When one thinks meat in Kansas City, there’s a good chance that they’re thinking about barbecue. After all, this is a city that not only brings in barbecue lovers from across the country year after year for the World Series of Barbecue, but the local media managed to stage a 64-restaurant bracket competition this March, consisting solely of barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. Put simply, the City of Fountains is well-known for smoking its meat and doing it well.
But there’s more to Kansas City than just barbecue, as there often is in cities known for one famous dish. When everyone else is doing one thing, the easiest way to stand out is to do your own thing and make it the best that you can. Since the 1930’s, while most of Kansas City has elected to focus on pulled pork, ribs and Kansas City strip steak, Stroud’s has opted for poultry, shying away from the smoker in favor of old-fashioned pan-fried chicken at four locations on both sides of State Line Road. Yes, for those who have never been, there really is a road called State Line Road that serves as the dividing line between Missouri and Kansas until you get to the Missouri River. There are also two Kansas Cities, one in each state, known respectively as KCMO (Missouri) and KCK (Kansas). This place can get very confusing very quickly for the out-of-towner.
What isn’t confusing is the chicken at Stroud’s, and oddly enough, that specialty wasn’t a decision that Guy and Helen Stroud reached on their own. In fact, back in the 1930’s, Stroud’s was yet another Kansas City barbecue restaurant, serving mainly beef, not chicken. But in the 1940’s, World War II began, and suddenly, beef was being rationed. Well, that wasn’t going to work if the restaurant was going to stay in business, so the Strouds took advantage of the fact that chicken was not being rationed and began serving pan-fried chicken instead of barbecue. When the war ended, the Kansas City strip returned to the menu, but the brisket never came back. The Strouds had discovered that their chicken was worthy of carrying the menu as their flagship entree, and 70 years later, that hasn’t changed. They’re still choking their own chickens, as their shirts proudly say.
In fact, it’s only become more entrenched in Kansas City culture. Since embracing its status as the home of pan-fried chicken and changing owners in the 1980’s, Stroud’s has proceeded to win accolades from across the country. The restaurant has shown up on numerous restaurant shows, and esteemed judge and food blogger Simon Majumdar, one of my favorite Food Network personalities, has gone as far as to claim that if he had his choice for his last meal, he’d pick Stroud’s. Considering that he’s got one of the most sophisticated palates in the world, that’s pretty high praise. I also knew it to be warranted, as I’d been here once before in 2011 with my friend Sam Wilson and absolutely loved this chicken. With that being the case and Amy’s love of all things chicken, this was definitely something that she had to try for herself.
The first thing you notice about Stroud’s is the smell, which isn’t exactly what you would expect from a fried chicken place. Instead of the savory smells of chicken, you get the very recognizable sweet scent of warm cinnamon. There’s a great reason for that, but I’ll get to that later. Instead, the first question is how to start your meal, which depends on how adventurous you’re feeling. If you’re up for the so-called garbage parts of the chicken, the livers are actually quite delicious, fried the same way as the chicken and providing the perfect amount of both meat and skin. I got these on Sam’s advice on my first visit and very much enjoyed them, proving that when it comes to chicken, Stroud’s knows what it’s doing.
If livers and/or gizzards aren’t your thing, your best bet is to stick with either the soup or salad that comes with any meal here. Personally, I’m a big fan of Stroud’s homemade chicken noodle soup, which is made with wide, thick noodles, just like a good noodle soup should be. Even better, the soup contains big chunks of chicken and the broth is spiced perfectly. I honestly prefer cream-based soups to broth-based soups, but a well-spiced broth can work very well, and this one certainly does. This soup is an absolute must for me.
Amy, on the other hand, opted for the salad, which is also very well done, with multiple kinds of lettuce, fresh cucumbers and olives and plenty of shredded mozzarella cheese. If not for the quality of the soup, I would highly recommend this salad. It’s very good and a great way to start a meal with a taste of freshness. It’s just the soup is on a really high level, which makes sense given the chicken that has made this place famous.
Speaking of the chicken…oh, the chicken. First off, Stroud’s doesn’t go light in any sense of the word when it comes to chicken. The smallest chicken meal they have is three pieces, with one being a breast and the other two being whatever you choose that isn’t another breast. For bigger appetites, you can choose to go for a four-piece meal that includes all dark meat, all white meat or one of every major part. There’s also an option for nothing but chicken breasts, which lands you three of them. Second, all of their chicken remains pan-fried, which means that it can take some time to prepare, but the result is well worth it.
The keys with pan-fried chicken are to make sure that the crust is crispy but not soggy, the breading works with the chicken and that the meat itself remains moist and juicy rather than greasy. That takes time and experience, and that’s why Stroud’s has been doing this for as long as they have. The breading is perfect, nice and crisp without being too greasy or too messy.
The chicken is perfectly moist and flavorful from first bite to last, and this is honestly probably the second-best chicken that I’ve ever had. The only place I can think of that’s better is Willie Mae’s, and when the only place that can beat you out of the long list of chicken restaurants that I’ve visited is a New Orleans legend, you’re doing something right.
