Chowhound: What would you do for Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken?

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

click to enlarge Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is good... perhaps too good. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is good... perhaps too good.

Chowhound is a bi-weekly column about what’s trending in Detroit food culture. Tips: [email protected].

Playing chicken: I love me some great fried chicken. But is it to die for? Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is my go-to here in Michigan. There’s none better. Only the bird served at venerated Mrs. White’s Golden Rule (in Phoenix) seems its equal. In both places, I’ve waited in line many times to get my next fix. Now I can say I’ve actually risked life and limb for the pleasure.

Another Lee’s just opened near me. Not surprisingly, business is booming. Picking up a phoned-in order for a friend recently, I walked inside to find what reminded me of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. People desperate for attention were packed-in elbow to elbow, waving hands and tickets in a buying panic that new and too few store staff struggled to keep up with. Walking into a scene teetering on complete customer service chaos, I asked a few folks milling about where to find the pick-up line, only to be pointed in different directions. When I couldn’t make out a clear queue anywhere in sight, I inquired again at the counter, clarifying that so-and-so’s order had been called-in, paid by phone, quoted a pick-up time, and that I was here to accomplish that task. Two extremely harried young men helped me, instantly finding my order packaged and ready as arranged. Granted, I felt I’d dodged a bullet getting in and out quickly.

Until a guy followed me out into the lot. He wasn’t happy.

“Way to cut the line, Motherfucker!” he yelled. “It’s all about you, right, asshole?” Sure, I should have taken the higher road, but things took another turn. I fired right back. And then some. Frankly, I’m shocked it didn’t get physical. What did happen was we each got in our cars. He screeched his big pick-up out and around, stopped behind me and shot me his best death stare before speeding off through a crowded parking lot. Then I slammed my little Subaru into reverse and followed him for a few blocks in the opposite direction of my destination, just because. We weaved in and out of rush hour traffic waving fingers like the two mindless idiots we were, over causes we considered life-and-death: our entitled sense of liberty, freedom of expression, and the pursuit of quick service and fast food.

Fried chicken. As American as apple pie, reckless disregard, and road rage.

On the other hand, try this, relax, and tell me everything: Nothing breaks the ice between strangers in civil society better than alcohol. Consider the wine pairing dinners I attend as part and parcel to my duties as a card-carrying member of the local food press.

These events begin with the noblest epicurean intentions. Gathering with fellow gastronomes, we exchange proper introductions as corks start popping over conversations and considerations of terroir, varietals, and vintages. We sip, swirl, and take polite twirls around the table conversationally, letting everyone in turn exercise their best “winespeak.” And we keep sipping while some real experts in attendance wax professorial (over most of our heads) on topics ranging from residual sugars and Malolactic fermentation to leathery and vegetal flavor notes. By the time it’s all said and done — five or six-plus glasses into a no-longer-academic exercise — there’s enough truth serum flowing through everyone’s veins to turn any well-intended tasting into a borderline Bacchanal.

A cocktail pairing dinner I attended most recently illustrates the point perfectly. While talking us through preparation of a libation a few rounds in, our drink master of ceremonies emphasized the importance of smacking fresh mint in one’s palms to fully release the herb’s flavor. A second later, the guy next to me with two empty martini glasses already in front of him decides to clap a slice of charcuterie board Prosciutto to test that theory.

“Look, Honey,” he announced to his fiancée, “I’m slapping my ham!”

“To ‘fully release!’” added a girl in a green dress gleefully from across our table, sucking down the last sip of her gin fizz.

As for me, when the opportunity presents, I’ll propose my favorite toast (any wine varietal will do):

“Here’s to a fun night of great company and fine wine; bold yet delicate, with just a kiss of underpants in the finish.”

And that’s how things can go at such frilly affairs. Folks might dress to impress, even put on airs. But once the drinks start flowing, most let down their hair.

Roach problem: Years ago, I called for service on a walk-in fridge that wasn’t holding temperature. After spending a few minutes trouble-shooting, the repairman came and got me.

“There’s something you should see,” he said ominously. I imagined a worst-case scenario. The compressor was probably shot. It’s always the compressor. Instead, the guy escorts me into the walk-in and points to the top of the fan unit.

“Run your hand along here,” he tells me. “You’ve got a roach problem.”

“Huh? I’m not touching those,” I refused in disgust. “Get rid of them. Just fix it.”

The guy smirked, shook his head at me like I was stupid, then swept his hand along the flat top of the fan unit until a dozen or so unsmoked joint butts toppled over the side onto the floor.

“Actually, you just needed freon,” he laughed a little. “But I thought you should see what’s going on here.”

“I’ll let the owner know,” I promised, telling him I was just the manager. But the restaurant was half-mine, and those roaches were all ours. My partner and I thought we were sneaky smart to blow our smoke out the roof through those fans. We were just too stoned to remember to get rid of all the other evidence.

And that’s the thing about pot-smoking, as I recall. I used to see it as a tool that could actually sharpen perception’s pencil. In honest hindsight, it proved more of a mind eraser. It’s been many years since I last smoked. Honestly, I sometimes still miss it.

Now, where’d I leave those car keys…

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About The Author

Robert Stempkowski

Robert Stempkowski is a longtime food writer, chef, and restaurateur who recently relocated to the Detroit area from the Phoenix area.
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