The first time I posted about chicken was in my May 20th, 2016 blog on Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Pasadena. A later post covered another mecca for chicken lovers: Le Coq Roti, near Montmartre in Paris (there’s also a branch in NYC). Truth be told, I really love chicken – roasted, rotisserie, grilled, barbequed…even poached.
But nothing compares to FRIED CHICKEN. Maybe it’s because, growing up in central Illinois in the years following the Depression, chicken was a fixture on our dinner table – affordable, plentiful and, the way my mom prepared it, delicious. And the leftovers were just as good, eaten cold on Sunday afternoon picnics, accompanied by potato salad loaded with sweet, smooth Miracle Whip.
Back then, we didn’t think about chicken in “farm to table” terms. All I knew was fork-to-mouth, and the more the better.
Fast forward to my college courtship with Joanne. She invited me home for spring break, and I vividly remember her mother awakening me to her simple and delicious rendition of fried chicken. Lillie was a farm lady living in southern, Illinois. No grocery store-bought birds for her. She just picked and plucked the unlucky creature out in the barnyard; cut it up; dredged the pieces in flour, salt and pepper; amped-up her Sunbeam Electric Skillet to HIGH; loaded it with lard (no Canola); and away she went. I had never, ever tasted fried chicken like that.
(I remember thinking, My mom has to UP HER GAME.)
Since that epiphany, I’ve had the good fortune of sampling fried chicken from coast to coast. And all I can say is, “The worst I’ve had was delicious.”
I have some favorites in addition to Roscoe’s, among them YARDBIRD’S chicken and waffles, which rivals Roscoe’s and sports little chunks of watermelon alongside. Not to be missed are its little Fried Chicken Breast Drop Biscuit Sliders, and its MAC & CHEESE.
A great place that I’ve never been to, but have heard nothing but good things about is PANNIE-GEORGE’S in Auburn, Alabama, near the university. It’s sort of cafeteria-style and celebrates its Deep South roots with the side dishes like black-eyed peas, deep-fried okra, white rice & gravy…
A place that Joanne and I have been to on numerous occasions is ZEHNDER’S in Frankenmuth, Michigan. What the hell were we doing in Frankenmuth, Michigan, you might ask. Well, we had the “pleasure” of living for a few months in Flint, Michigan, the home of Michael Moore, Buick, and famous tap water while opening a FIGLIO restaurant there. (Don’t even ask!)
At any rate, we needed to escape that wretched city, so on weekends we’d motor up to Frankenmuth for Sunday Brunch at Zehnder’s, which is reported to be the largest family-owned restaurant in the United States – with 1,400 seats, as I recall. The most impressive thing about Zehnder’s, however, was the brunch itself – a massive, all-you-can-eat affair that included all the fixin’s, plus dessert, for $21.95 at last report. The star of the show here? You guessed it: Superbly fried chicken, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, perfectly complemented by my favorite Zehender’s side dish: buttered noodles. So simple, and so good.
Rounding out the list is ROOT AND BONE, located in New York City’s once dangerous Alphabet blocks on the lower East Side. Two chefs from Yardbird in Miami provide the pedigree here. ROOT AND BONE isn’t a Deep South “dive-y” joint – far from it. Their fried chicken is sweet tea-brined, “lemon-dusted,” and comes with Honey Tabasco Sauce. Miniature Buckwheat Cheddar Waffles and Whiskey Maple Syrup are clever adds, and taste really good. A side dish with a nod to the South is the Grits with Pimento Cheese and Chives. There’s also a giant nod to France: Macarons that rival those of Ladurée in Paris.
To be sure, great fried chicken joints abound in America. Shucks, even KFC is great! But one place just might stand above them all: STROUD’S in Kansas City. I’m reminded of it because our son Steven and friend Tim dined there recently on a road trip from Minneapolis to Miami. Now, I haven’t been there in years, but from their reports, it appears that absolutely nothing has changed except its location. We remember it as a charming “tumble-down” joint at 85th and Troost. Now it has multiple locations, including one in Omaha.
Back in the day, Joanne and I spent several weeks in Kansas City, building yet another Figlio in the Plaza development (this one lasted quite a bit longer than the one in Flint). At least once a week we ate at Stroud’s.
What’s the big deal about this place? It’s REAL. It’s eccentric. It’s impervious to time. And its chicken rivals Joanne’s mother’s. Instead of using a Sunbeam electric skillet, however, they fry in giant Lodge cast iron skillets – 8 or 10 lined up in a row, each large enough to fry 16 pieces of chicken at once (Each piece, by the way, gets turned only once). I don’t know where they source their chickens, but I can tell you, they are big, fat, juicy birds.
Something else I can’t tell you: what precisely Stroud’s means when they say, “We Choke Our Own Chickens.” Emblazoned on servers’ t-shirts, the menus and the walls, it’s a great line – intriguing, but at the same time telling you more than you want to know.
As you sit down, you’re greeted with a plastic basket of cellophane-wrapped crackers of various stripes. Dinners come with a nice House Salad with grated cheese and crispy croutons. There’s a good house-made Chicken Noodle Soup, too.
But why waste your time with those when you could be sharing a platter of Deep Fried Chicken Livers – or, better yet, a platter of Deep Fried Gizzards? Can’t make up your mind? Stroud’s will do a combo.
All the meats are decent here, including the Chicken Fried Steak with Pepper Gravy. But that’s not why you’ve come to Stroud’s.
I’ve since learned – but was not surprised – that Stroud’s is a James Beard Award winner…in the “Homestyle” category. Also, Zagat gives them a 4.6 rating – that’s really high. And to quote Zagat, Stroud’s is “fit for a king…affordable for a family.” (A full chicken dinner runs you $17.95). On top of that, Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food Fame say “Stroud’s makes the most delicious fried chicken in America.”
One other thing I love about Stroud’s: There’s no dessert menu here – because all dinners conclude with a basket of homemade, sticky, gooey, unbelievably heavy CINNAMON ROLLS! What restaurant today would do this? What diner would even want a dessert like that after polishing off a family platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a mess of gravy, salad, and a big bowl of bacon-laden green beans. It makes no sense whatsoever – from a cost standpoint, from a health standpoint, from a 21st century eating trends standpoint. But that’s part of the beauty of this time capsule of a restaurant.
If you ever have the chance, eat at STROUD’S. And bring the family. It’ll be a particular treat for your teenage boys, who know a thing or two about choking chickens.