Vladimir Koleshikov/Contributing Photographer

A cornerstone in most soul-food kitchens, fried chicken has been a long-time staple of Southern cuisine in the United States. Yet, until recently, there’s been a surprisingly small presence of proper fried chicken in Binghamton. Sure, chicken tenders are chicken and fried, but to really be “fried chicken,” the dish demands special attention. This week, Pipe Dream set out to taste the fried chicken of Binghamton and find the spot with the tastiest food, the best value and the most soul.

Although it could be argued that Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) doesn’t actually count as true fried chicken, people still consider it a “good” option. With a location on Vestal Parkway, KFC is conveniently located for on-campus students and commuters alike. Manipulated by marketing, people have been fed the idea that the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices actually tastes good. The food isn’t inedible, but if you’ve ever had good fried chicken, you’ll never want to bite into another greasy piece of this stringy, corporate chicken ever again. The biscuits are satisfactory, but that’s because the taste of butter is a simple palate pleaser.

Next up the corporate ladder is the area’s newest establishment. How Binghamton has made it so long without a Popeyes is a mystery, but one finally opened on Main Street this past December. While Popeyes would also be considered corporate, this chicken is flavorful and juicy. Though at times over-battered, the crispy and flavorful skin complements the perfectly cooked, plump white meat you’ll find underneath. The flavors aren’t overly complex, which makes the chicken easy to enjoy. Popeyes is “Louisiana Fast” and, unlike its competitor from Kentucky, doesn’t rely on gimmicks to convince you that its chicken is tasty.

Also located on Main Street — across the street from the new Popeyes — is a small spot called Kennedy Fried Chicken. The food is prepared in the back and all transactions have to go through a little tunnel built into a glass window. The biscuit in this meal felt like an affront — never market “buns” as “biscuits” — and it was obviously an afterthought. Still, the chicken spoke for itself. Although you can tell that the chicken wasn’t fresh, the skin was still crispy, warm and one could detect some delightful cajun influences in the spice blend. While the chicken definitely competes with Popeyes in flavor and price, the experience as a whole had an unsettling air of panic and desperation.

What was lacking in all of the establishments mentioned thus far, however, was the one thing that makes fried chicken so special: soul. Muffer’s Kitchen on Glenwood Avenue — which opened last October — is, without a doubt, the best fried chicken you’re going to find in the area. The service is warm and friendly, the prices are reasonable and the food is salivating. This is fried chicken.

When the chicken at Muffer’s is served, you can still hear it sizzling. It comes as one whole leg as opposed to being cut into sections, making it a little tricky to eat. However, once you get over being polite and start ripping it apart with your hands, it’s easy to see why they don’t split it up. By keeping the piece whole, Muffer’s is preventing the chicken from becoming too greasy and over-fried. The breading on the chicken is modest, allowing the skin to crisp up and retreat from the meat.

The available sides range from soul-food favorites like candied yams and collard greens to more conventional dishes like mac and cheese and french fries, and they’re all equally delicious. For $10, you get a huge piece of fried chicken, two generous sides and a biscuit. Chicken aside, the biscuit was easily the best part of the meal. Spongey, moist and aromatic, it’s a sizable square of cornbread that is found sitting at the bottom of the dish, soaking up all the butter and flavors from the dripping chicken.

It was an enjoyable, albeit alarmingly unhealthy, journey through Binghamton’s world of fried chicken. With the opening of several new establishments, the area is now home to a variety of suitable food spots that aren’t KFC, with places like Muffer’s that remind eaters that fried chicken isn’t just about eating greasy, artery-clogging food. It’s about taking part in a slice of soulful, Southern culture.