Stroud’s doesn’t stop there with its chicken, however, because it includes a sizable helping of gravy with every chicken dinner. Trust me, you definitely want their gravy. The gravy is the classic pepper gravy that goes on a good country fried steak, which gives you an idea of what you’re getting with this gravy. Much like the chicken noodle soup, it’s spiced perfectly. The pepper presence is fantastic, and this is also a perfect complement to the mashed potatoes or even the fries, depending on what kind of potato you’ve chosen with your meal. I don’t even really like most gravy, but I absolutely love this stuff and could have it on just about anything. The green beans include chunks of ham, a nice surprise, while the potatoes are again strong and flavorful. Meanwhile, the fries are similar to those of Five Guys, but thicker. Absolutely full of potato and flavor, while served at the perfect temperature and texture. One other thing, if you’re ordering with more than one person, rather than bring out individual portions of their duplicate side items, Stroud’s will fill larger bowls and allow you to take as much as you want. We found that out when we again had a little too much food, but neither of us minded at all. Actually, too much food is kind of how things work here, because Stroud’s will bring side refills if you ask. I don’t know if they charge extra or not (I’m betting no) because I’ve never actually taken them up on that offer.
But I haven’t even gotten to the best part about Stroud’s yet. If you thought the chicken was the best thing about this place, think again. Remember that cinnamon smell that I mentioned when you walk into Stroud’s? Yeah, there’s a reason for it: Stroud’s homemade cinnamon rolls. Most places serve you bread with your meal, but at Stroud’s, the bread is covered with sweet cinnamon sugar and served warm, creating an absolutely wonderful taste. The sugar melts onto the bread when it’s made, and the bread’s texture is perfect. These are soft and almost seem to melt in your mouth. Stroud’s offers the option to have these rolls either with your meal or for dessert, and even though they’re very sweet, I actually recommend taking them with your meal. These things are so good that you want to be absolutely certain that you have enough room to enjoy every bite. Even a day later in the hotel room when they’re no longer warm, these are awesome, but when they come out hot and fresh, there’s nothing like them. Totally worth the trip on their own.
It’s not quite the best chicken in the world, but it’s pretty darn close, and the generous portions of quality sides more than make this a must-visit on either side of State Line Road. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. I’m sure Stroud’s could have been a very successful barbecue place, but after more than seven decades in the chicken business, I don’t think they’re complaining about how things worked out. Throw in those ridiculously awesome cinnamon rolls, and you’ve got something that’s truly special here.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Make sure you bring an appetite, though, because Stroud’s usually does not offer a lunch portion. I think the Overland Park location might, but Fairway definitely does not.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. We were seated right away, the wait comes when you’re waiting on the chicken to be fried and served to you.
Location: There are four of them in the Kansas City area, two on the Kansas side in Fairway and Overland Park and two in Missouri in Independence and in Kansas City proper. Our location was at 4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway.
Cost: Providing a lot of food doesn’t come cheap, so you shouldn’t be surprised that this is on the expensive side. Plan on about $20 per person here. One strategy you can try if you’re not that hungry and can agree on types of chicken you want is to order one dinner and two sets of sides. If you do it that way, it’s $9 for the additional person and you’ll end up at about $30 for two people.
Parking: Not a challenge in Fairway. Finding it can be a chore because of how Shawnee Mission Parkway is set up, but there’s a lot there once you do find it, so no worries.
Seating arrangement: Tables and booths against the windows, chairs elsewhere.
Specialty items: Pan-fried chicken, chicken noodle soup, cinnamon rolls
It’s rare for a dish to start in one location and become the delicacy of a completely different location. Sure, you see dishes transported to different cities and become gems in their new homes, as well as knock-offs of the original that show up under a new name. You can even see a dish named after something in one city become a hit in a completely different city. But when one place creates a dish, it’s usually that city’s dish to call its own for as long as it’s around. You just don’t see dishes start in one place and become associated with another.
But when it comes to the case of chicken and waffles, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that it doesn’t exactly follow the traditional rules. After all, the dish itself doesn’t come close to following the traditional rules. Dinner and breakfast at the same time? Fried poultry and a sweet waffle simultaneously? Not exactly what most people expect from their meals. But that’s what chicken and waffles is, and it’s a combination that has been going strong for decades now. The tradition dates back to at least the 1930’s, when according to legend, restaurant patrons in Harlem, N.Y. began to request both breakfast and dinner at the same time. Apparently, it had something to do with getting off after a night on the town and wanting to get both meals taken care of at the same time.
Whatever reason, people loved the idea, and the Wells Supper Club began offering the combination to its hungry guests. But unlike the city’s rich culture and music scene, chicken and waffles didn’t get the attention quality usually causes. The dish was popular in Harlem, but it wasn’t getting attention outside of the neighborhood. The city of New York just didn’t have space for yet another new iconic dish to add to its ever-growing stable.
