My Uncle Jack used to make what I thought was the best fried chicken in the whole world. One or two times a month he'd get out his lard and beef suet, put it in his well worn electric skillet, batter up some chicken and fry the pieces to a dark golden brown. Oh, man, was it good. I was telling a friend of mine in the St. Louis area one time about my uncle's chicken and he said, "The next time you get to St. Louis, you've got to go into Hodak's and try their chicken."
Hodak's is a long-time restaurant landmark in St. Louis, one that has been around for nearly 50 years (and also one that I've driven past hundreds of times over the years). It started out as a little tavern on the corner of 14th and Emmett where the owners, Tony and Helen, would occasionally bring in their own home-made fried chicken for the patrons to enjoy. Progress, in the form of Interstate highways, forced Hodak's to move from their 14th and Emmett location (which, today, is right smack in the middle of the I-55/I-44 interchange) to 18th and Russell, where they began to serve their fried chicken full time. More Interstate roadwork a few years later forced Hodak's to eventually move another three blocks to the Southwest to their present day location at Gravois and McNair. (see map)
In 1988, Ralph and Charlene Hegel bought Hodak's and put in a few of their own little touches to the place. Within the next few years they purchased properties around Hodak's to put in parking, expand their dining room to include a larger dining area in the back (pictured at right from Hodak's web site), and eventually put in a banquet room over the main dining room. But fried chicken continued to be the main draw and even with the expansion over the years, lines still begin to form for lunch at Hodak's well before noon.
That's why I went around 8 p.m. on a cool Tuesday evening during a recent trip to St. Louis. Even at that hour, there were still a good number of people in the place. And even though tables and booths were available in both the original and in the expanded dining area, I opted to sit at the rectangular bar. I ordered a Budweiser and asked for a menu, even though I knew I wanted to try their fried chicken.
Actually, the menu surprised me. It was a pretty extensive menu other than chicken. They featured steaks, pork chops, seafood, sandwiches, burgers - just about anything other than chicken if you don't want chicken that particular visit. But I was there for the chicken and I ordered up the simple chicken platter - four pieces of chicken with a side of fries and cole slaw.
It was less than five minutes after I ordered that the chicken platter showed up. First of all, there was a ton of chicken - way too much for me to eat. It was a mixture of white and dark meat, and the pieces were huge and meaty. Now, I don't know my backs from my thighs because I usually just eat legs and wings when I get chicken. But I think I had all four of those pieces on my plate.
I bit into one of the pieces and it was piping hot like it had just come out of the fryer. The initial taste was eye-opening. The chicken meat was moist, but the batter they used on the outside was, well, I have to say that it was about as close to my Uncle Jack's fried chicken. It's been years since I last had it, but the taste sensation awoke memories of those Sunday afternoons of eating piece after piece of Jack's chicken and savoring every bite. Even though it was a lot of food, it was tough to put down the chicken.
The crinkle cut French fries were pretty basic, similar to what you'd find at most other restaurants like Hodak's. On the bar near me was ketchup and some of Hodak's barbecue sauce. I tried some of the spicy barbecue sauce on the French fries and it really helped zip up the taste. Actually, I probably found myself eating the fries more for the taste sensation of their sweet and zippy barbecue sauce than I did for the enjoyment of the fries.
The cole slaw at Hodak's was, well, sort of bland. A quick bite of that and I determined that it wasn't much too my liking. That's OK, between the chicken and the barbecue sauce drenched French fries, I was more than stuffed before 3/4's of the meal was gone from my plate. There was a lot of food for $7.25 and I definitely couldn't eat it all. But it certainly tasted great with the ice cold Budweiser that they poured from the bottle into a big frosty mug for me.
I was in one of my dealer's stores the next day and I told them that I had gone to Hodak's the night before. One of the guys said, "I grew up in Wisconsin and when I moved here over 25 years ago, I went to Hodak's for chicken. It was like this epiphany - 'You mean there's better chicken out there than Kentucky Fried Chicken?' "
The other guy - a lifelong St. Louis native - said, "Hodak's is good, but we went in there a while back and I don't know if they changed their seasoning in their batter or what. It didn't seem to be as much of what you like to describe as a 'taste explosion in your mouth' like it used to be." He still said that he liked it, but he didn't think it was as good as it used to be.
I thought the fried chicken at Hodak's was very good. I've read a bunch of reviews on line about Hodak's from a number of sites and I'm amazed at the number of people who think their chicken is just plain bad. Look, it's fried chicken, people. It's supposed to be greasy. It's not fine dining in the least at Hodak's. They're known for their chicken and it's kept people coming back for years and years. There should be no surprises that they actually deep fry their chicken (although a grilled chicken entree is available on the menu). This is the gateway to the South where fried anything is a staple! My uncle grew up outside of St. Louis in Eureka and this is probably a recipe that has been handed down from generations to generations of families in the greater St. Louis area. No, it's not overly healthy - but damn! Healthy stuff doesn't taste this good!