Writing about my freezer jam sauce concoction reminded me of a pseudo-annual tradition on my annual pilgrimage up to Lake Huron. So, here ‘tis, because there is nothing quite like Palm’s Krystal Bar. And thinking about a warm beach in February. The interior shot of Palm’s Krystal Bar is used with permission from Jim Rees (http://jim.rees.org).
When a meal arrives at the table with a “Wet Wipe” packet, you know it’s good stuff.
Every year I make a solo pilgrimage to Canada, to my father’s cottage on the shores of Lake Huron. The cottage was his father’s, who purchased the land just outside the tiny town of Forest, Ontario, in the early 1940s and built the small seasonal retreat. It’s undergone some transformation in the last 15 years (namely, city water, so we don’t have to limit showers to 30 seconds and we could jetison the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule on toilet flushing for fear of overwhelming the archaic septic system), but it’s still, basically, the same little place. No TV. The only air conditioning is what breeze blows off the lake and into the windows. And at night (particularly after Labor Day, or Labour Day, as it’s known in Canada when all the kiddies and college punks start school) it is so shockingly quiet that, for an urban dweller spending a week alone, I sometimes think I’ve died. If it weren’t for the constant, metronomic cadence of the lake lapping the shore 113 steps below. Ahhhhh…
Anyway, there are certain traditions that have been carried on by my father and his father over the decades, one of them is to stop in Port Huron, Mich. for a meal before crossing the bridge to Canada. There are two places for this ritual, so far as I know. The Fogcutter Restaurant (it’s one of those legendary supper club-type restaurants) and Palm’s Krystal Bar, the latter being “world famous” for its “chicken in the rough” dinner.
So how does all this get back to my opening statement of dinner served with a “wet wipe”? Palm’s, man. The “chicken in the rough” is a half chicken, fried, served on wax paper in a wicker basket, covered with a mound of fries deep-fried to perfection, and a made-from-scratch biscuit. And, knowing that Canada is just across the St. Claire River trickling blocks from their location, the servers always ask, “Would you like vinegar?”
“Hell yes, sister.”
“Malted or regular?”
Oh, I’m in heaven. For you American heathens, you don’t put ketchup (or catsup, or whatever the hell it is) on your fries. It’s vinegar. Vinegar, vinegar, vinegar, for chrissakes. Or gravy. But y’all wouldn’t know good gravy if somebody poured it on you—OK, so ends my anti-Americanism. And what’s on the table, standard like salt and pepper shakers? A squeeze bottle filled with honey for the biscuit. These guys aren’t fucking around.
So, on my most recent pilgrimage last September, I’m starving, and not sure if the podunk grocery store in Forest will be open by the time I cross the border. I always have Palm’s on my mind, and this year, timing was perfect. How you find it is simple: Keep driving toward the bridge to Canada in Port Huron. At the final opportunity to drive directly toward the bridge from I-94, you are presented with an exit that lists Lexington Avenue. Stay in the left lane. Then take your first right at the traffic lights. Follow that road until you see a neon-lighted chicken with a golf club in clasped in one of its taloned feet. That’s the place. It’ll be on your right.
Walking in, it’s like stepping into a dream state. It’s kinda hazy, but not with cigarette smoke. Neon.
Turquoise and red hues linger thick in the air. You want retro? This ain’t retro, it’s the original—the bar itself has been around since the 1930s. And it’s not necessarily an easy crowd in there. Along with the gang of tourists headed to Sarnia for an all-nighter at the casino, there’s the stable of regulars, Harley riders and heavy drinkers.
Now, if you’re by yourself, just sit at the bar—I think I was just out of my mind with hunger pangs when I requested to be seated. Surprisingly, a number of those Harley riders were in the non-smoking section, and when I was seated in a booth by myself, I felt like the Delta guys in “Animal House” when they ventured into the all-Black club. Everything stopped for a moment, then went on.