But in the 1970’s, Herb Hudson saw an opportunity in bringing the Harlem taste to the west, specifically the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Hudson, a Harlem native, was familiar with two things: chicken and waffles, and the business of music and television. If there’s one thing that Los Angeles is known for, it’s celebrities. You pretty much can’t walk half a mile without finding some reference to a celebrity in Los Angeles, and that means that celebrities are definitely the best way to get your business out there in the City of Angels.
In Hudson’s case, that meant getting them to talk up his business and visit at every opportunity. What he did was pass the word along to celebrities that he had a new chicken and waffles restaurant open called Roscoe’s, and they soon informed other celebrities about the interesting combination. Eventually, celebrities started passing on tips that they would be heading to Roscoe’s, and in a star-crazed city, that’s a sure way to get people to come. Through his own connections and some clever planning, Hudson had his franchise and chicken and waffles had officially become a Los Angeles staple.
But as powerful as word of mouth and celebrity sightings are, they’re not going to do the trick forever. That might be how Roscoe’s got its foot in the door, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the results you deliver. Fortunately, Hudson wasn’t all sizzle and no steak, or in this case, all breading and no chicken. As time went on, the reason to come to Roscoe’s became less about the celebrity and more about the simple quality of what you were eating. Travel Channel even called it the No. 2 place in the entire country, only losing to Connecticut-based Louis’ Lunch, the restaurant that invented the hamburger. That’s pretty high praise, and that was why Amy and I knew we had to make this trip on our visit to Los Angeles to see Simon. Truthfully, when we sketched this trip out, this was third on the list of what I wanted to accomplish in Los Angeles, behind only seeing my brother and seeing a UCLA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion. When a restaurant gets to No. 2 in the nation, it’s worth seeing what the hype is all about.
With that being the case, there was only one thing to do when we arrived in Inglewood: order the dish that made this place famous. Truth be told, Roscoe’s actually has several ways that you can order chicken and waffles, with one of the main ones now being the Obama Special, obviously named for the current president. Previously, it was known as the Country Boy, and it consists of three chicken wings, plus either a waffle, potato salad or french fries. If one waffle isn’t enough for you, or if you just aren’t a fan of chicken wings, no problem. The Scoe’s consists of 1/4 chicken plus two waffles, and Herb’s Special ups the ante by making it half a chicken along with two waffles. Both offer solid values.
Or you can say the heck with the combos and make it an a la carte order, which is what Amy and I chose to do. What can I say, we each like what we like. She’s always going to choose a chicken breast over any other part of the bird, and I’ve always been a fan of the dark meat, because I just find it so much more flavorful than a breast or a wing. Plus, I didn’t feel like taking my chances on only being able to order certain parts of the chicken if I opted for the Scoe’s or Herb’s Special, so I have no idea how ordering 1/4 or 1/2 of a chicken works here. What I do know is that I had an easy call here for a meal: thigh, leg and waffle. Perfect combination right there, and I couldn’t wait to try it.
As soon as I tasted it, I knew that the hype was totally worth it. This combination was simply as good as it gets, and it started with the chicken thigh. I’ve had some of the best chicken in the world, and this wasn’t too far off. It’s perfectly spiced, breaded well and so flavorful. What makes it so good is that it’s juicy but not greasy, a delicate balance that many try but only a select few achieve. The thigh was so good that it actually made the leg redundant. Don’t get me wrong, the leg is quite tasty, but truthfully, I’d rather have had two thighs instead of a thigh and a leg.
But where Roscoe’s really stands out is the waffle. I’ve had outstanding chicken and waffles before, but what makes Roscoe’s even better is the taste of the waffle. Little-known fact about me: I absolutely love the taste of butter pecan flavoring. I’m not the biggest fan of pecans themselves, but something about the butter pecan flavor just absolutely works beautifully. As soon as I drenched my waffle in syrup and took my first bite, I noticed a very familiar flavor permeating throughout the sweet mix of waffle: butter pecan. Perfection right there. The waffle texture is soft, fluffy and absorbs syrup beautifully, providing the perfect combination with the chicken. I loved every bit of my waffle, and really, I would come to Roscoe’s just for the waffle, and yes, I mean I would fly from Davenport to Los Angeles just for a waffle if I could afford it.
Back on the chicken front, Amy’s chicken breast was just as outstanding as my chicken thighs. Much like the thigh, it was a step behind the absolute top that is Willie Mae’s, but a step behind Willie Mae’s is still pretty dang amazing. The chicken is absolutely wonderful, breaded well, juicy and flavorful. But that was something that she was expecting. What she wasn’t expecting was the quality of the macaroni and cheese that I ordered as a side.
