Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: Federal Donuts

I've been reading a lot of buzz on Twitter and food blogs about the awesome donuts at Federal Donuts in the Pennsport (near Queens Village) area of Philadelphia. Then I learned that they added fried chicken, and the chicken was selling out every day. Then, on weekends, they added a second round of fried chicken (the first comes at noon, the second at five PM). When I had a free weekend to meet a friend in Philly, we decided it was time to see what all the commotion was about.

Click any pic to enlarge
We decided to meet at 11:30, sit and eat a few donuts, then order the chicken at noon when it became available. I arrived first and found this tiny space on 2nd Street had a few fold-out counter stools, but no real seating capacity. The small waiting area filled rapidly. I ordered a coffee (it was pretty ordinary Joe, even though you can buy their own "Federal" blend of ground coffee to take home) and asked the staff about what strategy I needed in order to secure some donuts and chicken. I was told that they had plenty of chicken, and would begin handing out chicken reservation/ordering sequence cards around 11:45. The help was especially friendly, and the mood in the place was buzzy excitement from all the urban hipsters. The rookies there (me included) were nervous - would we get our chicken allotment? Where would we eat it?

I drank my coffee and surveyed the offerings. They had three varieties of hot donuts for $1.25 each and many more "fancy" varieties for $2.00 each. All the donuts are the heavier "cake" variety (not the fluffier yeast types) and are fried in the typical lifesaver shape. The fried chicken came in orders of a half or whole chicken, with your choice of two dry seasonings -- Za'atar (sumac-based Moroccan spice) or Harissa (Tunisian hot chili spice) or two different glazed seasonings -- Chile/Garlic or Honey/Ginger.

Grapefruit-brown sugar donut
Donut varieties included Halva/Pistachio, Balsamic/Raspberry, Grapefruit/Brown Sugar, S'Mores, Caramel Banana, and Pina Colada. They all looked awesome.

When the big moment arrived, we got two full orders of chicken - one Za'atar, one Honey/Ginger. I got two donuts -- one halva/pistachio, and one grapefruit/brown sugar. I prefer yeast donuts or filled donuts; I find cake donuts to be the least appealing type. These were both dense and light, they crumbled easily, and they were perfectly fresh. I enjoyed the halva/pistachio donut, but I was not wowed. This was not due to any fault in its execution; I'm just not mad for cake style donuts. The grapefruit/brown sugar one was explosive in the flavor, and I liked the sugar glaze on it.

Halva-pistachio donut
For me, the big draw was the chicken. Not too long ago, I enjoyed astounding fried chicken at the legendary Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans. I was hoping this might measure up. (By the way, our best seating option was our car, parked nearby. Get plenty of napkins!) The chicken was indeed outstanding. The sumac spice was subtle, the color of the fried exterior was a rich golden brown, and the inner meat was tender and juicy. I had expected the glazed type to be slick/greasy like buffalo wings, but they must glaze it before frying, because it was not sticky at all. It was likewise excellent, but also subtly flavored.

Glazed honey-ginger chicken
Za'atar sumac seasoned chicken
If this was in my neighborhood, I'd go back enough to try every variety of donut and chicken. The friendly staff and modest prices add appeal.

Federal Donuts on Urbanspoon

But it's not quite magical enough for me to make another sojourn into the city for it. The donuts are as good as you will find if you like the cake type, and I was impressed with the varieties of toppings for them. The chicken was terrific, but not jaw-dropping. You need to try it once; the atmosphere and buzz alone are a big part of it. Although the demeanor of the crowd is very different, this place has one thing in common with Pat's and Geno's cheesesteaks, on nearby Passyunk Avenue. Both destinations feature the lines, the crowd, the buzz that somehow elevates the eating experience. There are MUCH better cheesesteaks in Philly, but no better cheesesteak scene. There may not be better donuts or fried chicken, but the vibe lifts Federal well above the merits of its very fine fare.

1 comment:

  1. "You need to try it once" is the best summary of your review and the place, IMO, Pieman. It is an experience. The donuts are good and the "Korean" fried chicken OK, but a very small portion for the price. Weird combo, too. My Dumbo and I went there in January. As you say, the crowd is part of the experience, and the hype. Doubt I'd ever bother going back, especially to eat in the car. (We got a seat at the counter).

    As you say, not Willie Mae's...or Dooky Chase whose chicken I think is better than Willie Mae's. There is a similarity between Federal and Willie Mae's: both brine their chicken in an incredibly salty mix.

    Keep up the good work, though this one seems off the beaten pie trail.