Cowboys and Indians and chickens12/6/2017
Common poultry made extraordinary at local restaurants
To some, Cowboy Chicken is a brilliant bird rising from the ashes of an American legend. To others, it’s an intelligent business lesson in restraint. Kenny Rogers, the singer, entered the franchise food league in 1991 with a restaurant called Kenny Rogers’ Roasters. It became American folk lore, growing to 425 restaurants in five years and then declaring bankruptcy and closing all of its American stores within three years. The top TV show of the decade, “Seinfeld,” gave it an episode in which Kramer went from trying to ban it from New York City to becoming obsessed with its wood-fired meat.
Many like Kramer have rued its demise. Woodfired rotisserie chickens produce a marvelous flavor. It’s unlike barbecue or wood grilled. Actually it’s in between the two. Cowboy Chicken roasts birds for two hours on a rotisserie that is fired by a 4-foot blaze of oak and/or hickory. Remember when BBQs in Iowa had wood piles in front of the store? Cowboy Chicken restores that. Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, according to many business analysts, lost its way while expanding too fast — both in number of stores and in menu items. They were serving ribs, burgers and all kinds of other things by the time of their collapse. Cowboy Chicken had been around (Dallas) for 10 years before Kenny Rogers’ Roasters existed. As of the end of last year, it had expanded to 22 stores, all but two in Texas. It has
been a really big deal in the Lone Star State when a Cowboy Chicken comes to town, or (rarely) closes.
Iowa became the third state with a CC franchise recently when a store opened in Ankeny. I visited out of respect for all culinary things from Texas. I returned out of Kramer-like obsession for the chicken. CC only serves chicken — three pieces of dark, white quarters, halves or whole. In southern style, all meals come with two sides. The onion, cilantro and chipotle beans are the best of the latter; “creamed spinach” is more like spinach with Parmesan cheese. Mac and cheese, fried corn, sweet corn, hand cut french fries, green beans, fried okra, twice baked potatoes, and once baked sweet potatoes completed the options when I visited. Salads, brownies, cobblers and cookies completed the menu. Cobblers tasted like over processed, over sweetened fruit. Very Texan.
Another chicken pioneer has been operating in Urbandale for about a year now. I visited Spice Pot recently after hearing many accolades. Like CC, they still serve chicken on the bone (and also boneless). Their tandoori, featured economically on their lunch buffet, is full of clay-reflected smoke flavor and a unique blend of spices.
This restaurant, as much as any before them, tries to emulate southern Indian cuisine — Andhra-Hyderabadi, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. To over generalize, southern cooking in India means the same thing as in Italy — less dairy compensated for withmore spices and vegetable oils. Idlis and vadas, both appetizer-sized dishes made with lentil/gram flour, are featured here. Vadas (fried and served with three dips) are sensational. Idlis (steamed and served similarly) less so. For north India fans, there are samosas (Indian egg rolls), paneer (cheese) and pakoras (fritters) too. But SP also has a few cauliflower appetizers that one does not see on most other local menus, including a Manchurian style dish which reflects the hottest new fashion in Indian cuisine.
The entrée menu is chicken heavy with fish, shrimp and goat included. Vegetarian dishes are not too different from north Indian Iowa restaurants except that they include more peanuts and cashews. Paneer (cheese) tikka masala is cooked in the tandoor and served with a tomato sauce, making another comparison to Italian cooking. ♦