The streets are deserted. This is South Philly, not the Italian part, but Pennsport. Way down on South 2nd street, there’s a bit of heaven on earth, but in a blue collar, real, kind of way. They sell hot donuts and fried chicken, all on the same plate, with the most exquisite deep green pickles. The place is called Federal Donuts and, along with the fried chicken and donuts, you can also get real coffee, a custom blend, made the classic drip method and poured into glass science-lab vessels from a fair trade roaster in Kansas.
The donut recipe comes from sous-chef Zach Engel, who spent a long time testing it, to get just the right taste. They’re cake batter donuts (not yeast donuts) so they’re denser. Less airy, but no less delicious. He developed the donut recipe to taste great by itself, unadorned, and it is—but personally I like it better with the sweet stuff on it.
There are 9 donuts in all, 6 fancies… that are either glazed or have toppings, and 3 fried ones made fresh to order. The 3 hot ones are your classic sugared donuts, Appollonia, Indian Cinnamon, and Vanilla Lavander. (What’s Appollonia? Turns out it’s a spice blend of bitter cocoa powder and dried orange blossoms from La Boite a Epice.) The glazes and toppings on the fancies change often; on the day I was there, the offerings were Choc-Banana, Pina Colada, Raspberry-Balsamic, Grape-fruit-Brown Sugar, Halva-Pistachio and S’mores. The Choc-Banana had sold out in an hour and half and the most popular ones that day were S’mores, and the Halva-Pistachio. The “fancies” donuts are made fresh in the morning. They can make anywhere between 250 to 1000 in a day. But once they’re sold out, they’re out.
The fried chicken was created by chef/owner Michael Solomonov, (one of the 5 owners), who was inspired when he fell in love with the Korean Fried Chicken at Cafe Soho in Cheltenham. They’re twice fried (in the Korean method) in a cornflour batter, making for a supremely crunchy crust. The chicken is juicy and well-seasoned with something they cheekily call “OMG”, (Onion, Mustard, Garlic). There’s a choice of 2 dry seasonings in shakers you can cover your chicken with: Harissa and Za’atar (a middle eastern seasoning inspired by the other restaurant Mike, and Steven Cook own—Zahav). There are 2 wet glazes that can be smothered on the chicken: Chile-Garlic (a traditional Korean Fried Chicken glaze) and Honey-Ginger. The chicken is served with hot donuts and Asian-style pickles that aren’t made in house but are nonetheless amazing. They are deep emerald green in a brine of Japanese rice vinegar, ginger, sesame and seaweed. Sweet, salty, acidic and perfect with the crispy richness of the fried chicken.
FEDERAL DONUTS FRIED CHICKEN, with SAUCE
Recipe courtesy of Chef Michael Solomonov
1 whole chicken, cut into 8 bone-in pieces (two thighs, two drumsticks, each breast cut in half)
2 cups cornstarch
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup water
1 tbsp. kosher salt plus additional
Vegetable oil for frying
The night before cooking the chicken, liberally season the pieces with kosher salt and arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate overnight, loosely covered with parchment paper.
Heat vegetable oil for frying to 300 degrees. Mix together the cornstarch, flour and 1 tbsp. salt and whisk in the water to make a thin batter. Dip the chicken pieces in the batter and fry for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken to a drain rack and increase the oil temperature to 350 degrees. Fry the chicken for an additional 5 minutes and drain well.
Serve as is or coat liberally in sauce.
1/4 cup garlic and chili sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup kecap manis (an Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce)
3 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1219 S.2nd Street,
JASON VARNEY is a food & travel photographer that grew up in the woods, but now calls The City of Brotherly Love home. When he’s not taming his Welsh Terrier pup, Jase appreciates stiff drinks & long exposures. He is based in New York, and Philadelphia. Check out his work here. And his blog here.
(Text and Art Direction; Dimity Jones)