I didn’t grow up having fried chicken like my wife and millions of other Americans. When I was a kid, I got KFC every now and again, but that’s where my exposure to fried chicken began and ended. My mom, a very busy single working mother, didn’t especially like to cook and she really hated messes, so fried chicken was never even a consideration.
Like so many people in Kansas City, the first time I remember having really good fried chicken was at Stroud’s. I’d heard so much about Stroud’s by the time I tried it, I was half expecting a letdown. That didn’t happen, and for many years Stroud’s has remained at the top of my fried chicken list. Recently, though, I’ve had two local fried chicken experiences that have made me rethink, and perhaps even reorder, that list.
Both of these fried chicken epiphanys happened on special nights, the only nights the Red Door Grill and North End serve their chicken.
First, let me run you through a Thursday at Red Door Grill. That’s when they fire up the pressure cooker and fry up the chicken that’s been marinating in a secret blend of spices for four days. That’s right: four days. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons Red Door serves its fried chicken only on Thursdays.
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“The process is very time-consuming and requires a lot of care and space. For us to ensure the product hits our quality standards, we can only produce it once a week,” Red Door co-owner Mark Kirke shared. “The fresh, never frozen, chicken is marinated in a blend of spices including buttermilk and jalapenos. This adds flavor to the meat as well as tenderizes it. We then take the chicken and bread it in our made-in-house-seasoned flour just before placing in the pressure fryer. This creates a flavorful skin as well as flavor down to the bone.”
Kirke says he brought the chicken idea with him from his days with KFC, where he learned the art of pressure cooking the bird. “This is not an easy process, so most places use pan-fry or open fryer,” Kirke told me.
“I was approached by a guest asking me about my background and inquiring why we didn’t have fried chicken on the menu. Over the years, I had been thinking and experimenting with a personal recipe. The recipe fit in the style of food that Red Door was producing, and there was a niche in the market we could fill with the style.”
The chicken is served either with or without a jalapeno dipping sauce, which I ordered but did not use. I found the chicken to be perfectly seasoned on its own. People who want more spice may disagree, but I’m picking nits.
Red Door’s Thursday night fried chicken offering, available at both the Brookside and Leawood location, is a delicious once a week treat!
Fast forward to a Saturday night several weeks later at the North End in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood. North End’s owner, Pete Mesh, grew up in the neighborhood. Mesh purchased the former Lasala’s Deli from the family that had owned it for nearly a century.
“Honestly, growing up here and knowing the history of this place, I’d never had thought in a million years that I would own it. It’s kind of bittersweet, but I’m happy to have turned the space into something different that still serves the neighborhood,” Mesh told me at the restaurant as the dinner crowd started filing in. “I really didn’t have a vision. I just wanted to keep it Italian.”
What Mesh ended up creating was the North End, a bar and grill featuring, among other things, an outdoor patio, hand-made Italian pastas and a special Saturday night offering of fried chicken. Many say the North End’s fried chicken is the best in town.
“It all started with John Cuezze, who I can’t thank enough. He’s the best meat man in town, and he brought in a fried chicken recipe that we started doing on Saturday night’s as a special and it just took off,” Mesh said.
Cuezze stepped away from the kitchen and into retirement some time ago, but Mesh learned his secrets, and the Saturday fried chicken special has carried on and won a large and enthusiastic audience.
“We do 350 orders of chicken now on a Saturday night. And everything is done by hand. We don’t precook anything, so wait times can run up to 40 minutes, but the customers know they’re getting something fresh and made just for them,” Mesh shared. “Plus, and this is something we do every week, we change the oil right before we start cooking, so this is the cleanest-tasting fried chicken you’ll get. It really makes a difference.”
Diners can choose from a variety of sizes and combinations: breasts, legs, white meat, dark meat, or a combination. I tried the four piece dinner, which consists of a breast, thigh, leg and wing.
Dinners include mashed potatoes (a bit chunky and delicious!), green beans and a biscuit. Cuezze’s special gravy, which has a slight peppery kick to it, is also a highlight. It’s served over the potatoes but not on the chicken. That’s as it should be, in my opinion, because as with Red Door’s jalapeno dipping sauce, I found the gravy tasty but unnecessary. The chicken, crispy and gold brown, was perfect on its own.
I’m definitely adding Red Door Grill and North End to my list for places to get great fried chicken. I just hope my next hankering for the gold delicious bird comes on a Thursday or Saturday, though I can still go to Stroud’s any night and still get some really good fried chicken!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.