Trying to get the Mandis fried chicken right
WBEZ listener Nancy Rosman asked the Curious City project by WBEZ to help her find a recipe for the fried chicken she loved at the long-closed Mandis the Chicken King in Portage Park. Intrigued by the request, Food & Dining agreed to help WBEZ reporter Monica Eng develop the recipe. Through Eng's research and testing by the Tribune test kitchen's Lisa Schumacher, here's the recipe we developed.
Even if you're not a big foodie, you've probably got a dish that holds special meaning for you — a food that can instantly transport you to a time and place when things were rosier, simpler or just really delicious.
Now, imagine losing that dish forever.
That's what happened to Nancy Rosman when Mandis the Chicken King closed in the early 1970s. The restaurant had operated in the Portage Park neighborhood at Montrose and Central since the 1940s, and it served a fried chicken so special that Rosman remains haunted by it today.
"It was French fried chicken, but it didn't taste particularly greasy," she recalled. "It was very crunchy, but light and just really fantastic. I've tasted a lot of fried chicken and nothing has ever been like this."
Rosman has searched for the recipe — mostly through online message boards — for more than a decade, with no luck.
She asked if we could find the Mandis recipe and also reveal recipes from other long-gone Chicago culinary institutions.
We agreed to take up the fried chicken challenge. But instead of tracking down a slew of other Chicago dishes you may or may not remember, we've created a guide to help you with your own hunt for the recipes you really care about. (To mutilate an old saying: Give a reader a fish recipe and you feed him for a day; teach a reader to fish for recipes and you feed him for life.)
To assemble this guide we talked to a couple of pros: writers who've been recipe sleuthing for many years. They're Tribune food writer Bill Daley, and Monica Kass-Rogers, who writes a blog called Lost Recipes Found, after a series of columns on the subject she did for the Tribune.
Both have been amazed by Chicago's appetite for elusive old restaurant recipes.
"There's a huge nostalgia for long-ago restaurants," Daley said. "People want to remember an important dish or an important meal."
Kass-Rogers remembered when she first put out a call for lost recipes.
"We were inundated with hundreds and hundreds of requests," she said. And a whole category of those recipes was for defunct restaurant dishes.
Here are shortcuts, skills, insider tips and theories they've developed over the years. I'll present them here through the lens of my journey seeking the magic of Mandis the Chicken King.
Tip 1: Make sure you have the right name, address and time period for the place that served the long-lost recipe
This was our first challenge. Rosman recalled the restaurant name as "Mandas." But after searching archives using different variations on the name, we discovered it was actually Mandis, and that made the research a lot easier. Daley said he's seen this a lot.
"You'd be surprised at how often the initial information is wrong," said Daley. "People's memories can be very hazy."
Tip 2: Dig into newspaper archives
Daley noted that you often can get clues from ads, stories about the restaurant and, sometimes, the big prize: a complete recipe that the paper already published.
The Chicago Tribune offers a digitally searchable archive that spans more than 100 years. Other local papers have to be painstakingly searched — page by page — through pre-1985 microfilm. But the Tribune archive is vast, and if you have a Chicago Public Library account, you can access it for free online. That's where I found a 1963 ad by Mandis the Chicken King that offered a clue, they used birds called spring chickens.
Tip 3: Search for old employees or those still connected to the place
Unfortunately, both of the owners — Bill Mandis and Nick Doukas — have passed away. I did, however, find a Tribune article and later a RedEye piece indicating that Chris Liakouras, the co-founder of Chicago's Parthenon restaurant, had served as a waiter at Mandis when he first came here from Greece in 1960. Unfortunately, he didn't remember much.
But through online searches about Mandis restaurants, another named turned up, Max Pars, who took over the Mandis space with his restaurant Pars Cove in the early '70s. He recalled a little more.
"It was a half chicken with coleslaw and fries," he said between filling orders at Pars Cove, now located in Lincoln Park. "Some Sundays I would get 150 orders for it. People from downtown would order and they would come and pick it up. It was good fried chicken."
Pars says he continued to serve the chicken after he took over the building with his Persian restaurant — mostly because customers kept asking for it. But within a year, he said, he was told by the previous owners' family he had to stop.
