Deep Fried Chicago: The Boarding House Lunch at Big Jones
Editor's Note: With this post, Joe is putting Deep Fried Chicago to bed. It's been a hell of a ride. Joe's not going anywhere, though—he'll continue to dive weekly into the amazing dishes, fried and beyond, that our great city has to offer.
This column has been built around a premise of cobbling together meals completely consisting of deep fried components. But as everyone but me apparently knows, man cannot live on breading alone. That's not how fried food is meant to be enjoyed; its richness begs for a foil, something to cut through the grease and crunch, something to complement rather than compete. So for my last hurrah, I decided to give fried food a try the way God intended, as one part of a multifaceted, balanced meal. And I couldn't think of any other restaurant that places fried food in such beautiful context as Big Jones in Andersonville. I refer, of course, to their love letter to fried chicken, the Boarding House Lunch ($16.00).
The idea here is simple. Those of us with (a) time for a leisurely, mid-week lunch, and (b) a tableful of other like-minded friends, can be rewarded, as often as we'd like, with an old fashioned fried chicken lunch with all the fixins'. Not only is this a steal for more food than you'll possibly be able to finish in one sitting (believe me, I tried), but the attention given the dishes is apparent, each adding invaluably to the fried chicken ensemble.
The meal begins with a plate of Cornbread Muffins and Biscuits. The thinnest, crispiest cornbread crust you ever saw gives way to a tender center dotted with whole corn kernels. The muffin itself is not sweet; it's flavor is decidedly corny. Fear not though, fellow Northerners! The butter is rich and sweet from a generous incorporation of honey and spreads like a dream. I forgot to snap a photo of the Biscuits, but they were a little overdone on this visit anyway. I have it on good authority that they are usually excellent, though, so I look forward to meeting again.
And now the main event. The Dark Meat Fried Chicken (pictured above) arrives to the table heaped high on a platter, its crispy cornmeal breading giving way to moist, flavorful chicken. What I like most about it, though, is that it isn't a "take" on the dish. This is fried chicken, a dish that is more about its regional ubiquity than it is about being a particular place's specialty. I say this knowing full well that Big Jones uses an Edna Lewis recipe, and that she is an icon of southern cuisine. But the chicken doesn't taste as much as a homage to Ms. Lewis as it tastes like lunch, pure and simple, and wonderful in its lack of pretentiousness.
Admittedly, we didn't make it to the football-sized White Meat Fried Chicken when it arrived a bit later, but it made for excellent leftovers.
The Mashed Potatoes and Gumbo Gravy are made with yellow potatoes, and they have character (read: fluffy, tender lumps). I could've used more of the dark roux based gravy, though that could be my Old Country Buffet childhood talking.
Saucy and bitter, the Voodoo Greens are the perfect counter to the richness of the fried chicken. Any time the chicken threatened to overwhelm, a small bite of greens brought me back to the straight and narrow. The result, of course, is that you can eat infinitely more fried chicken, which means these greens should be used with caution.
Put simply, the Red Beans and Rice are comforting. Unlike its fragrant cousins basmati and jasmine, the white rice here is a blank slate, albeit an absorbent one. This is good news for the saucy red beans, which are tender and toothsome.
Rounding out the meal is a perfectly portioned serving of Banana Pudding with Whipped Cream. They could've really fudged with this one—too sweet, and the meal would've spiraled over the precipice. But the pudding is restrained, with most of the sweetness coming from the ripe bananas buried within. Toasted coconut adds crunchy textural contrast, while the whipped cream tastes like my wife's. I'm full.
As the dishes are cleared away, I lean back in my chair to reflect. Usually I end these sorts of meals reeling, my mind racing to compartmentalize each fried component. Searching for the proper time to use "crispy" or "crunchy." But not today. This won't go down in history as the best fried chicken I've ever had. But here, in this meal, I've tasted fried food bolstered by a strong, humble supporting cast—each with its own attributes deserving of celebration—and I like the direction my thoughts are headed. I could get used to this.