Wings of Desire
3758 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
As a young journalist, you're taught to avoid lazy lead-ins that separate the world into two camps: People who open Oreos vs. those who leave them closed; people who vote Republican vs. those who have sex, et cetera. As an old, cranky, card-carrying Minnesotan eccentric, I can now see plainly that the world can be divided into two camps:
a) people who like chicken wings;
b) people who can't be trusted.
Initially, I had b) as: People who should be shipped off to the coming Mars colonies. But I have reconsidered that America would not be what it is without florists.
Or, for that matter, Chem-Lawn franchisees, followers of Le Corbusier, Minneapolis city developers, and all such priests of International Clean as believe the universe should be carefully de-sexed until it most closely resembles a Jet Puff marshmallow.
Because chicken wings are, above all, carnal. They are bone and skin and tender flesh. They are only to be eaten with the fingers. They are dirt-cheap. Which means that some people avoid them because they are messy, while others avoid them because they would rather people think that their first reference for the word Polo is a weekend, not a shirt.
In short, these are not people I want anything to do with. Life is messy. It is full of bones and skin. Almost everyone in it does their own laundry. And, even as it is full of bones, skin, and laundry, it is often indescribably delicious. And it is even that way in front of the television, sometimes.
For instance, did you know that one of the very, very best chicken wing artists in town has opened a second location? In the heart of south Minneapolis? It is true. A few weeks ago Nardie's, open since 1997 in the back of Arnellia's, a bar near the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue in St. Paul, took over the old Midtown Chicken Shack space on Nicollet Avenue near 38th Street. And so now for all of you Minneapolitans who regard the Mississippi as something you need a passport and bottled water to cross, voila! And for all you St. Paulites who think anywhere with too many Minneapolitans is touristy, voilà! You get your chicken wing haven back.
I've written about Nardie's wings before, but sometimes I think I can't write about them enough. Order some--in one of about a million combinations, from three wings with handcut planks of soft-fried potatoes for four dollars, to 50 wings and fries for $35--order some and you'll get wings the russety color of a young fawn, bubbled with patches of crisp sunshine pale, pop one in your mouth and you find the crisp potato-chip-cum-bacon-savor of skin yielding to the sweet, tender chicken in sensual mouthfuls: Mmm. Wow. Life. Sweet life.
"How does he do it?" whispered a friend of mine whom I dragged to Nardie's one recent afternoon. We were eating the Nardie's specialties: Catfish, wings, collards, red beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese. Crisp curls of catfish, pale as Cape Cod beaches, greaseless, cornmeal crusted with a hint of lemon in the batter. Irony collards, made autumnal and dusky by long cooking with smoked turkey necks. Red beans sturdy in their rice, neither undercooked nor mushy, but just right. Macaroni and cheese the color of butter, pale and so thick they support a plastic fork like a flag-pole, so you can fly the flag of soul food in the land of sky blue waters!
My friend watched me dip a plank of fried potato in the macaroni and cheese, and spoon up this lush opulence, a poor man's foie gras. My friend eyed me warily. "I don't think that's legal in this county." "The man can't keep me down!" I crowed. "No, seriously, how does he do it?"
The truth is, I'll never know. I've asked Leonard Lowe, Nardie's proprietor, how he does it, and it's kind of like asking any great athlete or artist, any Tiger Woods or Louise Nevelson, how they do it: They don't know, they just do. "Wings?" wondered Lowe, who I talked to on the phone for this story. "We just do them. What's that saying? 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'? That's how we do wings."
Leonard Lowe moved up to the Twin Cities from Louisiana almost 10 years ago, and his first job was working in the exact same location he just took over, at the once-legendary soul and seafood restaurant run by David Howard. "I have to give David Howard much credit for starting us with the recipes we have now." Well, not all of the recipes. "Growing up in New Orleans you have got to know how to cook some red beans and rice. That's required. I grew up in a family of 12 kids--four sisters, seven brothers. My moms and pops are still together--73 and 85. If I have any questions I call there and talk to mom. She'll let me know. The collard greens, the candied yams, they're the old Southern recipes. So you could say that what we have here is a lot of family values."
Family values in every sense. A $25 feast one night featured enough wings, collards, and red beans and rice to supply a pee-wee hockey team with nutrients for the evening. Family values in that you can bring your children to see real hard work in action, because Leonard Lowe is in the place six days a week, from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (Sundays are, of course, the day of rest.) Family values in that even though south Minneapolis's soul food options have been seriously curtailed in the last few years (as we lost Sallie's and, of course, the Midtown Chicken Shack), there are enough scattered fans devoted to diversity in dining experience that we will not, not, not become the land of faux-Tuscan everything!
Just a thought.
Now, as an amateur, this might not have occurred to you, but as a professional critic, I can faithfully report to you that most of the time my head is full of nothing so much as thoughts.
Some of them, some of these thoughts are of such breathtaking beauty that I simply relinquished them to the universe, like the pink rays of a setting sun. Farewell, oh my beauties! Yet others, others run in like so many gold-plated prairie dogs in a pile of opalescent wood chips, and they chatter at me, so cutely! And finally there are those so valuable that I have them carefully wrapped in cotton batting and sent off to be auctioned at Sotheby's, as I hope to raise the funds soon to replace some of my dingier pieces of furniture with a Caribbean island.
And yet, even I find this a bit much sometimes. I do. And when such days arrive I am delighted to know I can call in a wing order to Nardie's, where Leonard Lowe will answer the phone and tell me, "Girlfriend, I got you taken care of!" Soon thereafter I can turn on the television, pop the top off a Grain Belt, and sink into that glorious American birthright of Chicken and Beer, and think no other thought than: That's a good night.
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