Stroud’s may rule the roost, but other KC restaurants do fried chicken right

10/09/2013 1:17 AM

04/10/2014 8:02 AM

When a stack of Rye’s extra-crispy, golden fried chicken graced the cover of Saveur’s August issue, tongues started to wag.

“Is their chicken better than Stroud’s?”

Ask any Kansas Citian where to go for fried chicken and the first name likely to cross most lips is Stroud’s, a venerable establishment that road-food writers Jane and Michael Stern proclaimed “the best fried chicken in America” and the James Beard Foundation recognized as an “American Regional Classic” in 1998. In a recent online Kansas City Star reader poll, almost half the votes went to Stroud’s.

Of course, there were those who swear by other noted chicken emporiums, such as the historic Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kan., or the legendary rivals Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s in Pittsburg, Kan. Others pledge allegiance to Kansas City’s Niecie’s, a soul food great. And we heard from those who get their fix from Go Chicken Go.

Rye, the Leawood restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Colby Garrelts and wife Megan, serves up a version of high-style fried chicken adapted from a recipe from Blackberry Farm, a luxury hotel and resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Every week, Rye, which opened last December, goes through 1,200 pounds of Amish chickens. The restaurant’s reviews are solid, but its menu is not chicken-centric.

Which got me wondering if I could dig up some less-storied venues.

Turns out Cafe Europa and Pig Finch run Sunday night fried chicken specials worth checking out. Then there are ethnic restaurants — O’Neill’s and Cascone’s — that serve up surprisingly righteous fried chicken.

I also made trips to two traditional chicken restaurants with great stories (and chicken) and plenty of old-school farmhouse charm: Galvin’s Dinnerhouse in St. Joseph and RC’s Restaurant Lounge in Martin City.

RC’s Restaurant Lounge

330 E. 135th St., 816-942-4999, RCsChicken.com

I think RC’s pan-fried chicken dinners are something to crow about.

Owner David Van Noy learned to fry chicken from the legendary “Chicken Betty” Lucas, whose recipe appeared in a New York Times Magazine article by restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton in 1980. Chicken Betty was also immortalized by hometown foodie Calvin Trillin and John T. Edge, author of books and articles focused on Southern foodways.

Despite earning a spot in the annals of fried chicken history, the 40-year-old restaurant has never reached quite the same popularity as Stroud’s, in part because RC’s has never been a hangout for professional athletes and celebrities.

“I honestly think George Brett put Stroud’s on the map,” says Van Noy, whose main marketing tools have been gift certificates and word-of-mouth. “We’re not after fame and fortune. As long as I can make a living for my family, I’m good.”

The sprawling brick restaurant was bustling on a recent holiday weekend but did not require the same kind of wait as Stroud’s.

The chicken is available in several combinations: a half chicken for $13.99; all white meat for $15.99; three chicken breasts only for $16.99; or all dark meat for $12.99. Each dinner comes with a sturdy if somewhat pedestrian iceberg lettuce salad, stewed green beans, a choice of potato (french or cottage fried, mashed or baked, and for 49 cents extra, loaded), an absolutely heavenly biscuit with honey butter and a bowl of gravy liberally seasoned with black pepper. (Peach cobbler is extra.)

Each piece of chicken is dipped in a milk and egg wash, seasoned with salt, pepper and flour, then pan-fried in a combination of half vegetable and half soybean oil. The restaurant originally fried the chicken in lard, but as the dining room got busier, chipping off a chunk from a 50-pound block was slower than pouring a liquid shortening into the pan.

And in this case expediency also proved to be a better-tasting alternative. “I eat our fried chicken every day because I like the way it tastes,” says Van Noy, who sells 4,000 pounds a week.

So, what exactly distinguishes RC’s from the competition?

“I think it’s just individually cooking chicken. Each piece. You can’t mass produce it,” Van Noy says. “In the beginning, it didn’t matter how busy we got, she (Chicken Betty) never got any faster.”

Cafe Europa

323 E. 55th St., 816-523-1212, CafeEuropaKC.com

Sunday “supper” at Cafe Europa starts out with a fresh garden salad (no iceberg lettuce here) followed by two pieces of fried chicken served with green beans stewed with meaty flecks of bacon and onion, ever-so-slightly lumpy mashed fingerling potatoes with gravy, a basket of pingpong-ball-size biscuits with whipped and salted butter and the dessert of the day (exquisite lemon layer cake the day we were there). The spread goes for $18.

