Kansas City is often referred to as the “world’s barbecue capital.” With more than 100 barbecue restaurants, its reputation for outstanding barbecue is known far and wide. It’s not as commonly known that Kansas City can also strut its stuff about its fried chicken. In fact, Travel Channel television host Adam Richman has joked that KC actually stands for “killer chicken.” The killer chicken tradition started with Stroud’s Restaurant which not surprisingly, began in 1933 as a barbecue shack in Kansas City. On Independence Day a few years later, founder Helen Stroud added skillet fried chicken. It sold out immediately and has been on the menu ever since. Ironically, barbecue is no longer on the menu.
Fittingly both of my visits to Stroud’s have been during the month of September which the National Chicken Council has designated “National Chicken Month.” For more than twenty years, the Council has increased its promotion of chicken sales during September, turning what was once a slow month as the summer grilling season slows, into a month in which sales are booming. John T. Edge, author of Fried Chicken: An American Story praises this strategy, advising that “as the air gets crisper, so should your food.”
Fried chicken is one of America’s comfort food favorites with a timeless appeal that evokes nostalgic memories of home-cooking and family gatherings. In a poll administered by About.com, respondents listed among their favorite 25 comfort foods, four of which are served at Stroud’s: chicken pot pie, chicken soup, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. It’s the home-style cooking aspects of dining at Stroud’s that has made it a family favorite for generations. Meals are served family-style in capacious bowls meant to be passed around between friends and family. Even the red checkered tablecloths seem to signify a welcoming warmth.
Even as America’s culinary diversity and the sophistication of diners’ palates continue to grow, so does the appreciation for home-style cooking, comfort food and especially fried chicken. While it may seem the only fried chicken you can find throughout the fruited plain is served by the Colonel and his eleven herbs and spices and other chains, you can still find home cooking style restaurants serving chicken if you look. The pantheons of pan-fried chicken were even celebrated in 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them, a terrific tome by Michael and Jane Stern who advise that “if you’re looking for the most effulgent chicken dinner in the land, there’s only one place to go: Stroud’s of Kansas City, Missouri.”
In 1998, Stroud’s was one of the inaugural winners of the James Beard Foundation‘s “America’s Classics” award which honors legendary family-owned restaurants across the country. Considered the Academy Awards of the culinary world, the James Beard awards have been earned by a very exclusive “who’s who” in the competitive culture of cuisine. Stroud’s has also been recognized by the Wall Street Journal, Gourmet Magazine, Bon Appetit, Playboy Magazine, Conde Naste Traveler and Esquire Magazine among others. It’s the type of restaurant to which diners make pilgrimages, perhaps signifying the need for diners to reconnect with memories of comfort food favorites.
So, what is it that makes Stroud’s unique and special? Sure, its chicken is pan-fried in a heavy cast iron skillet to a crispy golden hue, but there’s so much more than that. One of the restaurant’s mottos is “we choke our own chickens,” a double-entendre laced reference to the fact that Stroud’s still does things the old-fashioned way with no short-cuts, using the same recipes as in 1933. Missouri grown chickens are hand-trimmed before they’re dredged in a simple batter mix of flour, salt and pepper (who needs eleven herbs and spices?). Each piece of chicken is only partially submerged in the skillet and receives plenty of individual attention as it fries on the pan.
The results are a light, delicate crust. This is not a greasy, heavily-breaded crust, just one that seals in moistness and flavor, a flavor ameliorated by a well-seasoned skillet. Each piece of chicken cooks for about ten minutes per side and all chicken is made-to-order so this is no fast food chicken joint. Bite into the crust and you’ll soon be reaching for napkin because this is one beautifully juicy chicken. After his first bite of Stroud’s chicken, Adam Richman called it “whole body-licking good,” meaning it is several orders of magnitude better than the Colonel’s finger-licking good chicken. There may be no better chicken in America.
Stroud’s strains its grease from the skillet in which the chicken is fried to extricate the cracklings (residual fried bits from the chicken) for making their gravy. This gravy is transformative, the very best I’ve had on mashed potatoes anywhere. Laced with pepper, its prevalent flavor is that of the fried chicken from which the cracklings were obtained. Cracklings are, after all, concentrated flavor. Fresh soybean oil, two cups of flour and a splash of milk followed by a vigorous wisking are what it takes to make this smooth, thick ambrosia. It’s gravy so good, you’ll want to drink it up and smother everything in it.
Chicken dinners are served family style with three pieces of chicken–one breast and two cook’s choice pieces. As an old-fashioned “have it your way” institution, Stroud’s also offers all-dark meat and all-white meat options, including an all-breast option that features three beautiful “D” cup breasts (these are not your chain variety “A” cup breasts). In addition to the aforementioned chicken and gravy, a chicken dinner comes with your choice of potato (mashed, baked, French fries, cottage fries), your choice of a side salad or chicken noodle soup, green beans and cinnamon rolls, all served in heaping helping size on overflowing bowls.
Before your dinner is delivered, your side salad or chicken noodle soup arrive. The chicken noodle soup is among the best chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had. It’s redolent with the flavor of chicken, both from the thick shards of chicken and the broth in which those shards swim. The perfect accompaniment for gravy, of course, is mashed potatoes. Stroud’s mashed potatoes are the real thing, not some reconstituted flakes out of a box. They’re stick-to-the-spoon thick, not light and fluffy. The pan-drip made gravy is also rather thick, but neither are lumpy. The green beans are made with bacon which imparts its inimitable flavor upon fresh, thick, perfectly prepared green beans. Dip the green beans into the gravy and you’ll swoon at the resultant deliciousness.
It’s your choice as to whether the basket of cinnamon rolls is delivered with your dinner or afterwards. Savvy diners will opt to have these golden beauties delivered with their meal to make sure they have room in their stomachs for them (plus they’re great with the gravy, too). The cinnamon rolls are yeasty and buttery with a coating of cinnamon and absolutely no icing. Stroud’s menu may have alternative dessert options, but most people are too sated to ask.
Stroud’s elevates chicken from the level of comfort food to the level of sublime sensation. Best of all, it’s prepared in a homey environment by very attentive servers who treat you as a welcome guest.
STROUD’S RESTAURANT & BAR
4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Fried Chicken Dinner