The waitress dealing with a group of about 25 immediately to my right swung by my table, looked at me flying solo, stopped briefly, then looked away and yelled to somebody beyond my field of vision, “Who’s got table 20?”
Translation: I really just should’ve sat at the bar. But she warmed up to me.
She slapped a menu down and asked me if I’d like something to drink. From my previous experiences, I knew they had a limited beer selection. But it had been four years. Maybe they had added a few. “What do you have on tap?” I asked.
“Miller, and Miller Lite,” she answered.
“What’cha got in bottles?”
Now, I’ve learned that “everything else” in Port Huron, Mich. means exactly the same thing as “everything else” in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Not much else. Side story: In 2001 at Palm’s, after being told they had “everything else,” I asked for a Leinenkugel’s, which was answered with, “We don’t have imports, here.”
But this young, cute server would surely know what I was talking about, I thought. The beer’s from Wisconsin, for chrissakes.
“I’ll have a Leinenkugel’s,” I said. She looked at me as if I were actually speaking German.
“I’ll just have a Coors,” I said.
I didn’t look too closely at the menu. I was so famished, my thought was only the “chicken in the rough.” I am not a fan of fried food. It’s got nothing to do with health-risk morality. I just don’t like the flavor, generally, other than the deep-fried egg-rolls-from-heaven with clear plum sauce at one of my favorite Thai restaurants in St. Paul. But the fried chicken at Palm’s is well worth a quick detour before a border crossing into the land of sanity and goodness.
In the time span between when I ordered and when it arrived, a cute blond-haired woman at the table of 25 kept looking at me as I was reading some work-related material. I looked at her finally, said “Hello,” and she replied in kind. Her significant other at the table was some college-age punk who was having trouble handling the Miller Lite that he poured into himself. She appeared intelligent, he did not. She kept stealing glances. Whether this was because I exude charm or because she just wanted to escape the bar and I was the only sober-looking person, I don’t know. I prefer to think it was the former. Her hubby was barking at his friends; one of them shot the paper wrapping from a straw at him, and he, taking a goalkeepers swipe at the projectile, sent a bottle of beer flying from the table, which landed on its side and rolled toward my feet. An elderly waitress was right on the scene, like a well-trained bouncer. I leaned over, the bottle rolled into my hand after leaving a trail of beer and I handed it to her. The blond mouthed, “Sorry,” her eyes filled with shame.
“It’s OK,” I said.
The remaining two Harley couples, who were pounding drinks non-stop, looked over at the table. I was hoping for a brawl, but, alas, they just resumed drinking.
My waitress arrived, and said, “Your order will be up in seven minutes, I’m sorry about the wait.”
And, in about seven minutes, my order arrived. The meal was exactly how I remembered. Steam rising, a mass of chicken covered with those thin, home-cut fries—but there was one problem. The from-scratch biscuit I remembered was replaced by some generic dinner roll. I feared the worst for the rest of the meal, but as soon as I bit into a fry, seasoned with both regular and malt vinegar as my now-friendly waitress suggested—“It’s a good flavor,” she said—I knew I was safe.
The chicken, after allowing a few minutes to cool, was cooked to perfection. All the advantages of frying were manifested—juices sealed in, the meat tender and succulent. Breading is often a trouble spot for those that claim to be fried chicken specialists. In short, at Palm’s, it’s not. It’s crisp and flavorful, spiced, but not in the “hot wings” way. It’s just straightforward and delicious.
But what about the biscuit? I felt silly wasting the honey on the dinner roll, but tradition is tradition. I asked my young waitress about the change. “Well, I’ve only worked here for a year,” she said.
The real answer is probably one that’s heard in a lot of restaurants trying to keep their margins at a certain level—too much time to make, and the number that went uneaten probably just made it impractical to keep it up.
But go for the chicken, go for the vibe. Places like this won’t, sadly, be around forever. I packed the massive breast portion of my half chicken into a Styrofoam “to-go” box, and left. Until next September, mighty Palm’s. Until next September.