On first glance, the macaroni and cheese is the dark side of Roscoe’s, because the most obvious thing about it is that it’s expensive. When you pay five dollars for macaroni and cheese, you expect a huge portion of it. Instead, it’s a regular-sized side dish. When it comes out, you honestly wonder how in the world it could be worth five bucks. But when you taste it, you realize that it’s worth every cent, because the pasta is perfect and the cheese is both melted throughout and flavored perfectly.
I’ve never met a macaroni and cheese I didn’t love, and this might be the best I’ve ever had. Amy, on the other hand, hates macaroni and cheese in all forms…except this was her Drover. Much like the whiskey-soaked steak in Nebraska, Amy didn’t hate this macaroni and cheese. When Amy doesn’t hate your macaroni and cheese, you’ve really done a great job with it. The cornbread was also fantastic, having all of the necessary savory and sweet flavors that make up a good cornbread. Soul food is just something special.
Breaking with our tradition, Simon opted for a chicken sandwich with potato salad, which truthfully is another fine choice. I’ve never been the biggest fan of potato salad (I blame my father for always having it around growing up), but sometimes it works well, and this was one of those times. Potato salad, to be done right, must be creamy and properly spiced, almost always with dill, and this hit the mark. As for the chicken sandwich, this place simply knows chicken, bone or no bone.
Harlem might have been the place that started the idea of chicken and waffles, but it’s Los Angeles that has perfected it. Roscoe’s is what made it mainstream, and that’s because Roscoe’s made it outstanding. It’s really not a stretch to say that you haven’t really been to Los Angeles until you’ve made it to Roscoe’s.
Time to go: Morning, evening or late night. Roscoe’s opens at 8 a.m. in six of its seven locations and stays open until midnight at five out of seven, with some staying out until as late as 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Chicken and waffles are meant to be an evening meal.
Wait during my visit: None. Seven locations and a late trip pretty much means no wait.
Location: We went to the location at 621 West Manchester Boulevard near the former Great Western Forum (which had to be the best corporate name for an arena ever) in Inglewood, Calif. Others exist in Hollywood, Pasadena and Anaheim.
Cost: It’s not anywhere near as cheap as you’d think. If you stick to chicken and waffles, it’s not expensive at all, running about $10 per person. But when you add sides, that’s where the costs really add up. On the other side of the coin, the sides are worth every cent. Also, skip the Sunrise and Sunset drinks. Lemonade and orange juice mixed together could be a good thing. Paying more than two dollars for lemonade and orange juice mixed together is definitely not.
Parking: It was a challenge, but not too terrible. We just had to grab the last spot in the lot and park.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs or booths are your options.
Specialty items: Chicken, waffles, macaroni and cheese
I know what some of you are thinking. How can the noted non-alcoholic possibly be writing about a place with “scotch house” as its title? Well, Willie Mae’s might have started as a bar many years ago in New Orleans, but those days are long gone for this place. Actually, it was originally a bar, a beauty salon and a barber shop, which would seem to have been a perfect combination for New Orleans couples who needed a haircut and wanted to relax while doing it in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
But in 1972, Willie Mae Seaton got out of the hair business and into the restaurant business, opting to focus specifically on fried chicken while keeping the name, which had become her brand in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans by this point. In doing so, she was betting on herself and her chicken being special in a location where good is the minimum level of expectation for fried chicken and sides. After all, the Pelican State is the headquarters of both Popeyes, which does some pretty good things with on-the-bone chicken, and Raising Cane’s, which has made its name on chicken fingers and nothing else. Point is, they do chicken right in Louisiana, even at the fast food level, so to focus on fried chicken down there is to declare your chicken some of the best around.
Turns out, boasting about itself has never been a problem for Willie Mae’s, which puts its pride in its fried chicken right on its menu. When someone orders a fried chicken meal here, they’re placing an order for “America’s Best Fried Chicken”, according to the restaurant’s own menu. Considering some of the places that Amy and I have visited, as well as just how large of a country this is, that’s a pretty hefty statement right there. On the other hand, Willie Mae’s is so beloved in New Orleans that residents and non-residents alike banded together to raise $200,000 and rebuild the restaurant over a two-year period, rather than letting it close after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005.
That’s another hefty statement, and the standards of this place back up the reputation. The now 100-year-old Willie Mae Seaton retired following Hurricane Katrina, but her creation hasn’t missed a beat in terms of awards under her great-grandaughter Kerry. The restaurant has continued to win award after award for soul food in New Orleans, and that takes some doing in a place that really knows how to do food. So basically, this was definitely a place that Amy and I had to try for ourselves on our trip to Louisiana.
Oh. My. God. I’m not exaggerating here when I say that this chicken is the best that I’ve ever eaten. It starts with the breading, which I am very picky about. A good breading, especially when the dish is fried, has to walk a fine line of adding to the meal without overwhelming it. Too much breading and you end up overwhelming your dish, and if the breading adds no flavor, then there’s no point to it and it’s just empty calories.