Chef Nate Feldmiller uses a recipe he developed with a Kansas City colleague to serve for staff meals when they worked at the same New York City restaurant.

Every Saturday night the Cafe Europa crew cuts up whole Amish hens and marinates the pieces in buttermilk.

Unlike a certain famous fast-food chicken joint known for its patented 11 herbs and spices, Feldmiller goes with five key ingredients: garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne and salt. “After that it gets muddled,” he says.

On Sunday, he fries eight pieces of chicken at a time in vegetable oil until crispy golden, then finishes them in the oven to control the doneness of the white and dark meat.

Feldmiller’s presentation is more white tablecloth than country, the drumstick jutting out of a scoop of mashed potatoes studded with green beans and finished with gravy. My husband and daughter gave the mashup “penalty points” because they are not big gravy fans.

“I can’t just slop it on the plate. It’s more a force of habit than anything,” Feldmiller says. “I figure that’s the way I like to eat it. I’m going to mash it all up anyway.”

Of course, if you’re a purist, he’s not offended if you ask for the meal to be served family-style.

And it’s also worth mentioning that despite years of pressing potatoes through a chinois, Feldmiller keeps “a little rusticity” in his mashed potatoes, enriching his slightly chunky puree with a butter emulsion, a technique used by famed French chef Joel Robuchon.

If you tend to overindulge and regret it later, Cafe Europa’s portion sizes allow you to pull away from the table feeling comfortably full but without the need for a takeout container.

If the special does not sell out, Feldmiller reheats the chicken and serves it at the staff’s meal with Korean-style buffalo sauce. “Korean chicken is one of the few things I miss from New York,” he says.

O’Neill’s Restaurant Bar

9417 Mission Road, Leawood, 913-648-4900, KCONeills.com

The best fried chicken deal in town might go to O’Neill’s, a neighborhood Irish restaurant and bar where you can get a more-than-ample meal for just $9 all day Monday, $10 on Saturday and $11 any other time of the week, except Sundays, when the restaurant is closed.

The value meal comes with a leg-thigh combination and a breast, a heaping helping of steamed corn and mashed potatoes with flecks of parsley and brown gravy that is served on the side. (Jameson Peach Lemonade and bread pudding are extra.)

Chef James Nelson admits it was the restaurant’s second attempt to get it right: “Chicken takes a while. People want fried chicken, but they don’t want the fried-chicken wait.”

Nelson noticed that Stroud’s frequently has a two- to three-hour wait because it cooks to order. But he needed to figure out a way to cook fried chicken in the 15 to 20 minutes his customers were willing to wait, so he devised a process to speed things up.

O’Neill’s chicken is soaked in a seasoned water bath then dusted in seasoned flour, flash-fried in vegetable oil for 20 seconds to get the coating to adhere, then baked in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes. When an order comes in, the chicken goes back in the fryer.

Nelson has noticed in the last few years an increased number of restaurants adding fried chicken to their menus. Part of the appeal has to do with nostalgia. Part of the difficulty is that you’ll never beat the taste memory of Mom’s or Grandma’s. “There’s always a story behind fried chicken,” he says.

Pig Finch Gastropub

11570 Ash St., Leawood, 913-322-7444, 801RestaurantGroup.com

If a crunchy crust is what you crave, Pig Finch’s Sunday night fried chicken special is one of the crispiest in town. “You want to get a piece of that crispy skin with the moist chicken in each bite,” says John Smith, the restaurant’s executive chef.

Although Smith grew up in Chicago, his mother was from northern Mississippi, and he grew up eating grits, collards, hot-water cornbread and, yes, good Southern fried chicken.

Pig Finch’s fried chicken is brined a day ahead in a solution of salt, garlic, parsley, sugar and bay leaves.

The next day the pieces are dried for 30 minutes on a tray in the walk-in cooler. At the breading station, the chicken pieces are dipped in seasoned flour, then buttermilk, then back in flour, and returned to the walk-in so the buttermilk soaks into the skin.

