Growing up, we didn’t eat fried chicken often, but when we did, it was special, reserved for a rare night when my mother didn’t feel like cooking and the aroma from the nearby bucket-chicken restaurant was just too hard to ignore. We kids fought for dibs on the choice pieces (for us, drumsticks) in the bucket, savoring every crispy-juicy bite.
Those counter-service chicken places have not gone out of favor, but the communal experience of eating a chicken dinner, with the fixin’s, has made inroads into some local sit-down establishments. It presents an economical way of dining. For one inclusive price, you get the bird and the accouterments to feed a handful of people. Fried chicken is not complicated, but it is delicate business. You want to avoid the traps of both grease-encased batter AND dry meat. The almost 7-month-old The Tandem – inside the restored, 124-year-old Wally Schmidt Tavern in Lindsay Heights – has made whole chicken part of its soul/comfort food focus and is doing a fine job with it.
Tandem owner Caitlin Cullen admits to “not using recipes at all” (the cooking is “all by eyeball,” she says), but rather teaching the kitchen staff by repeating steps and techniques. Once they’ve mastered one thing, they’re on to the next. Through that, they achieve consistency. And this major attraction brings the weekly chicken order to 250 pounds.
The Tandem serves three kinds of whole chicken, two of them brined, battered and fried. Both of the fried variations are brought to the table on sheet pans, the batter on the fried pieces uniformly brown and glistening. The spicy Memphis fried, made with a seasoned buttermilk brine, should theoretically make your lips tingle. On a recent visit, it did not have that zingy effect. The meat was succulent enough, but the crispy shell exterior fell a little too easily off the meat. For the texture alone, the Georgia fried had the edge – crispier, adhered better to the meat and while I wouldn’t call it juicy, it sealed in moisture in a way the crust on the Memphis one didn’t.
Orbiting around this sheet pan of protein are several ramekins of slaw, mac and cheese, potato salad, bitter greens and bean salad. For $26, diners get the bird and three sides. The bean salad – assorted beans (kidney, black) and onions tossed in a cider vinaigrette – conjures up picnics on a checked blanket under the shade of a tree.
The creamy cabbage slaw is saucy and a little sweet. It’s one of the better tasting wet-but-crisp slaws I’ve had lately and acts as an extra moistening agent for the meat. I also like the chewy cooked collards, the bitterness of which is softened a little by the pork fat.
Fried okra will set you back $6, but it’s well spent. Encased in cornmeal batter, the pods are pops of crispness and pair deliciously with ranch dressing.
1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., 414-885-1919
Hours: Dinner Tues-Sat; brunch Sun.
Prices: Entrées $9-$16. Whole chicken $26, with three sides. Individual sides $3-$6.
Service: Friendly! Some still seem to be training, so might require a little patience.
Three more places to indulge that fried fixation:
Palomino has an exceptional bird on its dinner menu – three battered pieces with good chunky mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, broccolini and a tender buttermilk biscuit, $18. (2491 S. Superior St., 414-747-1007)
On the soul food buffet at Daddy’s Soul Food Grille is that classic, splendid balance of sweet and salty – fried chicken and waffles dusted with powdered sugar, $6.99. (754 N. 27th St., 414-448-6165)
The Sunday night special at Supper is a killer family-style plate of fried thigh/breast, peppery mashed potatoes, greens and a biscuit, $22. (Shorecrest Hotel, 1962 N. Prospect Ave., 414-509-6074)