Dining » Fat Mouth

Fry, Baby

Kansas City’s fried chickens come home to roost.

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It doesn't matter that revered local personality Walt Bodine hates chicken -- fried or otherwise. The dish remains one of Kansas City's most popular culinary choices (after steak and barbecue). Stroud's is the city's best-known, best-loved fried-chicken restaurant, though it has had its rivals over the years, including the long-vanished Green Parrot Inn and the legendary Wishbone Restaurant. For more than thirty years, the Wishbone operated out of an old brick mansion at 45th and Main, where family-style fried chicken dinners came with salads doused in a piquant, garlicky dressing that became so famous that Lipton bought the rights to the stuff in 1957. The dressing outlasted the restaurant, which was purchased by Stan Glazer in 1980.

"By the time I took over, the fried chicken wasn't that great anymore," says Glazer, who later spent a small fortune turning the mansion into a nightclub that was so hot that it didn't last either. Two decades later, Glazer opened another fried chicken restaurant, Stanford's Roadhouse, in Johnson County. He didn't use the old Wishbone recipe, but he hired cooks who had worked at Stroud's and another famous -- and defunct -- chicken joint, Boots and Coates. Stanford's Roadhouse didn't last either, even if he'd figured out how to make fried chicken to crow about.

"We had to experiment a lot, but we learned a few tricks," says Glazer. "It has to be in an iron skillet, and you have to flood it with lard."

Lard? In these days of cholesterol paranoia?

"Well, not anymore," says Kurtis Lam, the owner of K. T. Fryers (see review, page 39), who got his start frying birds for Granny's owner Jerry Schanzer (now at Napoleon's Bakery) back during the Reagan administration. Lam now uses a lard-free product that's a blend of animal fat and vegetable oils.

"The secret to great chicken," Lam says, "is not to use fresh grease. You need to combine fresh oil with older oil, because it retains flavors."

Originally at 18th and Baltimore, Granny's opened a second location in Prairie Village. But by the late '80s both restaurants vanished, along with the framed photographs of customers' and local celebrities' grandmothers. People still talk about the successful businessman who brought in a photo of his grandmother for Schanzer to display, admired it on the wall for several weeks, then confessed the picture wasn't of his grandmother but of himself in granny drag.

Actor and writer Mark Manning, who used to cook "Nebraska Fried Chicken" for patrons of the long-gone Café Lulu every Sunday, says the secret to perfect fried chicken is "to cut up the chicken in the same kitchen where you fry it. Never use precut pieces. And you dredge it in milk, then salt and pepper."

Hungry people who aren't fried-chicken purists can find reliable versions at the deli counters of most Hen House stores. Fried chicken there is hot and flavorful because every two hours "the chicken is removed and we make fresh chicken," says Bonnie Winston of Ball Foods. But in this case "fresh chicken" means frozen breasts and legs, freshly fried. "When we were trying to do the breading ourselves with fresh chicken, it was a huge, hideous mess," says Winston. "And our customers prefer the taste and appearance of the fried chicken we serve now.

"It's one of our top sellers," Winston adds. And trust me: She's not giving you the bird.

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