ST. PETE BEACH
L.A.M. Phelan began inventing things as a kid. He cut his teeth on carton-making machinery, oil burners and steam traps. As a young man he worked on projects for the American Car and Foundry Company, Monsanto and Goodyear, as well as on the Panama Canal project. He built the first automatic gasoline pump and started a company that manufactured X-ray tubes. • And then he trained his sights on something serious: chicken. Specifically, how to get it super crispy on the outside while maintaining moistness within.
In 1954, Phelan cobbled together some folks from a different company of his, Tekni-Craft, in order to produce the first Broaster Pressure Fryers in Beloit, Wis. By 1956, the Broaster Company was officially formed as a partnership and began selling a line of specialty food service equipment, accessories and ingredients nationwide.
What is broasted chicken? First, you need one of Phelan's Broasters, large commercial stainless steel pressure fryers made for the restaurant industry. There's a special marinating process, then battering and frying pieces in the open pressure cooker until a crust is formed, then closing the pressure cooker for 10 to 12 minutes and — voila — perfect fried chicken, not as greasy as regular fried chicken.
Broasted chicken is a fabled food all over the country, but it is at its most fetishistic in Wisconsin and Michigan. It is a regional specialty that makes upper Midwesterners swoony. Beth Morean is from Michigan. When she bought the building that used to house Dockside Dave's, she talked to general manager Buddy Thomas. Thomas had run the nearby Undertow Beach Bar for 18 years. Ready for his own bar, he and Morean collaborated, and the Roost opened July 21, installing a Winston Pressure Fryer.
With Thomas at the helm, it's a comfortable neighborhood bar, painted baby blue and heavy on the antique farm implements and ancient seed bags as art. With the addition of a whole lot of picnic tables on the patio, it met the 2,500-square-feet and 150-seat requirement for a special restaurant liquor license. It's not a fancy watering hole, just the usual suspects and a beer list that leans toward Bud and Sam Adams. (The only nod to local craft is the Jai Alai on tap.)
Where things get interesting is with the broasting.
There are not a ton of options here. You are eating chicken, choosing between number of pieces and which pieces (a breast and a thigh, maybe, or a breast and a drumstick), and then a couple of sides from a list of at least six offerings daily. A long list of the options, from carrot raisin salad to bourbon corn pudding and brown butter broccoli, is printed on a wall sign. The ones actually on offer on a particular day are denoted by little pieces of blue electrical tape. A rustic touch, but kind of cool.
Listen to Zeppelin's Immigrant Song and sip a workhorse cocktail from a mason jar while you wait for the broasted majesty, which comes on a white cardboard tray. Tabletops are equipped with aluminum trays containing paper towels, silverware in paper sleeves, honey and hot sauce. The chicken is good enough not to need those last two, but they make it extra festive.
The chicken is flavorful and moist but not oily, the crust deep golden and flaking off in big shards as you bite in. Tray slots contain an array of very solid sides: Top offerings on a couple of visits were the cauliflower bake and the cheesy potatoes, but the stewy black-eyed peas were quite appealing, as were the collards with their meaty liquor. Beyond the chicken, the kitchen's strong suits are the kind of casseroles and dishes (Waldorf salad!) that you'd find on the rickety card tables at a Midwestern church social.
Morean got her way. And it wouldn't be boasting to say it's the best broasted chicken on St. Pete Beach.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.