Editor’s note: As we leave our home kitchens to dine out more, the weekly Lunch Break column has evolved to highlight dishes from a variety of sources: a new or reopened restaurant; a newsmaking person, place, or recipe; or, of course, a great cookbook.

It’s been a while since fried chicken sandwiches dominated the headlines, but that doesn’t mean American appetites for the burger’s biggest rival have waned. On Feb. 17, newly minted restaurateur DJ Khaled introduced the “Best Chicken Sandwich Ever” via Reef Kitchens, the virtual restaurant company. Khaled’s take features Nashville hot chicken with an electric-pink-colored coleslaw.

Sales have continued to be strong across the country.

At Lucille’s in Houston, the fried chicken sandwich has been one of the bestsellers since chef and owner Chris Williams put it on the menu a couple of years ago. “Right after people started getting into fights at Popeyes,” he says.

Lucille’s specializes in Southern classics with international accents: Consider its take on a good old-fashioned fish fry, but with Vietnamese nuoc mam vinaigrette, or roasted hen seasoned with Ethiopian berbere spice. During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden chose Lucille’s as the location to meet with the family of George Floyd following Floyd’s murder.

The restaurant also was the opening base for Williams’s nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913, which he launched at the start of the pandemic to feed Houstonians in need. (It moved to a separate location in mid-2020.) The organization is named for his great-grandmother Lucille Bishop Smith, who started a catering business in 1913 and went on to write a cookbook, Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods. She also created the first hot roll mix, for a small yeast-based roll.

Lucille’s 1913, which just served its 400,000 meal, will open its first farm in March. The endeavor will help feed neighborhoods that have become food deserts, starting in Kendleton, Texas, which has a 97% Black population, according to Williams.

Williams didn’t get his fried chicken sandwich recipe from his great-grandmother Lucille. But he credits her with the inventive spirit of his version, which gets heat and flavor from the Asian chili paste sambal oelek and five-spice powder, both of which are unconventional adds to a standard hot chicken recipe.

“If you look at her cookbook, she was very innovative in her style of cooking,” he says. “She had a recipe for guacamole in her cookbook. An African-American woman born right after Reconstruction, living in the South, and writing about guacamole. She was not limited to framing to cooks that looked at her.”

Williams had just come back from Vietnam with his chef de cuisine, Khang Hoang, when the chicken sandwich frenzy was heating up. “We figured if we’re going to be involved, we want to put our own spin on it,” he says.

This isn’t a blow-your-head-off hot chicken—it’s more interesting than that. There’s plenty of heat that lingers but also piquant tang from the sambal oelek and peppery sweetness courtesy of the five-spice powder. The crispy chicken is tender, too, thanks to a simple hot sauce brine.

For someone who’s never made hot chicken, the process is surprisingly easy and the rewards are big. It’s enough to make you want to get into the fried chicken sandwich wars yourself.

Tester’s note: If you don’t have the time or patience to brine the chicken, you can dip the chicken breasts in the buttermilk hot sauce mixture before coating them with the flour mixture.

Lucille’s Hot Chicken Sandwich

Lucille’s Hot Chicken Sandwich(Bloomberg)
Lucille’s Hot Chicken Sandwich(Bloomberg)

Makes 4 sandwiches

2 cups buttermilk2/3 cup of your favorite hot sauceSalt and freshly ground black pepperFour 6-oz skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 1 inch thick1 cup all-purpose flour3 tbsp cornstarchCanola oil or vegetable oil, for frying¼ cup sambal oelek3 tbsp sriracha1½ tbsp rice wine vinegar1½ tsp sugar1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder4 buns, preferably potatoColeslaw, for garnishBread and butter pickles, for garnish (optional)

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the buttermilk, hot sauce, and ½ tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper. Add the chicken breasts and seal the bag. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or up to 14 hours.

In a large shallow bowl, combine the flour and cornstarch and season well with salt and pepper. Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off any excess. Coat the chicken all over with the flour mixture. Coat a second time, pressing the flour mixture on so it adheres, and transfer to a wire rack.

In a cast-iron skillet, heat 1 inch of the oil to 350F. Working in batches and using tongs, add the chicken to the hot oil and fry for about 4 minutes per side, until well browned and cooked through. Carefully transfer to paper towels.

Meanwhile, in another shallow bowl, combine the sambal oelek, sriracha, rice vinegar, sugar, and five-spice powder. Add 3 tablespoons of the frying oil. One at a time, add the chicken breasts and spoon the hot sauce mixture over the tops and sides of the chicken. Transfer to the buns and top with coleslaw and pickles, if using, and serve hot.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.