BY JOEY SWEENEY
Upon crossing the threshold of the Lukoil located at Delaware and Spring Garden, you will notice, to your right, a security guard in the most up-to-date Kevlar finery. Ostensibly, he is here for your protection, but really, his presence is a remnant of the days when this gas station was dubbed “Club Lukoil” due to its proximity to many neighboring nightclubs; often, this very same gas station would serve as an unwilling afterparty locale. Some nights, it still does, but nightclubs in general are not what they used to be, and so neither is Club Lukoil.
Past the security guard, the convenience store portion of Club Lukoil reveals itself as a tightly packed retail space; to your right, you’ll see all the sodas, chips and other stuff that is the usual fare. At some point, there was a glass case somewhere in there where an array of hookahs, bongs and pipes were on offer, but who knows if it’s still there. Because to your left, a large amount of Club Lukoil’s retail square footage — and a good amount of attention on behalf of locals — has been dedicated to a tiny Krispy Krunchy Chicken franchise, which has quickly gained a reputation as the very finest “gas station chicken” in the city.
To be fair, there isn’t a lot of competition. For a city that’s closer to the Mason-Dixon line than we ever seem to acknowledge, Philadelphia’s fried chicken availability is somehow not what it should be. And even when it does appear, it plays to a kind of high and low that mirrors the growing economic divide between the city’s inhabitants themselves.
On the “high” side, there’s the ever-expanding Federal Donuts franchise, of course, which has played to a more upmarket style of fried chicken — let’s call it the cronutization of fried chicken, where there are different flavors on offer, where you’re almost expected to Instagram your order, where the donuts have their own press releases. That’s not a slight so much as a differentiation point in marketing strategy — like all fried chicken, it’s pretty fucking good fried chicken. On the other side, there are numerous Crown Fried Chicken franchises dotted around the city, some of which are regarded better than others. Beyond that, there’s the odd restaurant that has their hand in the game, with varying results. Catch the fried chicken from Steven Starr’s Jones on a good day, for instance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised; but even Starr knows better than to hang his hat on the dish, for fried chicken is a mistress that requires singlemindedness. Do me right, says fried chicken, and you’ll never need to do anything else. Do me wrong, she warns, and you might as well not anything at all.
It turns out, this is dead on. At Club Lukoil, the fried chicken on offer is part of a Krispy Krunchy Chicken franchise, and it is as simple as can be — fried chicken, and a few sides. Krispy Krunchy would seem to be going after a franchise model (and menu) much like Crown’s; indeed, check out their website, and you can almost hear them nipping at Crown’s heels. And if the “gas station chicken” at Club Lukoil is anything to go by, Crown should be very worried indeed, because this fried chicken is better than it has any right to be.
To be sure, the setup doesn’t look promising. Over near where the dirty roller hot dogs are, there’s the Krispy Krunchy counter, behind which are two fryers and a griddle. On the counter, there’s chicken, biscuits and sides, ready to go, under heat lamps. You place your order, you get a ticket which is then rung up at the register where you buy your gas, and you wait until your order is called. None of it seems like it should be appetizing: The heat lamps look nuclear, the fluorescent light makes everything look kind of dirty, and let us not forget, you are in Club Lukoil, where the idea of eating seems as ill-advised as, say, a VIP section. But I swear to you — in the car, on the way home from the gig, I sat in my boy Jared’s car and ripped into one of the finest, crunchiest (krunchiest), tender-est tenders I’ve ever had in my life. I was not stoned. I was not drunk. I was just eating fried chicken, and it was so fine.
And I know I’m not alone. Over recent months, “gas station chicken” has become a rumor for many, and a reward for those brave enough to get up on it. And in a moment where Philly’s food scene has become both oh-so-precious and oh-so-bougie, there’s something pretty great about the sheer fact that one of the most talked-about dishes in town is slung from a place that has no reclaimed wood, no cocktail program, no antique-style lightbulbs. Instead, it’s just a place with tons of Powerade, condoms, and someone’s lonely franchise dream. In the middle of the night, or on a lazy afternoon, you know what? That’s enough. That’s plenty.