup on Your Sweetness is My Weakness, a classic Belgian waffle with either two or four large, exquisitely fried wings ($12/$14). They arrive hot from the fryer, so the wait for them to be cool enough to handle is torturous but worth it. The crispy skin shatters with every bite and the waffles' crisp, deep pockets are fitting wells for the syrup's drunken sweetness.

With the Can We Talk ($10), a fried chicken breast fillet layered with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion on ciabatta, we opt for the spicy version that incorporates habanero into the coating mixture. The result is just enough heat to be addictively spicy, while remaining thoroughly flavorful. My companion immediately dubs it the best fried chicken sandwich in Richmond on Instagram, noting, "Don't sleep on this one."

If loving the I Don't Want to Be Right ($10) is wrong, so be it. Moist chicken breast encased in the kitchen's flawless crispy exterior is married with jalapeño slaw between the pillowy sides of a Hawaiian roll for a sandwich that makes my companion's eyes roll back in her head. It's worth mentioning how impeccably seasoned all the fried chicken is, notably without a reliance on salt. Ditto the hand-cut fries that come standard with sandwiches, which remind me how frequently restaurants oversalt their fries.

Even straying from fried chicken doesn't disappoint. Pulled chicken barbecue — the sauce a judicial balance of vinegar's tartness and tomato's muscle without the cloying sweetness that mars so much barbecue sauce — needs nothing more than caramelized onions inside a Hawaiian roll to make the Time to Get Down ($10) a table favorite. While you can't actually see the basil, the creamy tomato basil soup known as the Hotstepper ($4/$6) allows basil's sweet, aromatic flavor to shine. Salads (half $8, whole $10) such as A-Tisket, A-Tasket with greens, dried cranberries, blue cheese, apple slices and walnuts or Lady Marmalade with spinach, strawberries, blueberries red onions and almonds make for a solid start to any fried chicken meal.

Service is friendly and personable, with one server referring to both male and female as "loves" every time she spoke with us. Another time, we ask our server about the maple bourbon bread pudding with lemon bourbon sauce ($5.25) and she recounts how a customer the day before had tried it, only to exclaim, "It's so good it makes me want to slap my mama!" Dessert recommendations really don't come much better.

Honestly, I can see why a fried chicken lover would sleep on Maple Bourbon. Some of us would say it's the next best thing to Grandma's.

Maple Bourbon
1116 E. Main St.
649-3639
Mondays – Thursdays 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Fridays – Saturdays 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
maplebourbonrva.com

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