From 2011 to early 2013, a buddy of mine and I went on a mission: to find the finest fried chicken in Indiana. Thus was born the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour.
We visited restaurants famous for fried chicken across the state, though most of our stops were within shouting distance of Indianapolis. I blogged reviews of every restaurant’s chicken (and fixings) all along the way.
As I’ve been doing SEO work on the site I unearthed these old posts. I thought I’d share them again with you, because they were such fun.
Sadly, our tour ended after nine stops. My buddy and I had been co-workers, and when I moved on from the company, our contact dribbled out into nothing. And my doctor had me experiment with a gluten-free diet to try to solve a pesky health problem, which took fried chicken off my menu.
It had been too long, Sherrel and I agreed, since our last stop on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. Buying and moving into a new home had consumed his time for weeks. By the time he had settled in, I had turned in my notice at the company where we both worked. We knew we had to squeeze in one more stop on the Tour before I moved on.
We knew just where we would go: Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles. We had been once before, hoping to sample their fried-chicken dinner. The hour round trip to Maxine’s downtown Indianapolis location (132 N. East Street) from our Carmel office meant we were pushing the lunch hour’s limits. After we arrived, we learned that fried-chicken perfection took 35 minutes, time we just didn’t have.
So we settled for their signature chicken and waffles. If you’ve never had this dish, let me assure you that it is delicious. The enormous chicken wings go startlingly well with the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the inside waffles, especially when you douse them in syrup. Our lunch was so fresh and good that we vowed to return. We figured we could call ahead to order the full fried chicken dinner.
When I became a short-timer in our office, let’s just say that on-time returns from lunch became less of a priority. Our return visit to Maxine’s was a certainty.
Maxine’s is in a newish building shared with one of downtown’s few gas stations – an odd pairing, to be sure. But when you step inside you forget all about the fueling going on.
Malissa, our waitress, appeared directly to take our drink order. She returned straightaway with our unsweet iced tea and a plate of little cornbread pancakes laid around a dollop of peach butter. The cornbread was moist and slightly sweet; the peach butter was creamy and sweet but not very peachy. Maybe I should have slathered more on the bread to get the full peach flavor.
Our dinners came with a small salad, fresh and crisp, of head lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and sharp cheddar. The onions were pungent and strong, surprisingly so, and were this simple salad’s highlight. Unremarkable croutons and ranch dressing (served on the side) rounded out the salad.
Sherrel called Maxine’s from the parking lot at work to put in our chicken order, and the golden-brown goodness arrived shortly after we finished our salads.
I ordered my traditional sides of green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Sherrel got the potatoes and fried green tomatoes. My green beans were mushy, but at least they had good, slightly spicy flavor and weren’t fatty. A tomato slice and a ring of that strong onion topped and complemented them. The mashed potatoes were the best we’ve had on the Tour. There was no question about their origin: these were genuine mashed potatoes – unquestionably neither whipped nor instant as they were full of little potato chunks. They delivered solid, straight up potato flavor, with only a hint of the milk or cream that was holding them together. Maxine’s clearly chooses excellent quality potatoes. The gravy that topped them was slightly sweet and a little too fatty. A dash of salt improved it. Sherrel declared the fried green tomatoes to be fine, especially with the supplied sauce, but didn’t elaborate.
At last I dove into the chicken, the main event. Maxine’s delivers four pieces with each order, either all dark meat or all white meat. I ordered the white, Sherrel ordered the dark, and we traded two pieces so we could each experience the whole chicken.
The coating was thin and crisp. I guessed that this was a simple flour dredge. But later Sherrel wondered whether Maxine’s uses crushed corn flakes in its coating. I think he may be right. The coating was mildly seasoned, perhaps only with a little salt.
It works because the dense, tender meat carries deep, rich chicken flavor. Maxine’s is buying high-quality birds, easily the finest meat we’ve experienced on the Tour. Actually, this was the most inherently flavorful bird I’ve ever eaten. They don’t adorn it with thick, highly seasoned coating because this meat doesn’t need it; it speaks for itself. My only quibble was that the breast was a tiny, tiny, tiny bit dry.
My meal was $17.75. Sherrel’s dark-meat order was about a buck less. (That’s him over there, hard at work on his dinner.) This was a great experience, made even better by Malissa, who served us with a giant smile, an infectious great attitude, and an uncanny ability to appear at our table at the exact moments we needed her.