But this breading is fantastic, and you can hear the difference right away. Yes, that’s right, you can actually hear the breading here because of the loud crunch that comes when you take your first bite. This breading is fried to golden brown perfection and is crisp the entire way through. Not only that, but it’s seasoned well throughout. The spice in this chicken will never come close to that of Prince’s or Hattie B’s (after all, this is New Orleans, not Nashville), but it does provide a nice bit of kick to it that keeps your taste buds entertained throughout. Even better, the skin isn’t greasy, and the meat is juicy and flavorful. You really can’t ask for much more.
That includes the sides, as I found the one side dish that is good enough to make me pass up my standard macaroni and cheese in a fried chicken place: butter beans with rice. Butter beans are a New Orleans specialty, basically lima beans with rice in gravy. At Willie Mae’s, they are heavenly. The beans literally melt in your mouth, the gravy is flavorful without being too thin or too thick and the rice works well with both. Really, though, the beans are the biggest star here. As soon as she saw my side, Amy knew she had to try some, and she was immediately amazed at just how good these things were. Throw in a corn muffin to finish it off, and you have one incredible fried chicken meal, New Orleans style.
One thing to note, however: the fried chicken meal is designed for fans of dark meat, not white meat. Willie Mae’s standard includes a thigh, a wing and a leg, meaning two pieces of dark meat and one of white. For a small upcharge, you can get an all-white meat meal, which will consist of a breast and two wings. Of course, as a noted dark meat lover, that plays perfectly into my wheelhouse, but if you’re like Amy and prefer white meat, you’ll want to follow her lead and get Willie Mae’s outstanding chicken nuggets.
Basically, the nuggets are Willie Mae’s fried chicken in boneless form. Same great taste of the breading with all of its seasoning, same great properly cooked chicken, no bone to get in the way of your eating enjoyment. These were pretty outstanding and just as filling as a fried chicken meal. Ten of them were plenty to satisfy Amy’s appetite, although these were so good that she wished she had more room to continue enjoying them. They’re served with dipping sauces, and both their ranch and barbecue sauces are excellent with this chicken. Amy added fries as her side, and they’re pretty darn good. Of course, I preferred the butter beans, but those are in a class by themselves.
When a community bands together to keep a place open, that’s a sign that it’s doing something right. When not even one of the biggest tragedies in recent years is enough to put a place out of business, well, the results clearly speak for themselves. Simply put, this is some of the best fried chicken you will ever have anywhere, and as far as the claim of America’s Best Fried Chicken, it’s not bragging if you can back it up. New Orleans just wouldn’t be New Orleans without fried chicken, and it certainly wouldn’t be itself without Willie Mae’s fried chicken. Clearly, the Seaton family knows what it’s doing when it comes to fried chicken and soul food. May the Big Easy be fortunate enough to experience this greatness for decades to come.
Time to go: Early. Willie Mae’s opens at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and the lines can get very long as it gets later in the day. This place is very well known and very popular, and when lunch starts, that means you might be waiting a while. It closes at 5 p.m. each day, and it’s not open on Sundays.
Wait during my visit: None, because we came early. The early person gets the bird here.
Location: Willie Mae’s is located at 2401 St. Ann Street in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
Cost: Not bad at all, as a meal will only cost you $10. One awesome thing to note about Willie Mae’s is that sides are differently priced a la carte, but if you order a meal, there is no upcharge at all for the side, regardless of which one you get. Given that the butter beans come in at $6 a la carte and the fries are four dollars cheaper, this was a really nice surprise, especially given what we found with price issues at the Hook Up. One thing to remember, though, although Willie Mae’s is no longer cash only, separate checks aren’t allowed here. Willie Mae’s has a strict policy of one card per table, so if you do want to divide the check, you’ll need some dead presidents.
Parking: Good luck. There isn’t much to speak of here, and this being a neighborhood restaurant, there isn’t a lot at all. Your only options are street parking, a taxi or walking. I do not recommend the third option, as Treme is not one of New Orleans’ better neighborhoods and you’ll have to cross under Interstate 10 if you’re coming from either the French Quarter or the Central Business District. If you’re coming early, you can drive and find one of the three or four parking spots by the building. If not, your best bet is to take a taxi and not have to worry about parking or neighborhood issues. We actually did find parking, but again, we came 15 minutes after it opened for the day.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs. The restaurant has some small tables and some big ones, and you might have to share one of the bigger ones if crowds get large.
Website: None. The restaurant does have a Facebook page, but no website at this time.
Specialty items: Fried chicken, butter beans
Truthfully, it’s almost inexcusable that it’s taken me this long to write about the High Life Lounge, considering that my first trip there came long before I had ever thought of Dan vs. Food. Actually, this was my first act upon moving to Iowa from Idaho back in 2011. As I made the trek from Pocatello to Davenport, I knew that I wanted to hit as many top restaurants along the route as possible, which eventually led me to Interstate 80, Des Moines and the High Life Lounge in Iowa’s capital city.