Tip 4: Track down the owner's next of kin
Since the two original owners had passed away, I reached out to the Mandis and Doukas kids listed in obituaries — or at least people with their same names. Most of my attempts, through emails, calls and Facebook messages, struck out.
Still, Daley said next of kin have often been good sources of information for him, noting, "a lot of times the kids are really excited to talk about it and share those old memories."
I did hear from a Mandis daughter, who told me that the recipe "died with my dad." And one Doukas brother seemed a little perturbed when I called him at his job in the Chicago suburbs. He hinted that he had the recipe but didn't want to share it. Instead, he offered two ingredients: "flour and water." This, at least, told me it was a battered chicken, but I was still miles away from a recipe.
Then, a week later, just when I thought I'd hit a brick wall, I got an email back from another Doukas brother, Ted. He agreed to chat on the phone.
"I basically grew up in the restaurant," said Ted, who works in international investments. "We lived just a couple of blocks away and I worked there when I was in school."
He confirmed that the recipe exists, but it's "still pretty much a family secret."
"When we had the restaurant, there were several people who wanted to buy the recipe and were willing to pay money," he explained. "But my father and uncle didn't want anything to do with that."
No matter how much I begged, Ted wouldn't give up the recipe. But he did offer crumbs.
"It's not a complicated recipe," he said. "There are a couple of things they did differently from what other people who made fried chicken would do. …. One thing I will tell you — and keep in mind the restaurant started in the 1940s — is that we did not use vegetable oil. It was all cooked in lard. That is one of the things when people try to think about how it tasted, that helped create a unique flavor to the chicken."
Ted wouldn't tell me anything about the spices, but he did confirm his brother's hint about the batter. He further told me where they got their chickens: from a purveyor still operating in Chicago today, Cougle Commission Co.
Tip 5: Consider what the ingredients were like at the time.
So what would those milk-fed spring chickens have been like at the time?
I called the Cougle Commission Co. and talked to president Lee Friedheim. He told me that they don't sell milk-fed spring chickens today, but it probably doesn't matter.
"Spring chicken just meant a tender, young chicken," said Friedheim, who thinks he even delivered chickens to Mandis the Chicken King in his teens. "The chickens I delivered were just regular three-pounders. And today chickens are ready so soon (about 39 days), that all of them are like spring chickens."
This point was important, because if you are trying to recreate a long-lost flavor, ingredient quality matters, Daley reminded me.
"Things change," he said. "I mean, would you say that today's milk has the same quality and flavor and texture that it did in 1950 or the '70s? No."
The same goes for lard. Today most of our lard is made with hydrogenated, factory-farmed hog fat from industrial breeds. But back during the Mandis heyday, it would have likely come from fatter, heritage breeds that lived outdoors — and would probably not have been hydrogenated. I tracked down two tubs of such old-fashioned lard made from the fat of Berkshire hogs raised outdoors at Faith's Farm in Kankakee County.
Tip 6: Cultivate anonymous sources.
I can't tell you much about this tip except that sometimes — if you advertise through social media that you are looking for something — a source will come out of the woodwork with information that can't be attributed. That was the case for one of our sources who didn't know the complete recipe, but said he/she believed the chicken was first washed and soaked in vinegar and water, then dipped in a batter that contained sour cream and sat overnight.
The vinegar is a traditional method in some areas of the south and the Caribbean. There, folks use it to clean the chicken and get rid of any "funk." But the sour cream was a new one for me. We consulted with Chicago's legendary cook, author and restaurateur Ina Pinkney. But she'd never heard of a sour cream batter that sat overnight.
"And the thing that worries me is if it was in the fridge it would just stay the same, like buttermilk," Pinkney said. "But if you let it sit on the counter fermenting all night and it gets fluffy, then what? I can't imagine what you would do with it."
Tip 7: Fill in the gaps
"If you can't get the exact one, you can try to create a facsimile of one thereof," Kass-Rogers said.
"You can often piece something together based on existing recipes from the period and as many clues as you can use to tweak it.," Daley offered.
