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Suzi's All Right

Suzi Asjes and her family make their roadhouse a destination.

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What's the difference between a roadside diner and a roadhouse? Traditionally, the latter is more about drinking than eating, often with live entertainment, a well-stocked bar and a rowdy ambience. If there is food, it's a no-frills menu of steaks and fried chicken.

In the 1940s and '50s, Kansas City had quite a few such roadhouses on the outskirts of town. When the southern city limits ended at 75th Street and the roads beyond were "out in the county," more than one after-hours bar lured customers with the promise of a hot bird and a cold drink. You can still see relics of this bawdy heyday on Wornall Road, where a couple of former roadhouses have been reincarnated as more respectable businesses. The Waldo Pet Center, for example, used to be Mary's (her name is still carved in concrete over one of the doors), where famed big-band singer Anita O'Day made a standard out of "Let Me off Uptown."

A dozen or so blocks southeast of Mary's is a modern version of a roadhouse called Suzi's. It's named for charismatic owner Suzi Asjes, a veteran waitress who wanted a place she could own with her kids, each of whom also had plenty of restaurant and bar experience. Overseeing the kitchen is Asjes' eldest son, Steve Estabrook, who started his career as sous chef for the Peppercorn Duck Club in the 1980s; he went on to spend eleven years working for the Hyatt chain and another six with the Whole Foods Market in Dallas. Steve's brother Jimmy works the front of the house. Their sister Mary, who worked at the old Point and Tuba nightclubs, manages the bar.

"We always wanted the opportunity to work together, and one day the opportunity presented itself," Steve says. "About four years ago, we took over the old Humphrey's Grill and opened our own place."

Steve says the musicians who play on Wednesday nights and at least one weekend night have called Suzi's a roadhouse. He's been told the same thing by customers, who range from blue-collar workers to some of Kansas City's most hoity-toity socialites.

"It's the best fried chicken in the city," confesses one of those socialites -- an old-money doyenne with a famous family name. "But don't tell anybody that."

Why shouldn't I? She already has. One night as I draped a paper napkin across my lap in Suzi's cordoned-off nonsmoking section, I glanced over into the bigger dining room next to the bar -- which is artfully lit with neon beer signs and a clear plastic Budweiser light fixture with a revolving horse-drawn wagon -- and saw one of the city's snobbiest, most uptight couples having a raucous time in one of the roomy booths. This pair was old enough to remember the lively days of honest-to-goodness roadhouses and seemed to be reliving the past, joined by a couple of friends (all in affectedly "casual" clothes) to eat, drink and whoop it up.

A country club this place ain't, especially up in the nonsmoking corner, where every wall is covered with photographs and posters of pre-Reagan-era pop stars: Dylan, Springsteen, Mick and Keith, Linda Ronstadt, Sinatra -- there's even a framed poster for an early Frank Zappa concert. The seven chatty ladies having after-work libations at the next table were drinking frosty blended cocktails and bottles of beer. They all but screamed across the table at each other with interoffice gossip. "I heard she wants to get her house professionally feng-shuied!" blurted out a frizzy-haired blonde as her companions roared with laughter. "She is so overpaid!"

Maybe it was the feng shui line that subconsciously persuaded me to order a light and healthy portabella mushroom sandwich instead of the fried chicken I really wanted. Or maybe it was the bartender's 30-inch waistline that made me feel too fat. Or maybe it was the waitress telling my friend Bob, "The fried chicken takes 25 minutes, honey, if you don't mind waiting."

I did mind waiting, and so did Bob, who ordered the 14-ounce Kansas City strip instead. That gave him just enough time to attack a big cold salad of iceberg lettuce, boulder-sized croutons and a piquant balsamic vinaigrette. The sizzling strip arrived a shade tougher and chewier than either of us expected, but it was delectably seasoned and broiled with butter. My New Age version of a roadhouse burger, made with a marinated, woodsy-flavored agaricus bisporus, was much more tender than Bob's steak and better-tasting too, the chunky portabella having been grilled with a slice of mozzarella cheese, roasted red peppers and a dab of pesto mayonnaise.

But I was eager to come back and try out Estabrook's pan-fried chicken. It's said to resemble the chicken once served at Boots and Coates, a long-closed chicken-and-steak joint on Kansas City's south side where Suzi Asjes worked as a waitress for fourteen years. Estabrook's recipe is his family's own, he says -- "only slightly similar" to the Boots and Coates version. "This is Suzi's chicken," he insists.

And it's worth waiting for. A few nights later, with Bob and my chicken-loving goddaughters in tow, I returned to Suzi's for the main event. The girls, who are fans of fast-food chicken nuggets, seemed confused at the concept of real fried chicken. "You mean," asked ten-year-old Alex, "that it's McNuggets with bones?"

I deftly convinced them to order the fried chicken tenders on the appetizer list for their dinners. "It's a cross between the real thing and a nugget," I said as the waitress nodded in approval.

Bob, who claimed to have been dreaming of fried chicken the previous few nights, ordered the chicken dinner and an appetizer of salsa and chips -- "to tide me over," he said. Knowing I could snag bites of chicken from my dining companions, I opted for something different: chef Steve's special du jour, a pork scalloppine in a mushroom marsala sauce.

The salsa turned out to be a surprisingly bland, watery concoction with chunks of chopped tomatoes and onion surrounded by a pile of red, blue and yellow corn chips. The salads came next, in chilled china bowls that Alex found terribly swanky. "I like this place," she said. "It's like Chubby's, only darker."

Estabrook's variation on scalloppine -- in Italy, it's typically made of pounded-out veal, dredged in flour and sautéed -- is a less costly version made with pork, but it's equally tender and tastes like the real thing, ladled with a sweet, mahogany-colored Marsala wine sauce. But there were far too many fat chunks of that ubiquitous portabella mushroom, which by this meal I found tiresome.

Finally the platters of chicken arrived. The meat was tender and juicy under a crisp, peppery breading. "And the mashed potatoes!" raved Bob. "They're homemade and creamy, with the best chicken gravy!" He put away the potatoes before he took his second bite of chicken.

If this were a real roadhouse, I might have ended such a hearty meal with an unfiltered cigarette, a glass of Scotch and a few hands of poker. But having given up at least two of those vices, I was going straight to hell only for dessert. Our cute young server was happy to encourage me. "We have two desserts we make here," she said enthusiastically. "A baked apple strudel and fresh strawberry shortcake drenched in Grand Marnier." There's also an imported, sugary Key lime cheesecake, but only the strudel qualified as a royal flush: a thick slab of flaky pastry oozing with spicy baked apples and raisins, topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.

There's no hangover after a strudel trip, but a night at Suzi's takes you down the road to happy ruin.

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