Winner winner: Earl’s in Winston-Salem crafts the chicken dinner

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Items on the brunch menu including classics like chicken and waffles while the regular boasts sandwiches and burgers. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

I love fried chicken. It’s my second favorite food after sushi. I even own a fried chicken map of North Carolina that lists the best places in the state to get your fix. It’s the sole reason I’m not a pescatarian. So, when I went to Earl’s in Winston-Salem for the first time last weekend, ordering the chicken and waffles was a no brainer.

My fiancé and I visited Earl’s on a Sunday afternoon, right around lunchtime. The ice storm had transformed the city into another winter wonderland, and there were just a few other customers who sat at the bar.

The restaurant opened a few months ago in a portion of an old food distribution building in the Industry Hill area, next to the Ramkat and across from Wise Man Brewing. The only real indication that the restaurant is open is a lit-up cowboy boot tacked onto the side of the structure. There’s not even a designated parking lot yet. Inside, dark, hardwood floors and high ceilings give the space an elevated feel while the exposed brick and two bare trees, planted directly into the floor and lit up with string lights, set a rustic tone. Shades of emerald green and teal coat portions of the walls and giant marquee letters that spell out “Earl’s” backwards sits on top of the almost floor-to-ceiling bar. The whole scene is comforting and stunning.

Herbie Gimmel, who co-owns the restaurant with Joel Ornstein and Wade Robinson, says the goal was to open a country Americana restaurant bar that showcases country and folk music.

In the background, the twang of bluegrass can be heard over the bustle of the kitchen and the murmur of conversation.

Gimmel, who grew up in High Point, says he was inspired by the food scene in places like Nashville and Austin.

“I thought the concept would be a hit in Winston-Salem,” he said. “We felt there was a need here for eating in a space that you felt like the service was on point and the actual space itself was interesting wherever you looked. We put a lot of attention into that.”

Robinson, who designed the restaurant’s aesthetic, has planned living spaces for musicians like members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ben Harper. In a press release, he said, “Imagine yourself as a young child running through the Southern hollers of yesteryear. Earl’s is at once inviting, vintage, Southern, sexy, contemporary, easy, comforting and familial.”

In the back corner of the restaurant is a stage where live sets featuring country and folk musicians play on weekend nights.

The menu, which was planned by Matt Pleasants, who grew up in Winston-Salem, has also been carefully curated.

Snacks like pork rinds and pimento cheese round out meals of fried chicken, burgers and sandwiches, like the black bean burger my fiancé opted for. He said the patty was cooked perfectly and didn’t fall apart like similar renditions and described the whole as “having the right amount of everything” including shredded lettuce, patty, sauce, caramelized onions and pickles. Still, at nine dollars, it’s kind of disappointing that it doesn’t come with a side. We went for some classic tater tots that were what you’d expect. Crispy and delicious.

Earl’s offers sandwiches and burgers like the black bean burger too.

For dinner, you can order a roasted vegetable pie or a chicken fried steak. And on the weekends, specials like huevos rancheros, biscuits and gravy and grit bowls make an appearance.

“It’s Southern, centered around chicken,” says Gimmel about the menu. “We wanted to do comfort food that tastes great.”

I have a list of things I run through to score my fried chicken. How crunchy the breading is, how juicy the meat is, how well it’s spiced, the price. My favorites so far are the drumsticks from Dame’s and my mom’s Japanese karaage. For starters, the brunch plate, which comes with two decently sized waffles and a single fried chicken breast costs $14 at Earl’s. It’s a bit pricey in my opinion for the portion but let’s get on to the meat of it. The chicken itself was cooked pretty well. Juicy but not rubbery. On the outside, the breading boasted a nice golden brown color but lacked in seasoning. It also wasn’t as crispy as I’d hoped it’d be. For me, you can pretty much tell how good the chicken is gonna be from the first bite. It’s not even that much about the flavor at that point, it’s about the sound. How much crackle do you get from breaking the crispy, fried barrier? In my opinion, this one didn’t have enough. What the chicken lacked in texture and flavor however, the house-made Texas Pete honey more than made up for. Sweet and tangy with a spicy kick that lingers, the condiment is a must for both the bird and the waffles. And oh, the waffles.

These were probably the best I’ve ever had. They had a perfectly crunchy outer layer that gave way to a soft, almost gooey layer on the inside and didn’t fall apart or sink under the weight of the honey or syrup. The consistency and satisfaction gleaned was almost like eating a donut. I would drive the 40 minutes just for those waffles.

“There’s something for everyone at Earl’s,” Pleasants said.

“Earl’s isn’t a person,” Gimmel continued. “It’s a concept.” 

Pleasants chimed back in.

“It’s a way of life.”

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