Palm’s Krystal Bar: for your fried chicken pleasure

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…

LakeShot-Palms2-6-06-CRAnyway, 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.

Palms2-6-06-2-CR-adjSo, 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.

Palms2-6-06-3-adjTurquoise 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?”

“Everything else.”

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 don’t—“

“I’ll just have a Coors,” I said.

“Coors Light?”

“That’s fine.”

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.

9 comments for “Palm’s Krystal Bar: for your fried chicken pleasure

  1. McGeary
    February 7, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Great post. I’ve been a big fan of vinegar on my fries since I was a kid making summer trips to Grand Bend, Ontario. (I also picked up a bit of a fries&mayonnaise habit in Belgium later on, but that approach never tasted very good after I got back to the States. They must just have better mayo over there.)
    In an unrelated follow-up to a past comment: One of my fellow haunters of chowhound.com says that Udupi Cafe is open again as of last Friday.

  2. February 8, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    Udupi back on…good to know. Thanks for the update. And yeah, Grand Bend. A 25 minute drive from Forest. Pretty decent restaurant there called the Riverview Café. I try to hit that, too, when I’m up there.

  3. Charlie Towns
    March 17, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    I live in Port Huron, and go to this restaraunt occasionaly. The strip steak is terriffic. It’s a working class place (blue collar), but it’s not a biker bar. It’s a great neighborhood place where a lot of people from sarnia go to eat. On Friday or Saturday night there’s no where to park. Your directions are a little off. Oh yeah, my mother was Canadian.

  4. Rick K
    May 31, 2006 at 10:19 pm

    Spot-on review. I grew up in Port Huron, and am now living a half-continent away in Denver. when I make the trip back home there are always three places I visit for food & drink: chicken at the Palms Krystal Bar, chili dogs at Coney Island, and Tom & Jerries at the Brass Rail during the Christmas season. Diana’s Sweet Shop used to be on that list before they closed a few years ago. I miss that place. The interior was a time machine straight back to 1927, and the fish and chips was good. Washed down with a cherry phosphate, it was even better. Time does unfortunately march on, and as you say these places won’t be with us forever. Enjoy them while you can.

  5. nikki
    August 11, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    My mom has worked at the Palm’s as a bartender for 23 years now. I’ve done a few stints there myself on break from college. It’s always nice to hear just how much other people enjoy it. Though… I’d have to say it’s a bit misleading about the Harley riders and hardcore drinkers. It makes it seem rough and tumble. In 23 years, my mom has never had a fight in there. And most of them aren’t really Harley riders. Tattoo artists, carni workers, that sort of crowed. All of them deliriously nice guys who will chat you up all night if you sit next to them and buy them a beer.
    Though… at 23, I can’t say that I ever remember from-scratch biscuits. When I was 11, I used to CRAVE the delicious generic store bought biscuits. So in the last 12 years, I’m pretty positive they never had them.
    When did you last stop in though? Now they’ve got Killian’s on tap too, which makes me happy since that’s my favorite. And I believe the tap beers are Bud and Bud Lite. When I worked there 2003, that’s what they were. And the pictures I took recently for Martha show Bud taps. Moving on up from the urine that is called Miller. Haha. And I think Martha and Russ (the owners who took over when the Zjiabs sold it back in 2002) have added some more bottled brew.

  6. August 14, 2006 at 10:45 am

    Hey Nikki. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I was there again in late June on my way to Forest (see July 5 “Down Time” post). Never thought I’d get so teary-eyed for a Killian’s. Had a couple of them with the meal. And I suppose I should qualify my statement about Harley riders. You and Charlie Towns are right. They ain’t Harley riders in the “Hell’s Angels” sense, they’re middle class, mid-life crisis riders, like the majority we have tooting around the Twin Cities. ‘Cept ours our even worse: lawyers during the week, chaps-wearin’ wanna-be tough guys during the weekend. But the ones that were there that night were throwing back drinks like champions. And no from-scratch biscuits? Alas.

  7. Kelli
    May 14, 2007 at 10:32 am

    I know for a fact in the last 21 years they have not been “from the scratch biscuits” but at least you enjoyed them!

  8. Martie McCarthy
    October 16, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Hi Chicken Lovers;
    Just to let you know that Sarnia, Ontario now has a “Chicken in the Rough”. It’s called McCarthys’ Bar and Grill. The atmosphere is not retro but it has a solid black walnut bar which is great to watch sports. It’s located at Colborne and Cathcart streets intersection in the Macs variety store plaza. The atmosphere is neighborhood bar , very cozy, but best of all you can experience the great taste of “Chicken in the Rough’ in a basket cooked the way it has always been cooked. As we always say (because its true) “Every Bites A Tender Delight”.

  9. Julia
    June 12, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I actually bartended here for a time, all the while a pregnant girl! Crazy! I just loved it though. I now live in Seattle, WA. I look it up occasionally, thinking that if I ever meet Mr. Right, he will bring me back there at least for dinner. I would love to go. I was just plain addicted to the Manhattan Clam Chowder. I guess mercury is not so good for mom’s to be. I ate lots of it…the kid is fine.

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