For this week's roundup, we asked our friends Jane and Michael Stern over at Roadfood.com to name some of their fried-chicken picks. And the chicken at these joints comes with a heaping side order of charm.
AL'S CHICKENETTE | 700 Vine Street, Hays KS 67601 [map]. 785-625-7414
Al's Chickenette has been in business a very considerable period of time and there is a good reason for this. And the name of this place says it quite well.
As you can see from the photo the outside doesn't look like much. I believe the building started as officer's quarters at a defunct World War II army air base about 20 miles away before it was moved to Hays and converted to its true calling. But the restaurant tells its own story quite well and it's reproduced here, with permission from the management, along with the rest of its promotional leaflet including the menu. (This is free publicity, after all.)
And it is deserved Roadfood publicity. Now reasonable Road Fooders may disagree on whether one restaurant's fried chicken is "better" than anothers. They will nearly all agree, I think, that the chicken prepared here is distinctive, and it is good. Also the thin cut french fries.
The food is cooked to order and comes to the table hot. Before you dig into it, though, notice that squeeze bottle of honey on the table. It's there for a reason. Take it and squeeze a generous bead over the fries and each piece of chicken. (Leave the ketchup off the fries, at least until you've sampled it this way.) Now, bite into that first piece of chicken, along with a forkfull of fries. You'll savor the thin, crispy, crunchy, slightly salty, mildly spicy crust of the chicken overlaid with the contrasting sweetness of the honey as steam curls up from where it came from. The honey also nicely contrasts with the crust of the fries surrounding the soft, potato-ey interior. You may also notice that the crustyness holds up even as you swallow, continuing its textural treat even on the way down.
If you have the tossed salad with your meal you might try it with the Dorothy Lynch dressing, a regional commercial product which is quite tasty.
As noted in the menu, tea and coffee are complimentary. Other drinks are extra. I always have the ice tea, and lots of it.
I was introduced to Al's as a child when I lived in the area. Even though I've moved away my family tries to have at least a meal here every time we return for a visit.
So if you're passing by Hays, Kansas, on Interstate 70 during the hours Al's is open, take the U.S. 183/Vine St. exit south, going nearly all the way through town almost to the south edge. It will be worth the small detour from your trip. Originally reviewed by Wendler on Roadfood.com
It is fried in a heavy iron skillet and arrives at the table a shade of gold that is breathtakingly beautiful. Each piece is audibly crusty, but not the least bit bready; there is just enough of an envelope of crust to shore in all the chicken juices. The crust itself is thin, brittle, and as flavor-packed as bacon, but in this case, with essence of chicken and spice. Once you crunch through it, juices flow down your chin and fingers and forearm: you are an unsightly mess, but you don't care because the juices are ambrosia.
The mashed potatoes are fluffy-textured, with an intense flavor of pure potato. As you fork up big mouthfuls of these spuds you learn new respect for real mashed potatoes and new intolerance for bogus ones. The only way these lovelies can be improved is if you ladle some of Stroud's gravy on them. It is zesty, pan-dripping gravy, redolent of chicken and powerfully peppered.
At the risk of sounding hysterical, we must tell you that the cinnamon rolls that accompany this meal are fantastic, too. Tasting more of yeast and cinnamon than sugar, they are big, swirly things with only the faintest hint of caramelized cinnamon butter around the base.
[NOTE: This paragraph describes the original Stroud's on 85th Street, which is now obsolete, but we're going to leave it here, for nostalgia's sake.] As is true of many of the world's great restaurants, Stroud's ambience perfectly complements the food. It is a wood-floored roadhouse that was at the edge of the city when Mrs. Stroud opened it in 1933 (but is now on a busy road where parking is a problem). There are bright yellow curtains on the windows and red-checked cloths on the tables. Souvenir t-shirts, when available, are emblazoned with the Stroud’s motto: We choke our own chickens. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
MR. D's | 1435 South Green Street, Henderson KY 42420 [map]. 270-826-2505
A fiberglass chicken about as tall as a grizzly bear stands outside of Mr. D's beckoning customers to drive in. While Mr. D's is a full-menu drive-in with a repertoire of hamburgers, hot dogs and sandwiches, chicken rules. It is fried chicken made from a recipe popularized decades ago by a legendary chicken man named Colonel Jim, and like the stupendously good chicken at the nearby Bon Ton Mini Mart, it has a wickedly crunchy crust that is spicy enough to make your eyes water.
