Thursday, February 17, 2011

Iron Skillet

I have this problem.  Once I get hooked on an idea (i.e. finding the best fried chicken in the Indianapolis area), I have to keep going until I have closure.  Actually, I have a closure problem in general, but that’s another story.  I have had A LOT of people recommend Iron Skillet as the end all be all of fried chicken.  So of course, I have been itching to go.
They are only open on Sundays for lunch, so we had a babysitter one day and decided to make the trek over there.  It wasn’t actually as far as I thought, only about 20 minutes or so from my house.  So this is another one of those restaurants in the genre of Hollyhock Hill and Copper Kettle where everything is family style, it is set in an old house, and basically has been serving the same stuff for decades (in Iron Skillet’s case, since 1953).
So you get cottage cheese, pickled beets when you sit down (ok, this stuff doesn’t really excite me, so I am not going into details, hubby thought the cottage cheese was good for cottage cheese). You then get your salad which was slices of iceberg with a bit of seasoning (looked like paprika) and that traditional sweet vinegar salad dressing that somehow is the same at all these places.  I like a little more excitement with my salad, and don’t care for sweet dressings so I just had a bite and moved on.
The soup was better (you have a choice of soup or tomato juice). It was a creamy onion soup with croutons.  It tasted like cream of chicken soup (definitely a chicken base, not beef) with onions adding a bit of flavor.  There were several large croutons floating on top that were dense enough that they kept their mass even after being in the soup for a few minutes which I liked.  It tasted pretty good on a cold day, it was thick and hearty—I would have loved a few more onions though.
But really, was I there for any of that stuff? No. I was there for the chicken.  They brought us out three sides (bet you can guess what they were…). Mashed potatoes, green beans and corn.  And a giant plate of chicken.  I tell you, it sure did look pretty, that chicken.  We had the mixed light and dark plate which was basically a whole chicken for the two of us.  So how was it?  It was okay.  The best part about it was the chicken meat was super juicy.  Someone knows just how long to cook it so it isn’t dried out.  Even the breast was exceptionally juicy.  The downside—well it was the complete lack of seasoning on the skin.  So maybe this is a style that people like, but for me, I like some flavor on my chicken.  It was nice and crispy, but that was about it.  Other than the inherent flavor in chicken skin, there wasn’t much else.
The mashed potatoes were really good and very homemade tasting though—just the right amount of creaminess without being runny and with a nice pat of butter on top.  One of the highlights of the meal.  Canned corn and canned green beans? I can take a pass on those (even with the little bits of bacon on top of the green beans—honestly even the bacon tasted funny).  So here’s the thing, and I am not going to belabor this too much, but I was wondering, back when these places started, a lot of people canned their own veggies, and I am wondering if maybe that is how this started, and then morphed into just buying them in cans because it is cheaper?  Can you imagine how cool it would be if there were places like this that served their chicken, etc (preferably with a little more seasoning) and a seasonal veggie to go along with? Fresh corn, green beans or tomatoes in the summer,  and other things in the fall and winter?  I don’t know, call me a dreamer, but I think that would be potentially great. And way better than canned.  If I want that I can do that at home. And for a lot cheaper (this meal was $18.95 per person).
The experience is similar to the other places too—large dining rooms with a lot of large tables decorated how Grandma would have back in the day (or what people think of when they think of a 50s Grandma).  Lots of flowery stuff, lace and doilies.  I know a lot of families have been going for years to get this exact same experience each time, but it would be so awesome if you could get the kitschy décor with kick ass food.  I am going to stop going on about this, because another local blogger recently wrote a post on this exact subject (only about Hollyhock Hill), and you should go read it.  She said it perfectly, better than I would.   Anyhow, our server was super friendly, and very attentive and I also loved that while we were seated on the large expansive porch, it was not cold.  There were some seriously modern windows in there, and for that I was grateful.
You also got a scoop of ice cream with dishes of various kinds of sauces--chocolate, butterscotch, strawberry and creme de menthe.  It was pretty much what you expect--nothing unusual. The sauces were pretty clearly from a bottle/can, and the ice cream didn't taste like it was anything other than what you might get in a grocery store.  I was pretty full at this point so I just had a couple bites.
My favorite part of the meal was when hubby leaned in to me and said, “do you think anyone in the kitchen says, 'hey, maybe we should put something new on the menu?'”  It’s a good thing when after this many years, your husband can still make you laugh. 
Iron Skillet
2489 West 30th Street
Indy  46222