As Sherrel and I drove back to the office, we vowed that we would keep the Tour going despite it being more complicated now to schedule stops. Altogether too often our chicken quest was continued merely because we happened to pass each other in the hallway and one of us cried, “Chicken!” We must redouble our efforts; this is too much fun.
Hollyhock Hill is in a class of Indiana restaurants that reminds of times gone by. We’ve visited two other such places on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour: Kopper Kettle and The Iron Skillet. Traditional, genteel, and quaint, these places feel like stepping into a country homestead in how we all imagine 1928 must have been (which, incidentally, is the year Hollyhock Hill opened). They tend to be built into old houses, with interiors painted bright white and hung with whimsical decorations. Every table is a little bit different – one is round and covered with a short white tablecloth under a thick layer of glass; the next is rectangular with a brightly colored tablecloth; a third is oval with a frilly place mat at each setting. Ordinary glassware, flatware, and china are used, but are arranged so nicely that as you sit down you feel as though this will be a fine dining experience. Indeed, Hollyhock Hill and its ilk are as much about the experience as about the food.
Sherrel and I work a mile or so away from Hollyhock Hill, which is at 8110 N. College Ave. on Indianapolis’s Far Northside. Because it’s so easy to get to, we have visited before on our lunch hour, but not since beginning the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. Hollyhock Hill is open for lunch only when a large group has reserved the restaurant for an event, so call ahead to check availability. They recommend reservations for dinner.
Hollyhock Hill specializes in family-style dinners and while they’re known for fried chicken, they offer steaks and seafood too. Lunches are plated and limited in portion. All of their meals begin with pickled beets and an iceberg salad with a sweet house dressing. Sherrel liked the beets but they’re not my thing and I stayed away. The salad is very well executed and is exactly what it means to be with mild, sweet flavors, but I wished for more and ate only a few bites.
Biscuits came next, to go with the apple butter brought with the salad and beets. Aren’t they gorgeous? Unfortunately, they were dense and tough, though applying a little apple butter helped dissolve my disappointment.
Shortly the main event arrived. I was struck by how green the green beans were. They came from a can, but were firm and mildly seasoned. Sherrel said he found both ham and bacon pieces mixed in. The mashed potatoes were whipped smooth with good potato flavor and a mild note of something else I couldn’t place. I covered mine in cream gravy. What it lacked in flavor it made up for in thickness and smoothness.
Sherrel and I agree: chicken is best fried in lard. Our hearts and arteries might not agree, but we aren’t asking them. Based on mouth feel, we think Hollyhock Hill fries in lard. Mmboy! The coating was thin and crispy everywhere, which we both like, but we wished for a little more spice. The chicken inside was a tiny bit dry, the breast more so than the thigh. We decided this was an anomaly, as the chicken was plenty juicy on our last visit. We didn’t detect any seasoning in the meat, but the dark meat carried a great deal more good natural chicken flavor than the white. When my plate was empty but for bones, I wished I could have had another thigh.
Our server made herself invisible but was clearly paying attention because the moment we finished, she cleared away our plates and brought out ice cream and bowls full of chocolate, butterscotch, and creme de menthe sauces. I’m a butterscotch fan and this stuff’s full flavor did not disappoint, making what was otherwise an everyday bowl of ice cream a delightful finish to my meal.
Lunch was $12.95 and included coffee, tea, or milk. I had the coffee and it was regular Joe, a good, honest cup. It went with a good, honest meal.
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.
The sixth stop on our chicken quest again kept Sherrel and I close to my northwest Indianapolis home as we visited Marble’s Southern Cookery at 2310 Lafayette Road. Marble’s is open only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so plan your visit accordingly. We arrived at around 1 pm on a Sunday and found the place moderately busy, but by the time we left the line was almost out the door. The place is popular!
Marble’s is a cafeteria, which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But the line was efficient and fast, and every last person working the line at Marble’s had a giant smile on their face. The woman at the cash register danced gently to a song playing in her head. Marble’s must be a good place to work! And in no time flat, we had our food and were on our way. As we sat down with our trays, I noticed that while Marble’s interior is spare, it was clean and pleasantly decorated in earth tones with coordinating wall art.
The fried chicken looked beautiful. The pieces were gigantic and golden. The coating was crunchy but, unfortunately, sometimes tough. I detected salt and pepper in the mildly seasoned coating; I would have liked to taste more of both. The meat within was juicy but plain, so it seems that Marble’s doesn’t marinate or brine their chicken before frying. Based on mouth feel, I’d say the chicken was fried in vegetable oil. We prefer lard. Well, let me be clear – the pleasure centers in my brain prefer lard, but my body would be happier if I had a salad instead. But the Tour is all about the total chicken experience, and Sherrel and I think lard provides it best. But Marble’s fried this chicken just right, leaving just the right amount of fat in the coating to create that “ohhhhhh….” moment when you bite in.
