By Walter Nicholls
The Washington Post
A curious e-mail arrives at the Washington Post food section from an apparently hungry reader in Falls Church, Va.
"I'm originally from Detroit," writes Duane D. Freese, an editorial consultant for TechCentralStation.com. "The best 'fried' chicken I ever had was from a place called the Chicken Shack. It was actually broasted. I found a place in Virginia that 'broasted chicken.' But it closed last March." Broasted? Did he mean braised or roasted? A Google search turns up assorted references to the now-shuttered Whitey's Restaurant, the popular neighborhood bar in Arlington, Va., that featured live music and broasted chicken. Freese is right. Whitey's is history.
Then, pay dirt: www.broaster.com, the home page of the Broaster Co. of Beloit, Wis., which, it turns out, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In 1954, inventor L.A.M. Phalen of Flavor Fast Foods in Rockton, Ill., developed a pressure-cooking, deep-fat fryer and trademarked the word Broaster.
The Broaster Co. makes the stainless-steel fryer, a machine that looks like a top-loading clothes washer with a lock-down lid. It also markets the cooking process. If you want to sell Broaster chicken, you have to follow the company's preparation instructions and sign an agreement that you will cook chicken only in a Broaster Co.-manufactured pressure fryer and only using Broaster's Chickite marinade and Slo-Bro seasoning. Only then can you call your chicken Broaster.
I click on "store locator" at the Broaster site and up pops a U.S. map speckled with thousands of red dots -- each one an active Broaster. (Editor's note: There are plenty in this neck of the Midwest and Upper South.)
More than 5,000 restaurants, cafeterias, bars and carryouts have a Broaster operating license in the U.S., with lots of red dots in the upper Midwest. (There are thousands more in 40 countries worldwide. Saudi Arabia is thick with them.) But there's only a single red dot in Washington, D.C.
Why is this area so lean on Broaster chicken? The store locator allows you to type in a Zip Code to find the broaster nearest you. First I try Beverly Hills 90210 and get 33 locations. New York (10010) has 22. Then I type in the Washington Post's Zip, 20071, and pick up the lone entry: the Veterans Canteen Service 618, at 810 Vermont Ave. NW, just down the street.
Feeling left out and overlooked, I call the Broaster headquarters in Beloit. "It's really a Midwest thing that's spreading," says Mark Markwardt, director of marketing. Markwardt's hometown of Sheboygan has more than 80 venues.
Broaster doesn't target specific areas. You have to come to Broaster. "More than anything, it's by chance," he says. "We're not like Subway or McDonald's with corporate stores. Independents have to buy into the program." But Broaster does actively market its machines to military institutions. He suggests I try the chicken at the Veterans Canteen.
And 30 minutes later, with the help of Jacob Bengera, manager of the cafeteria in the basement of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters, one block from the White House, I have Broaster in my hands. (The cafeteria is open only to government employees. But for the sake of research, Bengera sells me five pieces of chicken for the usual rate of $3.75.)
Back at the office, I nudge the pieces with a fork. They're on the scrawny side; the trademark coating is a little greasy and its dominant flavor is salt. It has more personality than, let's say, Kentucky Fried Chicken, but nowhere near the spicy taste of Popeye's. The meat is moist and easily falls off the bone. I'm left wondering: Could this be as good as Broaster gets? I try the online store locator and expand my search.
Two hits! The next nearest Broaster location is 64 miles away in Thurmont, Md., and one a bit farther, in Hagerstown, Md. I hit the road.
"We're not fancy -- just country people," says Patricia Ridenoor, co-owner of the Thurmont Kountry Kitchen, a comfortable, pint-size restaurant that occupies a humble bungalow on Water Street in the center of the town. We settle into a back table, sip iced tea and talk Broaster.
In the 20 years that Ridenoor has owned the restaurant, no American president has dropped by for the Big Mama burger or house-made blueberry pie. The presidential retreat, Camp David, is only five miles away.
"We get the SWAT teams and the Park Police but, best I know, no presidents," says Ridenoor who bought into Broaster four years ago for $8,000: "A lot of money." Her prize possession fries 40 pieces of chicken at a time in 15 minutes.
"It's one of the best things we went and did," she says. "People come from all over for it."