Iron Skillet on Urbanspoon


  1. All this frustration about comfort food makes me have to offer up a suggestion: The Legend in Irvington. It's an amazing little neighborhood spot with great comforts (e.g. chicken, meatloaf, tenderloin) as well as really well done specials that showcase a little more culinary depth. While I used to live nearby, my wife and I still go there a couple of times per month since we moved up near Castleton since we haven't found anything to compare it to. Very kid friendly as well!

  2. Joe in Montgomery OHFebruary 17, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    Growing up in Indianapolis, I know both the Iron Skillet and Hollyhock Hill. Haven't been to the former in decades, but the latter a couple of years ago.

    I find that a common problem in the Midwest, outside of newer restaurants and top end places, is an inbred fear of herbs and seasonings. Looks like that's the problem here as well.

    I'm a bit amazed that the mashed potatoes were that good, but not surprised at the beans and corn. I also have to say that the salad dressing describes elicits the same feeling as the veggies. (i.e. is this 1956?).

    I'm sure the technique on the chicken was good and I appreciate history, but can't we do something different? Oh, I know it's "don't change a thing!"

  3. You're my hero. I understand the nostalgia of it, but I too am a fan of herbs, spices, seasonings, depth... Something to coat your belly with the same feelings & comforts of home as the decor. Good post.

  4. I haven't been to either Hollyhock Hill or the Iron Skillet for a while, but enjoyed them in the past. I know the chicken is not how I make my fried chicken (special occasion food!) with my own spice blend on directly on the chicken (soaked overnight in buttermilk & Frank's Redhot), floured (salt & pepper) and pan fried. One thing you didn't mention was the thing I've always loved: Cream Gravy! Oh, those little crisp yum-yums in the bottom of the skillet. Pardon me, I need a private moment...

    OK. The "Head Lettuce Dressing" that started at Hollyhock Hill used to be sold at the old O'Malia's Grocery and I think you can still buy it at the restaurant. The sweet-sour oil free dressing is a Hoosier thing. Probably from our German immigrants and tastes similar to the bacon dressing made for another Hoosier thing: wilted lettuce salad.

    When I was in college in Florida, my Mom would send me care packages with the Hollyhock Hill dressing. Yes, I love it that much.

    Just like Gray Brothers, these are legacy restaurants that give long time residents a window and anchor to our past. Yes, we love all the new, independent restaurants bringing new and different cuisine to Indy, but it's still comforting to have a taste of our past, too.

  5. "An inbred fear of herbs and seasonings:" so wrong, but it made me laugh all the same.

    Erin, I can't vouch for the place, but my parents rave about the fried chicken from the Jackson Street Cafe in Cicero. It's not their main schtick, but my mom loves it - and she's notoriously hard on restaurants. Good luck with finding closure on your quest for decent, reasonably priced fried chicken.

  6. thanks for all the comments you guys. Jay, thanks for the suggestion to The Legend. It has definitely been on my list awhile.

    Joe, I have to agree with there appearing to be some sort of fear of seasoning with some of these old school places. But maybe the blandness is what is comforting to people.

    Lucy-thanks for the kind words! Seriously, your comment made my day.

    Victor- your chicken sounds much better. And you are right, I didn't mention the cream gravy. I am not a huge fan of gravy, it often seems as it is just a way to cover up mediocre or overcooked food. But that's just me. As for the head lettuce dressing, it isn't for me, but you can also buy the HH version at Taylor's bakery.

    Angie- thanks for the rec. I will add it to the list!