Cafe Reviews

Fear of Frying

I have driven halfway to Tucson to parachute out of a plane. I have journeyed to Lake Pleasant for ultralight gliding, which is essentially sitting on an airborne lawn mower (same engine, only a little better security of flight). I have ridden thoroughbred horses bareback over jumps, and I once challenged a dictator in Africa on why he refused to distribute penicillin to his people (because he could, he said).

But I have never fried a chicken. And I never intend to. The idea is simply too frightening. Dropping things into blistering oil, hoping to leap away before the molten liquid splashes on my delicate skin, controlling the temperature just so -- as the book 4001 Food Facts and Chef's Secrets warns me, "Never allow oil to heat to the smoke point, as it may ignite." I'd have to be crazy to try such foolishness.

I'm not alone in my oily concerns. Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons in his book How to Read a French Fry concedes that "most people would sooner tune their own car or perform minor surgery on a family member before they would try to fry in their own kitchen." There are too many variables, he writes -- the ingredients, the temperature, and the fact that the most minor mishap can turn a delicious fried feast into a disaster. Oil that is too hot results in burned on the outside/undercooked on the inside chicken; oil that is not hot enough will deliver wretched soggy skin. More than that, oil that's not contained can kill us. As Parsons notes, "The fundamental truth of frying is that it is one of the hottest forms of cooking there is. That is the reason fried foods have such a nice crunch, and it is also the reason so many people are afraid of it."

That's why I'll leave the deep-frying to the professionals, skilled folks like the cooks at my new favorite restaurant, Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles in south Phoenix. This place has possibly the best Southern fried chicken I've ever had in my life. It's crispy, juicy, inexpensive, and I don't have to worry about hurting myself to get it.

Thank goodness owner Larry White has no fear of frying. He was practically raised around boiling oil, as the grandson of Elizabeth White, the proprietor of downtown Phoenix's legendary Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe. Larry learned the art of fried chicken from the Valley's indisputable mistress of soul food. The poultry is the backbone of his year-old restaurant, housed in a tiny converted home amid the modest residential and aging industrial area that is Central Avenue and Buckeye.

Larry uses canola oil for his frying, which is the healthful choice for today's cooks. Cholesterol free, and with only one gram of fat, it has 50 percent less saturated fat than olive or other vegetable oils.

Do I care about that, though? No. What's important to me is that canola has a mild flavor, so when I bite into Lo-Lo's chicken's beautiful breast, thigh or leg, the oil runs clear and clean. Because real fried chicken -- as we have here -- absolutely must have that explosion of grease when we peel away the crisp battered skin. When we bite that skin, it should make our lips slick and shiny. When we eat the meat, it should be so deeply infused with fat that it's almost wet. Cloggy, thick oil only makes us sick.

Frying is one of the fastest modes of cooking food. Something that takes 20 minutes to finish by roasting will be done in as little as two minutes when fried. Doing it correctly, however, takes time. Indeed, Lo-Lo's creations easily take half an hour from order to table. Larry and his highly boisterous crew are busy back in the kitchen, cooking up huge platters of soul food fare, hand-making the gravy, the greens, the mac-n-cheese, the cakes.

It gets loud in the little three-room cafe, the animated conversation and the Bose-stereo-produced jazz and R&B tunes bouncing off Spanish tile floors and white brick walls. Posters of jazz greats are the artwork, and, like the decor at Mrs. White's, visitors are invited to graffiti their well-wishes on any open wall space (Mary Rose Wilcox and numerous athletes are big fans). Customers -- me included -- think nothing of shouting across the compact space when we need attention (hardly ever) or a leftovers box (always).

Besides chicken, Lo-Lo's specialty is waffles. They're served by themselves or alongside fried chicken. An odd combo? Only until it's sampled. There's good reason that Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles in California has a cult following, and why Lo-Lo's sells the batter disks nonstop throughout the day (the place is open until 2 a.m. on Fridays, and it's packed even in the wee hours). Thin, griddled to fluffy insides and crunchy edge, there's a hint of cinnamon to be found under the butter and syrup.

My killer combo is the KK's: a quarter chicken, two waffles, grits and two eggs. I could eat this every day if I didn't mind turning into an elephant. The grits are polenta-perfect, drenched in butter, and the eggs are scrambled with lots of cheese and onions. But then, I'm also adoring of the Baby Ray -- two waffles and a quarter chicken smothered in rich peppery gravy spiked with chopped carrot and capped with grilled white onion curls. The gravy softens the fried chicken crust, for an orgy of luscious fat and grease.

Or maybe I'm most fond of the soul food platter -- all four versions -- served with three pieces of Southern fried or smothered chicken, or 12 to 15 ounces of catfish or red snapper plus two side orders and cornbread. They're massive meals, but I order them again and again, and never grow too full or tired to start over.

Lo-Lo's fish is much lighter than its chicken, rolled in cornmeal and pan-fried. This food might actually be good for me, but that's okay, I like it anyway, and I damage any benefits by pairing my fish with gooey mac-n-cheese (an interesting recipe, dotted with mushroom), cubed russet potatoes drowning in gravy, candy sweets (intensely sugary sweet potatoes), rice and gravy, or barbecue-like beans over rice. Heaven? It's in an order of fish and chips -- my preferred mix of both catfish and red snapper -- piled atop French fries, dipped in hot sauce, and taken with bites of old-fashioned, down-home greens. On weekends, we're treated to another delight: soft string beans cooked with red skin potatoes and red bell pepper in lush vegetable liquor.

Larry makes a point of telling me that breakfast is served all day -- the waffle theme, of course. But these morning meals are deserving of dinner, like Aunt Hattie's croquettes, or Aunt Portia's omelet. Two slender cakes comprise the croquettes, stuffed with bits of salmon, red bell pepper and shallot, presented alongside grits, cheese eggs and toast with grape jelly. The omelet is a four-egg monster chock-full of chicken, cheese, sweet onion and bell pepper -- a buck more lands me a side of waffle.

Red velvet cake is one of Larry's specialties. This confection has always freaked me out because of its bloody color, but what the hell, it almost upstaged Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias, so there must be something special about it. I'm stuffed to the gills after a pig-out meal, but as I pay my tab, Larry wonders whether I'd like to try a piece of his fresh-baked creation. I cart it home, intending to try a single bite. Yet it's not long before I'm looking at an empty Styrofoam container, licking walnut-studded vanilla frosting from my fork and re-checking my to-go box for remnants like any crack addict rummaging the carpet.

Eating like this is dangerous for my diet, certainly. But then, what's the point of living, if not for the thrill?

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet