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Kroger vs. Publix: Which Has the Best Fried Chicken?

Publix’s eight-piece mixed box needs no introduction, but how will it fare against the Kroger newcomer?

Kroger and Publix are the largest grocery store chains in the South, and both have legions of loyal fans at hundreds of regional locations. Both companies feature a wide variety of inventory—brand names and store brands—but one particular item has long been a key differentiating factor between the chains: deli fried chicken.

Shoppers write odes to Publix's eight-piece mixed box, arguing whether it's best served hot from the deli case or chilled for a picnic the next day. Showing up for an invitation for a day aboard a buddy's boat without chicken to share is likely to get you pitched overboard.

Traditionally, the fried chicken from Kroger has not engendered the same sort of loyalty or ardor. People don't talk about it that much unless it's to say, "Why the heck can't Kroger just steal one Publix employee to teach them all how to fry a decent chicken thigh?!" (OK, the person saying that was me, and I ask it frequently, and so I recused myself from judging in this competition.)

However, Kroger aims to challenge Publix's poultry primacy. As Eat This, Not That! reported in January, the Cincinnati-based grocery chain has tried to upgrade many items in its bakery and deli departments, including the lackluster fried chicken. Kroger's new and improved Home Chef-brand fried chicken comes packaged in an attractive light blue box in contrast to Publix's bold black container. The product promises to be "double breaded and hand-dipped, featuring 18 different spices."

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In the face of Kroger's bold and obvious shot across Publix's bow, it was time to compare these two iconic grocery's deli fried chicken in a direct taste-test comparison. Owing to my clear Publix bias, I decided to convene a tasting panel of three James Beard-nominated chefs with plenty of fried chicken experience to try them and pick a winner.

Vivek Surti is the chef-owner of Tailor in Nashville, where he earned a 2020 Beard semifinalist nod for "Best Chef: Southeast" for his modern take on Indian cuisine as a first-generation American of Indian descent. Nashvillians still fondly remember his fried chicken pop-ups, where he served his version of Indian fried chicken dredged in starches and flour with garlic, ginger, and spicy Thai bird pepper sauce. Surti also hosted the tasting in his restaurant and provided the Champagne because "chicken and champers" is a beloved tradition in these parts.

The second judge was Arnold Myint, currently nominated for "Best Chef: Southeast" by the James Beard Foundation for his work at his second-generation family Thai restaurant International Market in Nashville. One of the signature dishes at International Market is Hatyai Thai fried chicken, a shatteringly crispy half bird marinated with Thai garlic and served with cilantro sticky rice, cucumber salad, and nam jim jaew (Thai chili) dipping sauce.

Julio Hernandez completed the auspicious trio of judges. A Beard semifinalist as "Emerging Chef," Hernandez specializes in heirloom Mexican corn, which he nixtamalizes and grinds in-house to create the masa that is the backbone of his delicious dishes at Maiz de la Vida. The chef has a history of decimating the poultry population of Middle Tennessee, frying chickens for hungry diners at various country clubs around town.

The Method

three chefs eating fried chicken at a table.
Photo: Chris Chamberlain, Eat This, Not That!

Before the official tasting began, I asked each chef to describe his platonic ideal of fried chicken. Surti described a bird that was hot and crispy and definitely served on the bone. He demands juicy meat seasoned well and spicy enough to draw attention. Myint concurred that flavor and texture are equally crucial in his experience. He expects spice to be infused with a marinade or brine, and the skin should be crispy with the dredge sticking after frying. Hernandez prefers lighter breading but still has a nice crunch on the bite.

This was not a blind taste test for a few reasons. First, these three testers are so familiar with Publix chicken that there was little chance of keeping its identity a secret. Secondly, despite my best efforts to procure the two samples as close to simultaneously as possible, Kroger is still rolling out the new Home Chef Fried Chicken program, and I had to visit three different stores to find it, finally ending up at the smaller store a block from my house. (Go figure.) Finally, Kroger is currently only presenting their new chicken cold, a popular tradition in the South, so I let the tasters get started on the Publix while we warmed the Kroger box up in the oven.