But despite getting my first introduction to the High Life Lounge three years ago, it wasn’t one of the main places on my list to write about when I started this blog. It wasn’t because the High Life Lounge had disappointed me in any way. Actually, I loved everything about it. The reason for the delay is also the best thing to have ever happened to me: Amy.
By the time I was ready to write about the High Life Lounge, Amy had already made her move to join me in Iowa and realized that she loved being with me for every restaurant experience. With that being the case, I realized that it would make no sense for me to write about this place before she had the chance to try it for herself. When her mom joined us for a weekend trip to Des Moines in May, I knew it was the perfect time to share one of my favorite places in Iowa with both of them.
For those who have seen any kind of sporting event’s commercials, that might be quite surprising that a bar named after a beer is one of my favorite restaurants, considering that I don’t drink. In fact, beer is a very big thing at this place, and Miller products are the main show in that department. According to the High Life Lounge’s numbers, Miller High Life outsells the next most popular beer by two-to-one there. Clearly, they take their beer seriously here.
But luckily for me, it isn’t all about the booze. A visit to the High Life Lounge feels like someone placed a sports bar in a basement. The atmosphere is reminiscent of some of the dens I watched football games in growing up, which extends to the walls, carpeting and décor. You’re not going to find high-brow art or fancy designs in this place, and that’s totally fine. That’s not what a lounge is supposed to be in any circumstances. A lounge is about relaxing and having a good time, and that’s what the High Life Lounge’s focus is all about.
Well, that and making sure you have a good meal, and having a good meal starts with a very unique atmosphere: bacon-wrapped tater tots. When I said that to Amy before we made our trip west, her eyes immediately lit up. Bacon and potatoes are among her favorites, and with cheese involved and jalapeno slices tucked under the bacon, she was ridiculously excited to try them. Throw in ranch sauce, another of her favorites, and this appetizer was seemingly made for her.
These things were fantastic. Each tater tot is wrapped with a slice of bacon and adds a pickled jalapeno slice before entering the deep fryer, then stabbed with a toothpick before getting covered in cheddar and jack cheeses, resulting in a flavorful experience with a crunch that cannot be the least bit healthy for you. Throw in the creamy ranch dressing, and the taste and calorie level both go up another notch. Thank goodness they only give you a few of these things, because eating too many would be pretty catastrophic to one’s health, but they’re so delicious.
However, the High Life doesn’t have to mean high calorie, and their other specialty on the menu proves it. I speak, of course, of the High Life Lounge’s broasted chicken, which is basically a far healthier way to get the taste and texture of fried chicken. While the name seems like it would be a combination of broiling and roasting the meat, it actually refers to cooking the chicken in a pressure fryer.
If you’ve ever used a pressure cooker, a pressure fryer is basically the same concept using oil instead of water and locking in the liquid during the cooking process. The meat is submerged in the oil and then covered and locked to seal in all of the pressure and use that to quickly cook. That has two benefits, and the first one should be apparent to any pressure cooker user: it’s going to cut the cooking time quite a bit. Waiting a half-hour for fried chicken doesn’t happen here, because the chicken can cook in less than half of that time.
The other benefit is that using pressure to get the heat actually makes for a healthier chicken, because the pressure fryer seals off the oil from penetrating through the skin of the chicken. What this means is that only the outside gets fried, resulting in that crispy breading that is synonymous with fried chicken. The inside, however, remains untouched by the oil, allowing it to retain its juices while heating up, ensuring that the meat comes out moist and tender without the oily taste some fried chicken has.
The result is some of the most delicious and juicy chicken you will ever have. The meat isn’t the least bit greasy, coming out with a texture that you would expect to find on a grilled chicken breast. On many pieces of fried chicken, once you get past the skin and get toward the bone, you’re left with small pieces of meat that are covered in grease and difficult to obtain. Not so with broasted chicken. Here, the chicken pulls out in large chunks and the meat is visible and comes off easily. What’s more, the chicken doesn’t feel the least bit greasy to the touch, so you don’t have to worry about wiping off your hands every few minutes and burning through a stack of napkins.
But none of that would matter without the chicken being delicious as well, and the High Life Lounge delivers in that area as well. The breading is exactly what breading should be, adding to the meat without overpowering it. It’s perfectly seasoned, and provides a perfect complement to the white or dark meat of the chicken. Every bite is juicy, and it doesn’t feel the least bit heavy. All you get is taste-filled, moist chicken, which is exactly what a good chicken dish is supposed to be.
Sides include everything you would expect with fried chicken, which is to say corn, potatoes, beans, macaroni and cheese, slaw and potato salad, and you get your choice of two along with the chicken, plus a roll. The roll might be the most underrated part of this meal, as it is really good and comes out hot and fresh. About the only side I’ve had that I can’t recommend would be the mashed potatoes and gravy, as mine didn’t come out nearly as hot as it should have. Stick to the fries or tater tots if you want some potatoes with your chicken. I highly recommend the beans, fries and mac and cheese, however.
