This is where it all began.
Well, actually it began in my office at work. Sherrel visits a lot. (He’s a programmer; he can always say his code’s compiling.) We always end up talking about food, and one day he said, “I had the most unusually delicious fried chicken of my life over the weekend.” He described a trip his family took through southeastern Indiana, how they stopped at Wagner’s Village Inn in Oldenburg, and how the fried chicken there was delightfully peppery. This got us to thinking, and then to scheming, and then to planning, and now here we are at the seventh stop on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour.
Oldenburg is about 70 miles southeast of Indianapolis, an easy drive along I-74 almost all the way. The town is proud of its German heritage; all the street signs are in German with English subtitles. It’s an old town well preserved; it was founded in the 1830s. Wagner’s is right on the main drag, at 22171 Main St. (oder Hauptstraβe, auf Deutsch).
Inside, Wagner’s looks much like any other Indiana bar and grill, a casual joint with a bar on one side and dining on the other. It’s the kind of place you can feel comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. As we were led to a table, we passed by the kitchen where we could see three giant iron skillets filled to the top with boiling oil and chicken, which excited us greatly.
Wagner’s doesn’t mess around with its chicken dinners. They come with cole slaw, rolls, green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy, no substitutions. The cole slaw came first. I won’t touch the stuff, but Sherrel did and declared it fine. It looked to be freshly made.
Before Sherrel could take a second helping, out came the rest of our dinner. We were the only diners in the joint (it was early afternoon, an odd time for dinner), but Wagner’s was ready for us nonetheless.
I filled my plate and then eased into the meal by tearing off a bit of my roll. It was tender but otherwise unremarkable; a standard dinner roll. That out of the way, I dug into my potatoes. They were whipped thin, but had good flavor. The gravy in which they swam was very peppery without being hot. A tiny dash of salt on the gravy brought out its flavor dramatically. I liked it so much that throughout the meal I kept putting another dab of potatoes on my plate, smothering it in gravy, and adding a half-shake of salt. Mmmboy!
The green beans were cooked al dente, to the extent canned beans can be. They were utterly plain – no fat, no bacon, no spices, no nothing, just green beans. I was surprised – the beans were dolled up somehow at every other stop on the Tour. But their unadorned state detracted not at all from the meal.
And so I turned to the chicken. I was surprised to find that one of the pieces I selected was a back. I’ve never seen a chicken back fried before. I applaud Wagner’s for not being wasteful, although there wasn’t very much meat on it and it was hard to get much of a flavor impression from it. So I picked up a breast and took a deep bite – and was not disappointed. It was plenty juicy, though not so much that you worried about dribbling onto your shirt. The meat was unseasoned. I was very impressed that the thin coating was crispy absolutely everywhere on every piece I ate. The coating’s main, perhaps only, seasoning was black pepper, flecks of which appeared throughout. Again, the pepper flavor was strong but was not hot. I gather that peppered coating is common in southeastern Indiana, but this was my first go-round with it and I have to say I wonder where it’s been all my life.
We ended dinner with a little peach cobbler, which had just come from the oven. The peaches came from a can and were very sweet, but the slab of thick, lightly sugared, biscuity crust balanced them perfectly.
Chicken dinner at Wagner’s Village Inn was very reasonably priced at $10.95 per person. Drink and dessert brought the price to about $16.
Other chicken we especially enjoyed on the Tour: Mississippi Belle and Kopper Kettle.