This is what we did with the final recipes we tested and presented to Rosman.
After a few hours of consulting with Tribune food editor Joe Gray and recipe tester Lisa Schumacher, we started with the smallest — almost 3-pound — chickens we could find. We soaked them in vinegar and water, which gave them a clean feel and slightly tangy flavor. We made a batter with cornstarch, sour cream and baking soda that sat on the counter all night, getting bubbly. We then came up with a plan to try five variations of ingredients and dredge- and- dip methods. And we cooked the chicken in lard.
The next day we invited Nancy Rosman down to the Chicago Tribune test kitchen, asking her to eat a few preliminary rounds before digging into the final version.
"This looks like a very crackly piece of chicken," she said. "The crust looks like you have a lot of places where you could pick it off. It smells very good and looks like it's inviting you to take a bite."
She crunched. She chewed. She opined.
"This is very good fried chicken," she announced. "In terms of the elements I remember, you've gotten very close. But if you had that exact fried chicken now, I think I could pick it out from this. People who had eaten at Mandis might not say that this is exactly like Mandis, but it's pretty darn close and definitely worth making."
This is when I remembered yet another tip that both Daley and Kass-Rogers offered.
Tip 8: Be prepared for disappointment because, sometimes to capture the exact flavor, you just had to be there
"Sometimes the recipe takes on this aura that it was much more delicious than it really was," Daley said. "And when you're a kid, your taste buds are one way and they can be different when you are 50 and sometimes memories burnish the palate."
Kass-Rogers agreed that often the dishes people are looking for are more about recapturing "a specific event and people who were sitting around a table."
"Then," she said, "everything about that meal shines in the golden glow of memory, including that dish."
Rosman is well aware of this.
"Part is the 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' factor. I tend to romanticize things that are no longer there," she said. "But as you get older you start to treasure some of the thing you lost, whether they're food, recipes or people you associate with special tastes. I associate the recipe with a special bond with my dad and with my family and with our offbeat adventures. But there was something about it that will never be as good as anything else. ... The fact that it came from a neighborhood joint and you could afford it and it was something you would never do at home."
So a word of warning to recipe sleuthers: Even if you find the exact recipe, the dish may never taste the same, because the real magic was in the overall experience.
Other tips from Kass-Rogers and Daley
• If the recipe comes from a suburban restaurant, check the town's historical society for old community cookbooks or some sort of archive of local dishes.
• Talk to the Culinary Historians of Chicago: Kass-Rogers said, "A lot of these folks used to be the people who wrote the food columns in the city and if they don't know the recipe they might know someone who knows someone."
• If you can't get the actual recipe, consider a recipe from that region and era. "I have hundreds of cookbooks in my home categorized by region and era for that reason," said Kass-Rogers.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. This story is a joint project between WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune.
Almost Mandis fried chicken
Cook: 16-18 minutes per batch
Developed in the Tribune test kitchen by Lisa Schumacher. Although Mandis used chicken halves, you may cut the chicken into smaller pieces.
1 to 1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 whole chicken (3 pounds), cut in half lengthwise
1 quart distilled white vinegar, about
1 quart water, about
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 For the batter: In a medium bowl, mix together 1 cup flour, the corn starch, sour cream, 1 cup water, baking soda, salt and pepper until well blended; let rest overnight, covered, in a warm place.
2 For the chicken: The next day, place chicken halves in a large stockpot; pour in enough vinegar and water in equal parts to submerge the chicken. Allow to soak, 45 minutes. Drain; pat chicken dry. Season chicken with salt and pepper.
3 For the coating: In a bowl, mix together remaining 3 cups flour, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
4 Heat enough lard to fry the chicken in a Dutch oven or other high-sided, heavy-bottomed pot to 350 degrees. Dip each chicken half in the dry mixture, coating all sides. Shake off excess. Dip into the wet mixture, coating all sides; let excess drip off. Dip again in the dry mixture, coating all sides; shake off excess.
5 Place 1 half chicken at a time in the hot fat; fry until well browned, 15-18 minutes. Remove and allow to drain on a rack over paper towels. Repeat with remaining chicken half. Serve hot. ■