I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Hays, Kansas.
Greetings from Hays, Kansas
N 38° 51.8428’ W 099° 19.0759’ Elev. 1985 ft.
Al’s Chickenette was recommended by my friend Tony. He’d recommended another place once before — Gray’s Coors Tavern in Pueblo, Colorado — that was spectacularly funky and spectacularly good. Needless to say it didn’t take much faith on my part to follow his lead once again.
Along the way I got a song stuck in my head. I kept hearing the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of a Cannonball Adderly tune, Sermonette. It turned into a real ear worm, one of those songs that keeps playing over and over in your head. I just couldn’t shake it.
Al’s Chickenette is located 2.5 miles south of I-70 on US 183 (Exit 159). By the time you get there you think you’ve missed it and you’re about to leave town … because you are. Al’s is one of the last places on the left. It’s easy to spot by the vintage late ‘50s/early ‘60s-style sign out front. I’d love to’ve seen it lit up at night as it has all the requisite neon and 100 light bulbs to render it truly representative of the sign design of that era. I like to believe it flashes.
Inside is equally reminiscent of ‘50s-‘60s “modern” design, with wood floors and a low-rise, 4-stool formica counter. The decor has a look and feel so evocative of that simpler, duck-and-cover time that the only thing missing is the zzzzzzzzz-ing whir of a vintage stainless steel Hamilton Beach commercial milkshake mixer.
Al’s serves soft-serve ice cream but no shakes. But as sort of a throwback they offer 25¢ coffee, which, curiously, is a dime cheaper than the price listed on one of the old menus posted in the foyer. And it’s okay coffee.
It’s an interesting place and the staff is exceptional. I was greeted heartily and my server, Allison, (I hope that’s how she spells it) was vivacious and kind. In fact, I had her help order for me; I always do that because they know.
After I ordered I was walking to the bathroom (I ended up choosing the door with the cock, er, rooster on it) as one of the other servers brought out his lunch, a bowl of chicken noodle soup ($2.95/$5.95). It looked so good that I had to take a picture of it. I first thought it was chicken and dumplings. “No,” he said, “I put some mashed potatoes in it.” Mmm, mmm good idea.
I experienced a most pleasant olfactory blast from the past in Al’s bathroom. It’s a commercial hand soap I run across from time to time. It smells much like Jergens Lotion, which, to me, smells faintly of cherries. Every time I smell it I’m reminded of my childhood. My mom used it when I was very young and when she did I’d often ask to smell her hands. I love that scent. Oh, the fond memories. But I digress.
I had THE WIZARD ($9.95), three pieces of dark meat chicken with two sides and a somewhat silly name; yet another example of Kansan’s ubiquitous habit of linking to The Wizard of Oz. Seriously, they’ll link anything to The Wizard of Oz. It’s just a matter of time before I find a Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean or, hell, a Swiss restaurant in Kansas serving The Toto. But I digress, again.
The chicken — two legs and a thigh — was very, very good. I read on one of the old menus that “Our chicken is fried by a Special Method …”, whatever that means. Al’s chicken has an unusual outer “crust.” It’s very thin, the thickness of the shell of a dipped ice cream cone, and very crispy, crackly. It was spiced interestingly, in a good way, and the chicken was very moist and perfectly cooked.
I only ate the legs while I was there. When I nibbled on the thigh later that night I thought the breading tasted distinctly of pork rinds — cracklins, y’all. I was dumbfounded enough that I saved some to try again later. But then it didn’t taste like that at all. I was confused; I’m always confused. This may explain why some of the fine folks in Kimmerer, Wyoming (scroll down to the Comments section) don’t cotton to my opinions too much.
The real highlights for me were the real mashed potatoes and real pan gravy, though the gravy had a somewhat unusual taste to me. I think I was expecting it to taste exactly like the chicken pan gravies I’ve eaten so many times before. Cracklins? Still, it was pretty good. And the mashed potatoes were the real thing — they actually had lumps in them — so I was in love. The cole slaw was truly fantastic, a blast from my childhood. Drenched in an old-school mayonnaise-vinegar-sugar dressing, it was sweet, crunchy, and heavenly. Just the way I like it.
In all Al’s Chickenette was a great visit, with great people. Truly a really great experience.
Next month Al’s Chickenette will mark its 65th year in business. To commemorate that milestone I made a really bad slideshow/ad, replete with yours truly singing really badly. I rewrote the words to “Sermonette” and, well …
My apologies to Mr. Adderly and the other American Treasures that are Misters Lambert and Hendricks & Ms. Ross.
And so we roll.
Al’s Chickenette, 710 Vine St., Hays, Kansas
Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.