Most people I know consider lard to be a four-letter bad word. Not me. I still use it to make pie dough, and I'd use it to fry chicken if I ever fried chicken at home. But why go to all that trouble when I can get a vastly superior (and probably cheaper) chicken dinner at a restaurant?
Most restaurants won't admit to using lard in their skillets, but the truth is that it makes the best-tasting fried chicken. It's not so good for one's arteries or waistline, but what the hell — who eats fried chicken every day?
Restaurateur Guy Tamburello has seen a lot of people happily eating chicken every week (and, yes, he fries his birds in lard), especially on Sunday afternoons when the after-church crowd packs his place. Tamburello, along with his wife, Mary, and partners Paul and Carol Anselmo and Shane Danner, opened Granny's Chicken Ranch at The Legends complex in Wyandotte County after purchasing the free-standing building that formerly housed a Celtic-themed saloon called W.J. McBride's.
I guess the chicken-loving churchgoers don't remember that a place called the Chicken Ranch was also the setting for the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas — supposedly because during the Depression, customers at the brothel were allowed to pay for their lovin' with poultry.
There's no mistaking the family-friendly Granny's Chicken Ranch for anything but a restaurant, I'm happy to say. Most of the servers are apple-cheeked young ladies who blush if you ask them for extra cinnamon rolls. That's just one thing that sets Granny's (which has no connection to the Granny's chicken restaurant that existed in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and Prairie Village in the 1980s) apart from any other chicken joint in the city. The saloon side of this restaurant is a gigantic space (it was built as an Irish pub, after all), and most of the previous tenant's European décor remains, but Granny's maintains a genteel ambience. It's not a raucous roadhouse, like the original Stroud's, and it isn't as fussy as the Victorian dining rooms at Galvin's Dinner House in St. Joseph.
This Granny's isn't cozy or homey, but it's the kind of cheery place I would have taken my own grandmother — the one who was married seven times and wore designer clothes. Here, she could have eaten fried chicken livers and sipped a vodka stinger at the same time.
Instead, I brought my elegant friend Marilyn because she loves chicken livers and might have eaten them with a cocktail if she hadn't had that pomegranate martini before she even got in my car. She's health-conscious and a little wary of fried food, but she was game enough to ride out to The Legends to at least sample the fare.
The country music that was playing on the sound system seemed appropriate for a place that serves ham-and-bean dinners, pot roast and meatloaf along with all that chicken, but Tim McGraw was incongruous to the décor, which still evokes a tavern in some movie version of a quaint Irish village.
"I hope the chicken livers are as good as the ones at the old Romanelli Grill," Marilyn told our server, "but that they don't come with melted butter as a dipping sauce."
The waiter (who turned out to be Guy Tamburello's brother) looked scandalized. "Melted butter? We serve them with chicken gravy!"
Guy insists that his fried livers are the best in the city. After eating a plate of them, I think I agree. Cooked to order, the livers are not greasy, crunchy on the outside and light and juicy inside. I could have eaten the whole plate, but I let Marilyn have a couple.
Like many of its rivals in the chicken game, Granny's serves complete dinners that include a salad, mashed potatoes, green beans, cinnamon rolls and drop biscuits. Marilyn was thrilled with the mashers, made from red-jacket spuds, whipped up with butter and garlic and cooked with some of the skins left on.
"I've always said that I want to go to heaven on a cloud of mashed potatoes," Marilyn said. She ate heartily and packed up the leftovers to take home. Because I'd eaten so many livers and yeasty cinnamon rolls (which weren't too gooey or sugary), I could finish only a third of my slow-roasted pot roast. But I'll say this: Guy makes one of the finest roasts I've eaten. He uses eye of round, which is my favorite cut for pot roast, and it's fork-tender and served with lots of roasted potatoes and carrots.
When the waiter asked if we wanted dessert, we groaned. After paying the tab, we waddled out to the car.
"You can't eat this kind of meal very frequently," Marilyn said.
Well, I can! I returned a few days later with Jeanne and her teenage daughters, who immediately noticed all the exotic animal heads mounted on the walls.
"Guy shot all those," Mary Tamburello said proudly as she escorted us to a table in the less noisy kelly-green dining room on the non-bar side of the restaurant.
Jeanne and Roxanne ate iceberg salads with extra dressing, and picky Alexandra wrinkled her nose at the baked-potato soup. "It tastes very grainy, like it's made with Cream of Wheat," she said.
I tasted it and agreed that it seemed vaguely coarse, not nearly as good as the chicken-dumpling soup I ordered. Filled with hunks of chopped-up bird and fat, doughy noodles, it was far better than the soup at Stroud's.
Granny's signature dish is served family-style. The platter was heaped with plump breasts, legs and thighs of succulent chicken; it was a pleasure just biting into the crispy, golden crust.
"Very, very good," Jeanne murmured after a few bites.
Only Alexandra wasn't content with her meal. Unlike the rest of us, she ordered a chicken potpie and thought the "filling" of the dish, under a flaky crust, was gummier and less creamy than the same dish at Potpie in Westport. But few pot pies in town could compete with that restaurant's namesake.
I'm fussy about pot pies, too, so I was glad I'd ordered the fried stuff — an all-breast dinner. At one point, though, I started looking longingly at the legs and thighs on the other platter and nearly snagged one. I found my self-restraint at the last minute.
But I lost it again when the server rattled off the dessert list, which included a hefty slab of chocolate cake (the only item here imported from a commercial bakery). It looked a lot more fabulous than it tasted, but it would feed a family of 10. Next time, I'll go for the bread pudding made from the leftover cinnamon rolls.
I took a chicken breast home and had it for breakfast the next morning. It was excellent cold, and that proves my theory that there's only one way to perfectly fry a chicken. But the secret is a four-letter word.