Stopping Northern Time
3758 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612)
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. Friday-Saturday
First thing you do when you get into the Midtown Chicken Shack is, you don't sit down.
It's not easy. Probably you will want to sit down, because there are a lot of free tables, and you'll see one you like. Besides, that's what Northerners do when we go into a restaurant--we sit down. We sit down like people strapping into a roller coaster, and we wait for the ride to begin. If the ride does not begin, we start to crane our heads around and wonder what the holdup is, and whether something's broken, and where's the manager.
In fact, if you often find yourself musing aloud as to the whereabouts of managers, do yourself and the Midtown Chicken Shack a favor, and strap yourself in someplace else. Because what you do at the Midtown Chicken Shack is, you go in, and you say hi to Eureka and Sam (pictured, left and center, respectively) . Or, actually, you shout hi. Sam Arnold is the owner, chef, heart and soul behind the Chicken Shack, and you'll usually find him way back in the kitchen, fussing over something or other: icing a big layer cake, keeping an eye on a basketful of frying wings, wrestling with a casserole full of Mexican cornbread. Shouting hi at him is slightly ridiculous: He can't hear you, you can't hear him, and you invariably end up hollering whatever you're hollering at least three times. But that's okay. While you're yelling you get to look around the kitchen and note: There's a full casserole of Mexican cornbread. (It's full of cheese, sautéed vegetables, and ground beef--more like a quiche than a bread, $2.49.)
Meanwhile, you chat with Eureka. If Sam is the heart of the Midtown Chicken Shack, Eureka is the grace: She's responsible for the candles in the bathrooms and the bouquets in the vases, and she's the one who fills you in on what kind of three-layer cake is inside the opaque cake dome on top of the pie cooler. German chocolate? Strawberry? While you're hollering and peeking at the cake, it's also time to look around for the little hand-lettered sign that announces whether there are greens ready yet. Sam Arnold will sell no greens before their time. He gets in to work at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning to put those greens on, and they don't get ready for a good four hours. Sometimes while you're chatting with Sam and Eureka, you learn that the cake's got to cool, the greens aren't done, and Sam's fixing to make meatloaf as soon as he gets the time, probably you should come back in a few hours.
"You never had my meatloaf?" asks Sam, who's come out of the kitchen to discuss the possibilities. "Oh--that's good meatloaf." He shakes his head at the thought of his meatloaf, with a kind of disbelief and wonderment, like someone remembering the time he sighted an eagle on the lawn. "I might make a lemon pound cake." He raises his eyebrows at you in a way that communicates a certain sentiment perfectly: If you miss this lemon pound cake, you will regret it all the days of your life.
So you go away. You come back. You are now doubling back to a chicken shack a couple of times a day to see what has developed. When you are doubling back to a chicken shack all day, there is only one thing to be said about it: You are no longer on Northern time.
The benefits to Southern time are many, and they include silky, spicy, bell-pepper-flecked greens that taste of long simmering, and of tricks that require bone-deep knowledge that you know is irreproducible. Sam Arnold tried to describe the process to me, but I kept losing the thread of it. What I can tell you is, There aren't just collards in that pot. Arnold starts with a broth of onions, turkey tails and necks, and seasonings; adds several different varieties of well-washed greens, more seasonings, and vinegar; and then, says Arnold, "You let them set for a few hours, let the seasonings set into the greens. Then you eat them. Then your boyfriend never want to leave--he'll tear 'em up. Just tear 'em up!" At the thought of the tearing-up those greens would get, Arnold shakes his head, alarmed.
Another benefit of Southern scheduling: Fried perch, nearly greaseless, tender and snowy inside. (A small perch dinner, with fries and coleslaw, runs $5.79, and it's available in seemingly countless combinations with other items. The upper limit of perch-related spending is a combo dinner of perch with a quarter white-meat chicken, fries, coleslaw, and a drink, for $10.39.) The fried catfish (starting at $5.99), is deeply flavored but not overpowering, the special gaminess of the catfish coming through. There's hot-water cornbread, a flat griddle cornbread that's made tender with steam. And, of course, there's fried chicken (from 59 cents for a single wing up on through a bucket with fries for $16.99).