Every day, Ridenoor or an assistant mixes water with the Broaster Company Chickite -- a substance that has the consistency and appearance of salt. In go the fresh chicken pieces, trimmed of fat, for 24 hours of marinating.
An hour before she anticipates a chicken order, she rolls the marinated chicken pieces in Slo-Bro, the breading mixture that resembles cornstarch. Ridenoor says she has no idea exactly what Chickite and Slo-Bro are made with. "All I know is that it works for us."
At the end of the grill line in a corner of the kitchen, gleaming in its glory, is the Model 1800 Broaster fryer. Ridenoor proudly demonstrates how the lid slides back to reveal the removable fry basket. "And wait until you cut into that breast and see the juice run right out of it," she promises. A half-chicken, served with potato wedges and two vegetable side dishes is $7.95. Ridenoor is right. This is great chicken, plump, succulent -- good to the bone. I'm beginning to understand why broasting has its loyal fans.
Just over 21 miles away in Hagerstown, I find I-Mart, a sort of modern, glorified gas station and convenience store overlooking busy Interstate 81. The Broaster logo -- a chicken in a top hat -- is above the front door.
It's just after 3 p.m. There's an inviting aroma of fresh-baked cake. When I ask the cashier about Broaster, a voice pipes up from somewhere behind the nearby kitchen/carryout area.
Amanda Brichbill, 19, and Jennifer Haines, 18, have been broasting for six months: "If you want to know about the chicken, you ought to be talking to us. We're the ones that have to make it," Haines calls out.
Haines is spooning in the filling of deviled eggs ("my mom's recipe") and monitoring the vanilla bean Bundt cake ("just a box recipe") that is just about to come out of the oven.
Haines had no idea what Broaster was when she took the job as a counter cook. Now she is so familiar with it that her sky-blue Mobil work shirt is liberally dotted with grease stains. According to Haines, a senior at Green Castle Antrim High School, the Broaster machine is a beast.
"To clean that thing is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Every week you drain all the oil out. Then, you get down in there and take this thing that looks like a metal toilet brush and get out the baked-on bits. It's a big, yucky, greasy ordeal," she says with obvious disgust.
Still, she likes the results.
"Sure, I eat it. It's moist but not greasy," says Haines.
"It has a certain flavor to it," adds Brichbill, a first-year student at Hagerstown Community College.
Many of their customers know the drill; they call 20 minutes in advance to order fresh chicken hot from the Broaster.
"They say it's the best chicken they've ever eaten," says Haines.
A bell sounds. Brichbill throws back a lever on the Broaster lid and a column of sizzling forced steam rises into the range hood like a plume from an angry volcano and then quickly falls silent. "You are going to try it, aren't you?" asks Brichbill.
I settle into a booth overlooking the gas pumps and tackle a leg with my plastic knife and fork. The skin is chewy. Boy, is it salty. The damp meat peels back in stringy pieces. This broasted chicken is okay, but it's not to be compared with the plump bird back in Thurmont.
In fact, it's instant Broaster, another option available from the company. I-Mart buys ready-to-cook, pre-marinated, breaded and frozen chicken pieces. Convenience has its consequences.
Days later, back at the office, I'm wondering if Broaster is ever going to be closer to home. I think about Whitey's. Somewhere out there in Arlington, Va., there is a cold, idle Broaster going to waste.
I call Calvin Seville, the guy who used to own Whitey's.
"People knew Whitey's for the Broaster chicken," says Seville who ran the bar for 26 years. But according to him, Broaster chicken never took off in the Washington area. "The Broaster people don't do enough campaigning on this side of the Mississippi."
A new group has leased and started renovations on the building that was once Whitey's. But it doesn't look good for Duane Freese and other Broaster fans.
"We want it to be a place for fairly sophisticated food at good prices," says Michael Babin, who is also a co-owner of the Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria, Va. He says the Broaster is "back in the kitchen somewhere but it looks like it was damaged, and you might not want to boil grease in it."
Babin and his partners don't have a set menu just yet for their new place, which they think will be ready in June. "Nothing is final," he says.
Would he consider serving Broaster chicken in the Whitey's tradition? He admits he doesn't know much about it. But he holds out hope.
"Well, if people want it. Yes," says Babin. "It's possible."