Kansas City smells of barbecue, especially on road trips when cash is short and hunger's high, and the aroma just intensifies until there's nothing you can do but stop at a roadside stand and get a bag of bones that will last you through Nebraska. But Kansas City has another specialty, too, and a mere whiff of its fried chicken is enough to arouse stomach lust in more abstinent souls than mine.
I learned about the town's chicken dining halls from a guy named Jim, who convinced us that what he was selling out of the back of his truck parked at a rest stop was authentic KC 'cue. By then, though, I was already gnawing on Jim's life's work, and I didn't have enough time or appetite left to head to Stroud's or Boots and Coats to pick up a mess of pan-fried chicken and cracklin' gravy.
In the intervening years, I've had to content myself with reading about places like Stroud's, and I'm convinced they must be heaven, the air filled with thin wisps of the smoke that comes from fat hitting hot cast iron and the greasy, salty scent of someone frying the hell out of chicken.
That smell must have been what overcame Tom Walls, because he says that otherwise, he doesn't have a clue why he and his partner, Brad Anderson, felt compelled to open a chicken joint. "For years, and I mean years, we wanted to do a chicken place," says Walls, who's also part-owner of the sixteen-year-old Trinity Grill, the eight-year-old Rocky Mountain Diner and the two-year-old Choppers Sports Bar and Grill--perfectly fine restaurants, but none of them regular roosts for fried-chicken fans. "Brad worked at Stroud's for, what, about a month a million years ago, and since then, he's wanted to do chicken. And I went to college with a guy who worked at Stroud's for years, and since then I've wanted to do chicken. Well, now we're doing chicken, aren't we?"
And how. Walls and Anderson finally got their chicken place two years ago when they (along with realtor Brad Brown) opened Castle Cafe in Castle Rock. Since then, the restaurant has made a name for itself as one of the few eateries in Colorado doing pan-fried chicken to order. "Do you know what a pain in the butt it is to do pan-fried chicken to order?" Walls asks.
Actually, yes. It's an enormous pain to do anything to order in a restaurant, let alone something that has to be handled as carefully as chicken, dipped and dredged and then prepared in a way that makes the huge mess that frying invariably does. But done right--and Castle Cafe takes the time to do it right--pan-fried chicken is sinful perfection.
Castle Cafe follows Stroud's formula, with one exception: In Kansas City the frying medium of choice is melted-down lard or Crisco, but Castle Cafe uses heart-healthy canola oil (hey, this is Colorado, after all). Cloaked in a salt-and-pepper-doused flour, the bird is placed in a cast-iron skillet filled with that sizzling oil, then fried until the meat is all wet and juicy inside and the flour outside has just cooked into a golden crust--the kind that holds on to enough grease to add an extra squirt when you bite into it, but not so much that the coating loses its crunch. Then the oil is poured from the pan and flour added to the scraps of chicken skin and fried flour scraped off the bottom to make a roux; the mixture is then browned and thinned with milk to make a sumptuous, concentrated cracklin' gravy. Mama, I'm comin' home.
Legend has it that both Stroud's and Boots and Coats, that other KC masterpiece, got their recipes from a woman named Chicken Betty, who, according to Jane and Michael Stern in Real American Food, "learned to catch, kill, pluck, clean and fry chickens when she was a little girl on her parents' farm in Nebraska." When Betty grew up, she was in such demand as a chicken-fryer that restaurants all over the Midwest hired her to teach them the recipe. (The Sterns' book includes a pan-fried chicken recipe reprinted from a New York Times article on Betty, in case you're looking to harden your arteries in the privacy of your own home.)
Although Castle Cafe sticks closely to the chicken dining hall's recipe for pan-fried bird, its decor varies from the original. The typical KC chicken joint has banquet tables covered with brown paper or oilcloth, and smoke hangs oily and heavy in the air. (I know this because Barry Fey, self-proclaimed beef, barbecue and fried-chicken expert, told me so.) Castle Cafe has the smell, all right, but the dining room is tidy and neat, with booths and an old-timey atmosphere that it comes by legitimately. While the restaurant is a relative newcomer, the building that houses it dates back to the 1890s, when it was the Castle Hotel and Bar, a notoriously wild spot that hosted quarry workers, ranchers and travelers.
Castle Cafe's menu emphasizes both the old West and the new. For starters, there's the Yuppie-I-O dip ($4.95), which Walls dismisses by saying, "Who isn't doing an artichoke dip?" Well, no one's doing one this good: thick, packed with artichokes, supplemented with spinach, enriched with tons of parmesan and perfectly broiled. The house-smoked rainbow trout ($4.95) was a treat, too, with a mellow but frank smokiness that held its own against a side of red-chile-fired mayonnaise.
Entrees come with a choice of soup, salad or Nana's coleslaw. It's a tough decision. The soup is chicken noodle, with a rich chicken-stock base and plenty of chicken pieces to balance out the thick egg noodles. The coleslaw recipe comes from Walls's grandmother, and it produces a fine slaw of fresh, crunchy cabbage that's both sugary sweet and tarragon-vinegar tart. You also get your choice of potatoes, and while the fries are fine, the real mashed potatoes are extraordinary. Another Stroud's-inspired offering, the spuds are skin-on and partly chunky, the ideal texture for smashing around in peppery cracklin' gravy.
The pan-fried chicken ($9.95 for a half) is a melt-in-your mouth must. But the kitchen also turns out other rib-sticking, comfort-food favorites. The chicken-fried steak ($8.95) came with its own brand of cracklin' gravy, which was thicker and sported the darker, denser flavors of beef. And the buffalo meatloaf ($9.50) proved to be one of the best ways that I've found to prepare this lean flesh, balancing the meat's dryness with juice-soaked breading and a medium-thick, onion-heavy gravy. The only miss in the meat department was the carrot-and-celery-laden Yankee pot roast ($8.95), which was stringy and chewy and tasted as though it had been cooked days before and dried out in the walk-in.
Otherwise, even when the menu ventured far from cowboy country, the prices stayed right and the dishes worked. The teriyaki-glazed salmon ($12.95) was a pleasant surprise, a hefty piece of fish cooked to just-doneness and thinly sweetened with a not-too-sugary sauce. The Pines pasta ($10.95) was another marvel, a savvy mix of penne pasta, mushrooms cooked down with sun-dried tomatoes, slivers of roasted garlic and pine nuts. It's the sort of yuppie combo that Castle Cafe's menu likes to mock, but we were too busy spooning it up to snicker.
Desserts returned to country-cooking territory. We somehow made our way through an oversized, hearty and skillfully executed bread pudding ($3.50) with a caramel whiskey sauce; a decadent, homey chocolate fudge cake ($3.50); and an apple brown Betty ($3.95) that had enough grains in it to bulk up a horse.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Betty behind that confection bears no relation to Chicken Betty, who deserves a prayer of thanks for her role in bringing real pan-fried chicken to these parts. Walls also credits executive chef Jerry Good, head of the kitchens for all four restaurants and a part-owner in three of them, with setting the tone for Castle Cafe's food. Valerie Broom is the on-site kitchen manager, and she, too, deserves kudos for keeping things consistent while the staff starts up another batch of chicken every few minutes.
Yes, it's a pain in the butt to do pan-fried chicken to order. But no pain, no gain. By not chickening out and taking the easy way, Castle Cafe has made itself a welcome addition to the area's dining scene. And that's a rare bird.
Castle Cafe, 403 Wilcox Street, Castle Rock, 303-814-2233. Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.