The Chicken Shack's chicken is made in the most traditional style: Carefully cleaned chicken (you want to see a face, ask Arnold what he thinks about places that serve chicken with feathers sticking out all over) dredged through seasoning, run through flour, fried slowly in clean oil. "The faster you cook food, the better it looks coming out and the worse it tastes," scoffs Arnold. "Let that pretty-looking food set, you'll find you cooked the seasoning right out of it. Right out of it. For me, I change my grease every three days. I don't keep no dirty grease. I don't care if it's good or old or what. Goodbye." Try the fresh-cut, deep-fried okra ($1.49) and you'll experience the profits of fresh grease: This okra is light and bright and tastes only like okra. Arnold says he got his zero-tolerance policy for old grease from his mother, the one who taught him to cook 25 years ago. The peach cobbler ($2.25) recipe is hers, too, and it's not to be missed.
All of which makes perfect sense. Arnold hails from St. Louis, and good soul food is known to come out of St. Louis. What makes no sense is that Arnold's a whiz at Philadelphia cheesesteaks. Me, I never had a cheesesteak I couldn't walk away from. I thought they were just a regional enthusiasm, one of those things where the sense of place means more than the taste. Now, the scales have fallen from my eyes, the sheath has fallen from my tongue, and lo, I can see, lo, I can taste. This cheesesteak is a ravishing, irresistible gut-bomb. It's salty, savory, spicy, crunchy, cheesy--if there is a positive junk-food attribute it doesn't have, it's a positive junk-food attribute I don't know about. Arnold fries those minute steaks with onions, and fries them, and refries them, and keeps refrying them until they nearly disappear into an oniony black hole of intensity. Meanwhile, the Italian bread has been frying on the griddle until it's got a crisp, crunchy top and bottom. And then there's a glorious union around American cheese, and it's soft and melting and binds the whole thing together. Arnold takes this cheesesteak, puts it in foil, twists the ends of the foil to prevent the meat/cheese miracle goo from leaking out the end, hands it to you in a takeout bag (with fries, $5.99), and this is exactly when you should not re-enter the slipstream of daily life, of going to and from the Chicken Shack, because if you attempt to drive your car with this cheesesteak in the vehicle, you will become seduced by the scent, and then you will reach into the bag, and then you will become so overwhelmed with cheesesteak you will drive into a wall.
Instead, this is the time to take your cheesesteak to the table in front of the television. This television is always on, and it's nearly always tuned to BET, Black Entertainment Television. The Midtown Chicken Shack advertises on BET, three commercials a week: "When hunger attacks, come to the Midtown Chicken Shack." Above the television is a little framed double portrait of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Malcolm also stands guard in a portrait over the cash register), and the table in front of the television tends to act as the community table, where people gather to discuss misfortunes, like the time the cooler went out and they had to close the restaurant and they lost a couple of cases of chicken. Or the way the restaurant celebrated its two-year anniversary last week, but Arnold is still putting in 12- to 18-hour days seven days a week.
It's hard to run a restaurant in Minneapolis, says Arnold. He figures St. Louis was 50 percent or 60 percent black, and Minneapolis has far fewer, and much more scattered, African Americans--the flip side to the pervasive integration recently described by the 2000 census. Customers come in from Eagan, Brooklyn Park, Shakopee. They want him to open restaurants where they are. They're too busy to come in for real Southern cooking; it's faster to get fried chicken at McDonald's and Champp's.
"Our people in general don't support black businesses like they should," mused Arnold one afternoon, as BET cycled through shows, stubbornly not yielding the much-anticipated commercial. "If we had stuck together and spent more money in black businesses over the years, we'd all be in better shape. What it is, is a lot of times when people start making money, the money starts making the people, if you know what I mean. If I blow up and turn this place into a million-dollar place, I'm not going to let that change me."
Looking around the exhausted-looking space--and make no mistake, this place is the urban equivalent of a shack, all the surfaces seem needy, heartbreaking--it's hard to imagine it blowing up into a million-dollar place, even with draws like the Monday/Wednesday/Friday special of 25 wings and fries for $11.99.
Then again, maybe it doesn't seem farfetched at all. Finding himself getting down, Arnold looks around him, shakes his head, and seizes a bit of inspiration. "Hey, you ever had my meatloaf? No? No?" He shakes his head, full of pity. "I got a mean meatloaf. If I make a couple of my meatloaves on a Sunday--they're gone. People come in, 'You making meatloaf? I'll wait if you're making meatloaf.' And sometimes, you know what I do? Cornish hens. Stuff 'em, bake 'em, sell 'em. Everybody loves my Cornish hens. You know, I might do some Cornish hens Sunday. You come by Sunday, you never forget my Cornish hens. You come by Sunday?"
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