Sherrel ordered greens and macaroni and cheese as his sides, and he had lots good to say about both. The macaroni and cheese got his highest praise – he called it buttery, creamy, and very cheesy. He wished he had ordered more. He liked the greens almost as much, calling them tender and nicely seasoned. As always, I ordered mashed potatoes with gravy and green beans. The mildly seasoned green beans had bits of carrot, onion, potato, and red pepper in it – novel and interesting. I was unenthusiastic about the mashed potatoes. They were smooth and had little flavor, but did have decent body. A crust had formed around the edges, which suggests they may have sat under warming lights a little too long. The neon-yellow gravy was thin and added very little flavor.
Because I ordered both dark and white meat chicken, I walked out of Marble’s very, very full. The bill came to just under $16 including a soda (served in a can), which was in line with the sheer amount of food I consumed.
Were I a wagering man, I’d bet that MCL Restaurant and Bakery has had fried chicken on their extensive menu every day since their first location opened in 1950. Given that and the fact you can’t swing a dead cat in Indianapolis without hitting an MCL, it seemed fait accompli that Sherrel and I would visit one on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. MCL is an Indianapolis institution, with nine locations around the metro. The chain also reaches Muncie, Anderson, Richmond, Terre Haute, one city in Illinois, and four cities in Ohio. I know their location at 2370 W. 86th St. best, so that’s where we went. We brought our colleague (and frequent Down the Road commenter) Dani along.
MCL is a cafeteria. So you might think that the three of us, who all hover around middle age, would signficantly drop the average age in the place just by showing up. That was not the case. Our fellow diners were an even mix of those past retirement age and people around our age. Could it be that cafeterias start to gain some allure after you turn 40?
But I digress. MCL prides itself in homemade, fresh food. Given the dizzying array of choices as you pass through the line, they must work very hard every day to deliver it. I was momentarily distracted by a giant, juicy beef roast all pink in the center, just how I like it. Dani was tempted by some baked tilapia. With steely determination, we averted our eyes from the bounty as we ordered what we came for.
To me, a classic fried chicken meal involves mashed potatoes and green beans, so that’s what I chose. But many other vegetables were available, in even greater variety than the main courses. I had a diet soda with my lunch; coffee and iced tea were also available.
Even though I favor dark meat, I like to sample both dark and white meat when when on the Tour. Unfortunately, the menu board offered all-dark and all-white meals, but no mix. That didn’t stop Sherrel from ordering a breast and a thigh anyway, which I didn’t notice until it was too late for me to do the same.
The coating was very crispy, almost crunchy. It was mildly seasoned and a little salty. My thigh was plenty juicy, the leg less so. Sherrel reported that the breast was “one of the juiciest I’ve had.” By the end of the meal he placed this chicken among his favorites on the Tour. I was trying to decide what flavor the meat had when Dani declared it bland and I realized she was right. Clearly, the coating was meant to carry the flavor. But still, we were all impressed with this chicken, which tasted like it was fresh from the fryer.
I was less enthralled with the vegetables. The green beans were a little limp, but to their credit plenty of salty bacon bits were mixed in to add flavor. Given the amount of bacon, I expected the beans to be fatty, but they weren’t. I wished I had noticed the fresh green beans when I went through the line. Dani did, and she judged them crisp and very buttery. The potatoes were an outright disappointment. They were thin and smooth and had an off flavor, which Sherrel decided must be the flavor of the box from which they came. The gravy was salty but otherwise not flavorful, and had very little body.
I finished off my meal with a piece of cheesecake. I’ve eaten at MCL several times before and know that their cheesecake is a winner. I like straight classic cheesecake, and I like it plain, and MCL is always happy to oblige. And it helped ease my sorrow over the potatoes.
My lunch came to just over $14. The cheesecake was the most expensive item at $4, so if you’re looking for lunch at around $10 just skip dessert. The chicken and sides were plenty of food by themselves.
Even though I wasn’t overly thrilled with my sides, I’m certain I’ll come back for more fried chicken at MCL. With so many locations convenient to me, and so much variety every day, it’s an easy choice. But next time I’ll look for those fresh green beans, and maybe I’ll break from tradition and skip the potatoes.