600th Avenue, a narrow farm lane between Frontenac and Pittsburg, Kansas, is known as the Chicken Dinner Road because a couple of hundred yards apart are a pair of nearly identical destination restaurants known for fried chicken. Having only recently been to Chicken Mary's, I decided to visit Chicken Annie's on this trip through. I probably should have eaten at both places to accurately compare and contrast; but frankly, I don't believe there is a huge difference. Both serve good meals at low prices in big dining halls to hoards of pilgrims.
Mary and Annie have long ago gone to their reward. Several years ago, Mary's son – no spring chicken himself – explained that in the hard times of the 1930s, his father and Annie's husband both worked in a nearby mine. In 1934, Annie's husband lost a leg in a mine accident. To make ends meet, Annie opened a little restaurant and served her specialty, fried chicken. Only a few years after that, Mary's husband had to quit work, too, because of a bad heart. "There were three of us kids to feed," the old man recalled. "And my mother could see how well Annie was doing selling chicken dinners out here. She took a hint and opened her own place, Chicken Mary's, just down the road."
A tradition was begun. The rivalry has made this unlikely farm road a chicken-lover's mecca for six decades and has inspired some half-dozen restaurants all around to serve their own version of the same ritual meal. Crunchy, deep fried chicken stars, served along with German cole slaw and German potato salad (or such other side dishes as mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, French fries, and spaghetti). The slaw is great stuff, very Kansan: shot through with garlic. Also essential is an appetizer of onion rings, which are a ragged heap of crisp, crunchy squiggles and a few fatties encased in batter with a faint sour tang. I love the way the batter clings to the onion, eliminating the possibility of that awkward onion-ring-eating moment when you bite one and the onion slithers all the way out of its batter casing.
The chicken arrives glistening with grease. There's lots of chewy, fat-rich skin and the meat below is fall-from-the-bone tender, even if its flavor is somewhat distant. You can get whatever you like in whatever quantity: dark meat, white meat, wings, and backs, even an appetizer of livers, gizzards, and hearts.
Meals arrive on partitioned unbreakable plates – nothing fancy here! – and a large group of people can sit at the round table up front with a lazy susan in the center and avail themselves of Annie's family-style meals. Poultry-frowners can order chicken-fried steak.