When the temperature of one of the sides is the worst thing about a place, however, you’ve got something that’s pretty special. Honestly, this place is worth coming to for just the chicken. I’ve now been to the High Life Lounge three times, and even though it has a pretty diverse menu, which includes a $3.95 cheeseburger basket and fried dill pickle spears, I highly doubt I’m ever going to find out how good the rest of it is. After all, when you have broasted chicken, rolls and bacon-wrapped tater tots, is there anything else that you really need?
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. The High Life Lounge stays open until 2 a.m. every night. I’m pretty sure the kitchen closes before then, but that’s how long it’s open.
Wait during my visit: None. This place will get crowded, especially during Iowa Cubs games (it’s right by their stadium), but it’s usually not too bad finding a table.
Location: The High Life Lounge is at 200 Southwest Second Street in Des Moines, Iowa.
Cost: This is the other nice thing about broasted chicken: it’s surprisingly inexpensive. The only way you’re going to top $8 for a two-piece meal with sides and roll is if you go breast and breast. As always, dark meat is cheaper than white meat. I have no idea why, but I’m not complaining, because I prefer dark meat.
Parking: You won’t get near the restaurant, most likely. Instead, find a garage near the location and park there. Be warned that garages, although plentiful in Des Moines, often times only have one entrance. This can be a bit problematic, actually, because several of the streets near the High Life Lounge are one-way. It’s a short walk from the garages to the High Life Lounge once you have parked, though.
Seating arrangement: Booths and tables
Website: High Life Lounge
Specialty items: Bacon-wrapped tator tots, broasted chicken
It might be one of the strangest food combinations served in the United States. It’s also one of the best. Basically, nobody is quite sure when the concept of chicken and waffles originated, but it’s believed to have begun in Harlem as a way to satisfy the tastes of late-night crowds who weren’t sure whether they wanted dinner or breakfast.
The answer became to get both, and that led to the formation of several soul food restaurants that headline the unusual combination. For those unfamiliar, soul food is basically the classic comfort food traditionally made by African-American families in the south. In many African-American families, money was tight, so it was traditional for the women to learn how to cook well and turn what they could afford into a delectable home-cooked meal.
Some of the staples of soul food include macaroni and cheese, greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, fried green tomatoes and of course, the headline of chicken and waffles. In Atlanta, soul food takes on another meaning, because this restaurant is owned by Shanga Hankerson, who is the son of the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight. Knight was apparently as good at cooking as she was at music, since Hankerson elected to open a restaurant based on the food his mother cooked while growing up, and attached the names of Knight and fellow singer Ron Winans, giving the restaurant an instant recognizability factor. I’m not sure if that’s a term, but if it’s not, I like it anyway.
But all the recognizability in the world won’t make a bit of difference if you can’t deliver once you get people inside. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here. The menu features plenty of options for both breakfast and dinner, such as omelets, brown sugar salmon, barbecue sandwiches and lots of tempting side dishes. Keeping with the theme of the restaurant, the sections of the menu are grouped into categories such as Headliners (breakfast entrees), Grammy Winners (dinner entrees), Side Shows (sides) and Encores (dessert).
If you’re here for the first time, however, you have to get what this place is really known for. That would be what is known on the menu as the Midnight Train, otherwise referred to as the combination of chicken and waffles. Of course, the name comes from Gladys Knight’s song “Midnight Train to Georgia”. In the food world, the Midnight Train includes four southern-fried chicken wings, plus one large waffle with butter and syrup. Just because I wanted to get some more soul food, I added a side order of macaroni and cheese. I know, real original. I make no apologies.
The combination that is the Midnight Train works perfectly. These wings are big, as is the waffle, and the reason it works is because your mouth gets a mix of savory and sweet, giving it a contrast that is both unexpected and enjoyable. The waffle is light and fluffy, exactly what a good waffle should be. When it’s soaked with the syrup, you’ve got a wonderfully sweet taste in every remaining bite. You could also utilize the small orange slice they give you, although I did not attempt that.
The chicken, meanwhile, is crispy and juicy. Fried chicken can go wrong if it becomes too greasy, but there needs to be some juice in there to make the bird worth eating. That’s exactly the case here. The breading is given the right amount of flavoring and spices, and you can stick it in the syrup to really change the taste. There is simply no way to get bored with this meal.
As for the macaroni and cheese, it’s exactly what it should be. While I’ve had the Kraft stuff on a burger, that’s not real macaroni and cheese. The real stuff is supposed to be large noodles with plenty of melted cheese, and that’s what you get here. This stuff is perfect and is a great complement to the rest of the meal. My one regret was that was the only side I was able to try. Next time, I might go with one of the meals to diversify.
That said, it’s hard to resist the call of the Midnight Train. Chicken and waffles might be a weird combination, but for some reason, it works out well.
Time to go: Surprisingly, it opens at 11 a.m. each day, rather than serve breakfast. Oh well. Monday to Thursday, it closes at 11 p.m., while on Friday and Saturday, you can go until 4 a.m. Sunday sees it close at 8 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None, but I did go very late in the evening.