Each chef rated samples of thighs and drumsticks (all agreed that white meat is hogwash) on a scale from one to 10 and offered subjective comments throughout the tasting. Here's what we found out:

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publix fried chicken on a tray.
Photo: Chris Chamberlain, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Thigh):
Calories: 350
Fat: 21 g (Saturated Fat: 6 g)
Sodium: 710 mg
Carbs: 4 g (Fiber: 0 g)
Protein: 40 g

An eight-piece mixed box from Publix cost $10.99.

The look: Hernandez thought that the Publix samples showed a beautiful color with light breading that was missing in some spots, but that exposed the crispy skin he was looking for. Surti noted the smaller drumsticks but also that they still looked crispy and crunchy and "always golden." Myint appreciated the consistency of Publix chicken, "Something I can speak to because I eat it all the time!"

The taste: Both Surti and Hernandez noted that the Publix chicken was slightly dry, but the light breading and crispy skin saved the day. On the first bite, all three chefs were pleased. "I like this chicken," gushed Hernandez. "It's crispy, and the black pepper in the seasoning gives it a kick!"

There was unanimous agreement that the salt and pepper was aggressive but not excessive. "It's clear that someone took the time with the brine or marinade to get the flavor all the way through to the bone," noted Myint, "and it's still crispy even when it's right out of the fridge. I wonder what chemical do they add to keep it that way?"

Surti summed up his fandom for Publix, saying, "It's just easily accessible and not too expensive. It's almost cheaper than buying raw chicken."

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kroger fried chicken on a tray.
Photo: Chris Chamberlain, Eat This, Not That!

Nutrition: (Per Thigh):
Calories: 210
Fat: 15 g (Saturated Fat: 4 g)
Sodium: 620 mg
Carbs: 0 g (Fiber: 0 g)
Protein: 18 g

An eight-piece mixed box of Kroger's new Home Chef chicken cost slightly less than its rival at $8.99.

The look: None of the assembled panel had ever tried Kroger's new version of deli fried chicken before. Hernandez admitted, "I never need to buy fried chicken from Publix, but I always do. Today will be my first time trying Kroger fried chicken."

All three were immediately impressed by the look of Kroger's new bird. "That's pretty!" said Myint. "Maybe there's a little paprika in the dredge to give it that nice reddish tint." Both Hernandez and Surti noticed that the individual pieces looked bigger than the Publix offering. Surti surmised, "I bet this looks great in the deli case. If I see this, I'm thinking, 'Hell yeah!' and diving in."

The taste: The excitement for the new competitor quickly faded, though. The chefs all noticed a strong aroma of celery salt in the breading and evidence of pickle brine, the secret weapon of many fried chicken purveyors, most notably at Chick-fil-A. "I like that it's crispy and craggy," shared Surti, "and it's definitely more herby but underseasoned. All you see is spots of seasoning on top, but nothing has any taste. You can definitely taste the pickle brine, but the seasoning just isn't as deep."

Myint agreed. "This needs help. I'd definitely be grabbing for some sauces if I brought this home. I bet it tastes great on paper." The chef complimented the cooking, saying, "This one is dialed-in. Somebody well-trained cooked this chicken."

Hernandez offered a possible reason for the lack of seasoning. "In my neighborhood, all the younger folks show at Publix, and the older crowd goes to Kroger, so you gotta keep it lighter on the salt. But this tastes like no salt at all."

Another factor the chefs noticed was a doughy taste of uncooked flour in the dredge. "Where's the crunch?" asked Myint. "The skin feels a little doughy, more like Shake-n-Bake," referencing the once-popular chicken kitchen shortcut.

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The Verdict

fried chicken boxes.
Photo: Chris Chamberlain, Design: Jené Sena, Eat This, Not That!

In the end, the reigning champion retained the deli fried chicken crown from these three chefs. While all of them rated Kroger superior in appearance, with an average score of 9/10 vs. 8/10 for Publix, the all-important taste score leaned heavily in Publix's favor. Publix scored an average of 8.5 on taste while Kroger lagged behind with scores between 5 and 6.

Hernandez summed up the results succinctly, admitting, "I left a lot of meat on the bone from the Kroger drumstick, and I'm still eyeballing that last leftover piece of Publix!"

Chris Chamberlain
Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, wine, spirits, travel and personal interest writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Read more about Chris