If you ever wondered where all the fried chicken restaurants have gone, wonder no more. Fried chicken with a twist has returned in the form of the Great American Chicken Company at the corner of 8th Street and Ocean Avenue in Ocean City.

Chris Pirone, 43, is the owner and chef, along with his wife Christine, 43, who helps out on the weekends. The New Jersey natives and high school sweethearts returned to Ocean City from Arizona three years ago when Christine's dad became ill. After 21 years in Peoria, Ariz., the Pirones franchised their fledgling fried chicken business and planned to start anew on the East Coast with the concept they had babied for years. The Great American Chicken Company is the concept they developed on their own, with a menu featuring skinless chicken, breaded and fried with their own special technique.

"Owning your own business is a great experience," Pirone says. "You just know when a concept is right."

While attending culinary school, years ago, Pirone quickly realized two things. First, chefs work a lot of hours. Second, his interest in culinary was in fast food, something he says he still loves. So much for culinary school.

What's so special about Pirone's fried chicken? His chicken is skinned and breaded twice daily to offer the freshest possible product to his customers. The chicken has never been frozen. It is lower in fat and cholesterol because the skin is removed before breading. His breading procedure has been trademarked, putting a coating on the chicken that allows him to cook the chicken at a lower temperature in neutral canola oil, low in trans fat and gluten-free. His chicken is not made in a pressure cooker, which forces fat into the product. His chicken cooks in its own juices with a breading that can be ordered as regular or with a lightly spicy Cajun seasoning.

"Our big seller is the fried chicken, of course," something Pirone is proud of, because he cooks it right.

Chicken accounts for about 85 percent of his menu, and the rest is mostly seafood.

The menu has been geared to a family of four or five who can order the 16-piece chicken dinner for $28.99, which includes two large sides and six buttermilk biscuits. Not many restaurants can match the value. A minimal staff also saves the customer money; once the customer orders and pays at the counter, the staff takes over. The staff delivers the food to the table, they check up on the customers, refill drinks and clean up when they are done.

The menu at the Great American Chicken Company is reminiscent of Jersey shore restaurants of the past, with a few new touches. Appetizer choices include portions of french fries or onion rings, along with another Pirone creation, deep fried pickle chips ($3.99 for small, $6.29 large). The Great American Combo at $12.99 allows the customer to sample all three appetizers served with appropriate sauces. Along with chicken dinners and combo meals, the menu is heavy on seafood with fried flounder, two pieces for $4.99, four pieces for $8.29 and eight pieces for $15.99; fried clam strips ($4.99 small, $6.99 for large); baby scallops ($5.99 small, $9.99 large); and butterfly shrimp (six pieces for $6.29 and 12 pieces for $11.99).

Side dishes include homemade cole slaw, smashed potatoes, BBQ baked beans and buttermilk biscuits. Unlike the restaurants of old, The Great American Chicken Company also offers a selection of wraps that can be stuffed with varied ingredients like a grilled chicken Caesar ($5.99), Buffalo chicken fingers ($5.99), shrimp Po' boy ($6.49), clam strip Po' boy ($6.29), fried flounder and slaw ($6.49), and a Teriyaki grilled chicken ($5.99). Chicken salads can be ordered with a choice of grilled or crispy chicken over a house salad or a Caesar salad for $6.79 each.

The menu also lays claim to being the "home of the deep fried pickle." Started many years ago and now an old Louisiana tradition, dill pickle spears were batter-dipped and breaded, then dropped into the deep fryer to crisp. Pirone has refined the dish using pickle chips instead of spears.

"It's the right balance between dill pickle and breading served with a housemade Dijonnaise sauce that people love," Pirone says.

The Philly cheesesteaks are made from top-quality ribeye steak - the same cut of beef used by the big three names in Philadelphia steak sandwiches - and Liscio's bread, served "wit'" or "wit' out" onions, Whiz, or American cheese, at a good price for a big sandwich.

Malibu chicken has lettuce, tomato, teriyaki sauce, honey-cured ham, American cheese, and a slice of fresh pineapple. Chicken wings are the jumbo wings, larger than you'll find at other restaurants. All the ingredients are top quality.

"If I won't eat it, I'm not going to serve it to one of my guests," Pirone says.

His concept must be working, already well accepted by locals and weekend visitors alike. Pirone plans on staying local with a dream of franchising one Great American Chicken Restaurant each year for the next five years, from Ocean City to Wildwood.

"Every small business starts with one, but you've got to make that one perfect," Pirone says.

After that, the sky's the limit.

"I enjoy coming to work every day and making sure the customers enjoy what they are eating," says Pirone, knowing that with great customer service and a quality product going for him his chicken and his business are both looking at a healthier future.

Specials

All-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry includes unlimited panko-crusted flounder, french fries, homemade cole slaw and a beverage for only $7.99 per person. (Dine in only, no doggie bags). Served 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 25, it will be the last night the fish fry will run this season. Daily specials include pulled pork on Wednesdays and Thursdays.