Location: It’s in downtown Atlanta, located at 529 Peachtree Street NE. Be careful, because the restaurant is very easy to miss.
Parking: Oh boy. Atlanta is not an easy city to park in, but Gladys and Ron’s does have a parking lot…if you can find it. The night I went, I circled the area twice, finding no place to park. I called Amy, hoping that we could work through this together. While on the phone with her, a bum came up to me asking where I was going. Probably foolishly, I told him and he told me where the lot was. After confirming this with the manager of Gladys and Ron’s, I finally found it tucked away with no signage behind the restaurant.
The bum had followed me to the parking lot and asked if I could spare a couple bucks for his help. Since he did help, and I carry few small bills and wanted to just go eat, I handed him a five. The bum responded by handing me a 3XL T-shirt (which is WAY too big) since he could tell I was a nice guy. Finally, I made it to the restaurant, so I essentially paid five dollars for a shirt and directions. I considered that fortunate.
My advice: Go in broad daylight.
Cost: Most meals are about $10-15. It’s not bad.
Seating arrangements: Padded booths get the job done here. The tables do move, so you can create the space you need to fit if necessary.
Website: Gladys and Ron’s
Specialty items: Soul food, chicken and waffles
Whoever said revenge is a dish best served cold has clearly never been to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, where revenge is anything but cold. Here, revenge is served hot, hotter and hottest, because one woman’s desire for revenge started a Nashville tradition that continues to this day.
Prince’s story is the story of a man named Thornton Prince, who was a proud womanizer. Affairs were simply a way of life or him, and one day, the woman he was dating while having those affairs on the side decided that she was sick of him cheating on her. So one day after Prince had come home late from seeing one of his mistresses, his girlfriend decided to get revenge on him by putting way too much heat on his chicken, using extra peppers and spices (not sauce) to light his mouth on fire.
However, her plan backfired because Prince apparently had a taste for heat and loved the chicken so much he started serving it in his restaurant, which became Prince’s Hot Chicken and spawned several imitators throughout Music City. Hot chicken became Nashville’s way of eating the bird.
Going to the original takes a bit of bravery nowadays, because its location in north Nashville is notorious as one of the seediest sections of the city. Prince’s is in a badly run-down strip mall and has the reputation of not being a place you want to be at night. The restaurant itself is not exactly good at decorating, and its off-white walls and tables give it the look of a place that was built two weeks ago, not decades ago. Plus, leave your plastic at home. Prince’s only takes dead presidents (cash).
Doesn’t matter, because the chicken is worth it. Prince’s offers quarters, half (2 pieces) and whole (4 pieces) chickens, all served on white bread with pickles. Where the order differences is the level of spice you want. Prince’s packs the heat in four varieties: mild, medium, hot and extra hot.
A word of caution here: If you have low tolerance for heat, as I admittedly do, do not even think of ordering anything but mild. First, there’s nothing mild about this chicken. Prince’s mild is roughly what a normal restaurant would label hot. After two bites of chicken, it honestly felt like I had licked a sparkplug. My lips were on fire, I was thankful I had purchased a soda and any sinuses I might have had were a thing of the past.
So why did I keep eating? Because this chicken is that good. Once you get inside the ridiculous spice, you discover a juicy, meaty bird that is cooked to absolute perfection. The spice does not actually touch the meat, so what you taste instead of heat there is chicken bliss. Even when you have the heat involved, the chicken still tastes wonderful. The flavors work so well that you don’t even mind that your mouth is literally going through the torture chamber.
And that’s just mild. I have no idea what medium, hot or extra-hot taste like, and I don’t particularly wish to find out. I can only imagine that extra hot uses ghost chilis or something insane like that after my brush with the mild. One word about the bread they give you: do not think it is relief from the heat. They lay the chicken on top of the bread, which means the bread soaks up all that spice from the chicken. That means, you guessed it, the bread is just as spicy as the bird. It might be wise to invest in two sodas.
Prince’s might be in one of the worst neighborhoods in Nashville. It might have nothing in the way of ambience and it certainly makes your mouth wonder what the hell you are doing to it with the intense heat of the chicken. But it’s absolutely worth making another visit, and I’m going to have to if I’m ever in Nashville again.
The thing about Prince’s is, it hurts so good.
Time to go: Lunch. I would not go too late, because of its location. Prince’s has been known to be a site where panhandlers and drug dealers are not uncommon. If you’re willing to risk it, it’s open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Prince’s is not open on Sunday or Monday.
Wait during my visit: Minimal, but I called ahead. It can take about 30 minutes to prepare your order, and you’re not in a good part of town anyway, so I recommend calling ahead, getting what you need and getting out.
Location: Prince’s can be found at 123 Ewing Drive in north Nashville.
Cost: You can easily get out for under $10 a person.
Parking: They’ve got some here.
Specialty items: Hot chicken