Because Mr. D's is a quick-service drive-in with car-service only, the chicken you order will be delivered to your window in five minutes or less, meaning that the kitchen cooks it ahead of time rather than to order. This is good if you are really, really hungry, but not so good if you are a crisp-skin connoisseur, for the time the chicken lolls around between coming out of the deep fryer and arriving at your car allows the crust to loose some of its snap. Make no mistake: this is four-star fried chicken, and puts just about any non-Kentucky fried chicken to shame. But the next time we order some, we are going to do as Henderson tipster Louis Hatchett advises, request that the kitchen cook it to order. If that twenty-minute wait means crust that cracks when bitten, we'll happily endure it. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
GRAY BROTHERS CAFETERIA | 555 South Indiana Street, Mooresville IN 46158 [map]. 317-831-5614
The deep South still has many wonderful cafeterias, but this style of you-point-they-serve food service is rare in the North, where sloppy pile-your-own-plate buffets are more the rule. One great exception to that pattern is Indianapolis. Home of America’s earliest cafeteria (in 1888), the Circle City still has a handful of top-notch cafeteria restaurants where every day is like Thanksgiving. Among the best of them is Gray Brothers south of town in Mooresville. It is a huge place, very deluxe as far as cafeterias go: leaded glass windows in the doors, plenty of tasteful nick-nacks for décor.
Almost any time you walk in, it will be crowded, but that’s no problem because the cafeteria line moves really fast; and besides, your wait takes you along the “preview line,” which allows you to study the dozens and dozens of food items from which you will soon be choosing. Although the trays are especially big ones, if you’re like us, you’ll find yours fully occupied with dishes of food well before you get to the rolls and beverages at the end of the line.
It’s hard to know what to recommend because we’ve never had anything at Gray’s we didn’t like. Among the most memorable dishes are the fried chicken, which has an ultra-flavorful crust that pulls off the pieces of the bird like chewy bacon. The way things work in Gray’s line is that you tell the servers what entrée you want; they put it onto a nice flower-patterned partitioned plate then slide the plate down to the vegetable area, where it is piled with whatever sides you desire.
Who can resist the cornbread stuffing? Or mac ‘n’ cheese? We also love the heartland salads, especially creamy pea and carrot-raisin-marshmallow. Desserts are dazzling, with whole pies arrayed on shelves below the individual slices (many pies get bought and taken home). The Indiana favorite, and a specialty of Gray’s is sugar-cream pie … as simple and pure and good as the name suggests.
Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com
BEACON LIGHT | 6276 TN-100, Lyles TN 37098 [map]. 931-670-3880
No one could disagree with the motto of the Beacon Light Tea Room, which is "A Different Kind of Restaurant." Its Jesus + lava lite décor is unique. But the menu is oddly familiar. It serves almost exactly what used to be served at the Loveless Café 30 miles east on Highway 100: fried chicken, country ham, homemade peach and blackberry preserves. The hash brown casserole looks almost identical to that at the Loveless. One staff member of the Beacon Light (which opened in 1936, ten years before the Loveless) told us that long ago, this restaurant was run by Mr. Loveless, when he was the local sheriff, before he started the legendary café in Nashville after having to leave Lyles in a hurry(!)
Genealogy aside, The Beacon Light is quite a Roadfood spot. The fried chicken and ham are fine, the latter available on a platter with a choice of either eggs or vegetables or on four biscuits. With the platter, you get a basket of biscuits anyway, plus a choice of redeye gravy or creamy country gravy. When you eat all the biscuits, a fresh basket of hot ones is brought to the table. They are curious: crusty on top and bottom and so thin that there is barely any fluff in between, making them a bit difficult to split in two for application of preserves.
Chicken is skillet-fried and has a wickedly brittle crust that is so delicious it overshadows the flavor of the meat within. Among vegetables, we highly recommend not only that hash brown casserole but also whole kernel corn, which is seasoned with just enough pepper to amplify its natural sweetness.
The preserves are set out on the table in spoon-it-yourself crocks. There are whole, soft hunks of peaches in the amber one; and the blackberries have a sultry flavor that is a brilliant counterpoint to supersalty country ham.
Although it was originally named for the revolving spotlight that directed planes flying mail between Memphis and Nashville, the term "Beacon Light" now has another meaning. For the proprietors of this upright restaurant, the beacon is Jesus; and his image is everywhere in art on the old wood-paneled walls. Each table, which is clad with a leatherette cloth, is outfitted with a "Scripture Bread Box," a small plastic loaf hollowed out to contain cards about the size of fortune-cookie fortunes, but in this case with scriptural advice on each side.
Note the odd hours of operation: Beacon Light is open from 4pm to 10pm Tuesday through Friday, and from 9am to 10pm Saturday and Sunday. Originally reviewed by Michael Stern on Roadfood.com