When an order is up, the dusted pieces are plunged into peanut oil, which has less saturated fat and a higher smoke point than vegetable oil or lard, so it crisps the skin without burning.

The restaurant, which is owned by the 801 Restaurant Group out of Des Moines, sells 30 to 35 four-piece chicken dinners each Sunday night; the special includes a serving of green bean casserole with bacon and fried onions in a bechamel sauce, Yukon mashed potatoes and an herbed corn biscuit with honey butter for $15.

The square of grease-free paper placed under the chicken lends a casual bistro feel to Sunday dinner, so I decided to eat with my hands. And that’s OK by Smith: “Think of your best childhood food memory: You ate with your hands. As an adult, why would that change?”

Johnny Cascone’s Italian Restaurant

6863 W. 91st St., Overland Park, 913-381-6837, Cascones.com

The $16 fried chicken dinner at Johnny Cascone’s starts out with your choice of minestrone or lentil soup or the Caesar salad. Choose the soup, either one. You might be tempted to let your spoon scrape the bottom, but pace yourself. You could fill up before the half chicken, mashed potatoes and stewed beans with bacon and onions ever get to your table.

Tuesday night is fried chicken night at this Kansas City Italian classic, and the dining room decorated with fans, ferns and chianti bottles is packed with plenty of regulars.

Chef Tom Powers seasons the 31/2-pound fryers with Lowry seasonings and coarse black pepper. The chicken is dredged in flour seasoned with white pepper, salt and powdered ginger. Yes ginger. “I think for some reason the ginger brings everything out,” Powers says.

But why serve fried chicken at an Italian restaurant?

“It’s kind of a soul food thing,” Powers says. “We do the same food we ate 100 years ago. We’re not eclectic and reaching.”

With only one fryer in the kitchen, Powers also is not trying to become a fried chicken restaurant. He sells only 20 to 25 dinners a night. Still, he doesn’t think he can ever take the fried chicken special off the menu. “We’ve got too much of a following,” he says.

Galvin’s Dinnerhouse

6802 S. 22nd St.,

St. Joseph, 816-238-0463, Facebook

When the Chiefs are winning, Bill Grace takes the hit: Galvin’s Dinnerhouse is a destination restaurant, and the old-timey decor doesn’t lend itself to TVs.

The low-slung building started life as a Phillip’s service station that sat on a bus route to Kansas City. By 1940 the service station had become Galvin’s, and Mrs. Galvin became known far and wide for fried chicken in a box or a basket, served with coleslaw and French fries.

After Mr. Galvin passed away, Mrs. Galvin sold the business to a self-taught cook who added family-style sides and added “Dinnerhouse” to the name. Grace started working as a dishwasher at age 14 and eventually bought the restaurant in 1982.

Tragedy struck in 2010 when an electrical fire left the restaurant in ruins. But the smoke hadn’t even cleared before locals were coaxing Grace to rebuild. He started, but soon ran out of money. That’s when members of his church started to pitch in, offering free labor, paying for materials and refurbishing the place room by room. Last Easter, the church’s pastor delivered the sunrise service in the dining room of the restaurant.

“This is a passion and a spirit that lives in me,” says Grace, who owns Galvin’s with his wife, Toni.

Galvin’s reopened for business in May and has been chugging along for the last few months trying to rebuild its customer base in a soft economy. The charming family-style restaurant is a step back in time and well worth a Sunday drive.

The half chicken (breast, leg, thigh and wing) is served on grandma-style china plates and may look smaller than average. That’s because Grace prefers to use small fryer hens weighing 21/2 to 23/4 pounds rather than the heftier supermarket-variety roasting hens. The pieces are dipped in milk and egg, floured, seasoned with salt and white pepper and fried with canola oil in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.

“I don’t have a deep fryer in the building,” Grace boasts.

Dinners are $15.99 and start with homemade chicken soup with thick homemade noodles, flecks of carrots and a side of oyster crackers, your choice of a spinach salad or cottage cheese with fruit. Accompaniments include corn, steamed green beans, gravy and soft French-style bread with butter.

“I can remember going to Grandma’s house,” Grace says. “The hard part is most young people today don’t know those smells.”

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