On Wings and a Prayer

Lucille's Kitchen

2013 Plymouth Ave. N., Mpls.; 612-529-3350

There are things your mother isn't responsible for, but I can't think of them off hand. The color of your eyes. Your preference for hardwood floors. Whether you know how to get stains out of silk. Above all, of course, your feelings about fried chicken. Miss Lucille Williams, of Lucille's Kitchen, had a mother who imparted profound love for fried chicken to her children, planting the seeds that would one day sprout Wingmaster and Lucille's Kitchen.

Wingmaster was the West Broadway hot spot for fried chicken wings, run for a couple of happy years by Miss Lucille's brother, Henry Sullivan. Fans would line up outside this unpretentious storefront on weekends, waiting for plates heaped with wings, arguing if they were better with hot sauce or barbecue sauce. For parties, devoted diners ordered them by the hundred. When the joint closed, things--and wings--just weren't the same; fried-chicken chains made a poor substitute for Wingmaster.

So when Miss Lucille got tired of working in an Elks Club kitchen and set her eye on opening her own place, putting Wingmaster wings on the menu was a natural fit. These salt and peppery, golden and crispy wings have been winning a discriminating following all over again--most lately taking the People's Choice award at the annual wing celebration, Wing Ding.

These fried chicken wings are just the sort of thing Lucille and Henry's mother would have appreciated on special occasions. These days, Miss Lucille says they fill orders for 500 to 600 wings a couple of times every week (a dozen wings cost $8.35; 250 wings are $107.50). For everyday meals Miss Lucille's mother taught her to make gumbo; at $7.99 it's a hearty, rib-sticking version that's heavy on big chunks of meaty chicken and beef sausage. "The way I make gumbo is the only way I ever knew," says Miss Lucille. "Some people say that's not really gumbo." (In fact, the recipe does lack the traditional oysters and okra, though it's tasty. I think of it as a Minnesota gumbo.) Pressed further, Miss Lucille won't say much more, just that it's "your basic gumbo with your spices and your seasonings." Remember, she adds, if you're sick or just feeling bad, "that gumbo'll heal you."

Some other of Miss Lucille's mother's treats include the deliciously sweet, cinnamon-spiked candied yams, the luscious macaroni and cheese, and the sweet, homey peach cobbler ($2.50). "My mother loved cooking and was a pretty creative person in the kitchen," remembers Miss Lucille. Cooking with her children at her side assured that her spirit, recipes, and taste would live on.

As sons and daughters will, Miss Lucille has struck out on her own on several fronts: Not only is her restaurant her own--with all its clean, plain furnishings and watchful waitstaff--but so is her smothered chicken. "I never liked my mother's, so I had to create my own. It took some doing, but I finally got it how I like it." It's delicious--a crispy, tender chicken quarter in a perfectly plain, perfectly tasty chicken gravy ($7.75, dark $6.75).

The fried okra is another of Miss Lucille's inventions, and my personal favorite. "I've been having a taste for okra the last few years, and some people come here just for the okra now." It's a signature presentation of the difficult vegetable, crispy inside and out (not gummy) and delicious (small $1.75, large $2.99). Another of her secret original recipes, ribs, are soft and sweet with the right stickiness after long basting with a smoky sauce. Her ribs are available in all sorts of sizes in a good range of prices, and, like nearly every item on the menu, can be ordered at special times at a special price.

Other Southern specialties on the menu include a wonderful sweet-potato pie ($2.25), tangy braised greens, a sweet, vinegary potato salad, and strange dirty rice--in this case dusted with a cayenne mixture, which sounds awful, but the rice is made to be creamy and the spices gives it a surprisingly good taste. In the Deep South tradition of "a meat and three," most of the entrées are served with a crusty square of cornbread (or a bland store-bought roll) and two side dishes, of which the candied yams, the greens, and the mac and cheese are my favorites. Sometime this summer, deep-fried alligator will debut on the menu for $6.99, if you're of a particularly adventurous bent.

Lucille says she gets people from all over the state looking for a good Southern meal like the ones she serves up. "I knew that there wasn't a lot of this kind of food around when I opened the restaurant and there's a lot of people that enjoy this food, and not necessarily just black people. A lot of nationalities are excited about having red beans and rice and some Southern food." This is evident during any weekday lunchtime visit, when people with seemingly nothing else in common unite in their pursuit of Southern classics done simply and well.

On the day I visited, Miss Lucille's own sons, Leonard and Tony, are in the kitchen, bringing their own interpretations to family favorites. Leonard is the man for wings; Miss Lucille says some customers fit their schedules to his, and order double when he's in charge--his touch is just that light. Meanwhile, she says, Tony is making his name in breakfasts, where creations like eggs with grits or potatoes and andouille sausage ($5.25) draw appreciative crowds. "Tony, he does a lot of things that I never did. He does doctor up the pancakes good--those buttermilk pancakes are good."

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