Eating in Bars: The Pacific Northwest’s Broasted Chicken Addiction

Across Washington and Oregon, rural taverns and dive bars are known for two things: cheap, malty lager and broasted chicken. In the latest "Eating in Bars," Hanna Raskin explores how a quirky midcentury franchise still beats in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

It takes 40 minutes to drive from Eugene, Oregon, to the tiny logging town of Drain. The ride’s about 15 minutes longer if you’re coming from the coast. So it’s not uncommon for fans of Rose Garden Inn’s broasted chicken to try to streamline their meals by phoning in an order for a four-piece dinner (potato salad and cottage cheese on the side, please) before starting out.

Michelle Benson, who calls herself the Rose Garden’s “closest thing to a manager, without the title or the pay,” happily obliges the remote requests. She cuts up 14 chickens at a time, and it’s no bother to put aside a couple of birds for those willing to make the trip. Benson pats the chicken with Broaster Company brand flour, seasons it according to corporate specifications and times its emergence from a hybrid deep fryer-pressure cooker to sync up with the customer’s arrival.

“It takes 15 minutes to cook a batch,” explains Matt Miera, owner of the Marco Polo in Seattle’s formerly gritty Georgetown neighborhood. “There’s a big spinning wheel that locks it. If you are like, ‘I want to get two five-pieces,’ we’ll drop those down and lock it. We only have one machine: People wait.”

And they drink, same as their Midwestern brethren sitting around a fish boil or their Southern cousins hanging close to a barbecue pit. “It’s whatever they feel like drinking,” says Mike Valentine of The Limit in Centralia, Washington, where broasted chicken has been a house specialty for half a century. “Usually beer.” It doesn’t hurt that the sweet malty lagers long favored in this corner of the country are especially delicious in the company of broasted chicken, described in a radio commercial for The Limit as “golden brown on the outside; moist and juicy on the inside.” The ad has been drawing customers for years.

In the 1960s, the region’s bar owners were so reliant on the magnetic power of broasted chicken that many of them reportedly reneged on licensing agreements with the Broaster Company when supply costs got too high, commandeering the equipment and slapping together imitation spice mixes.

Broasted chicken, sometimes called tavern chicken in the Pacific Northwest, isn’t unknown elsewhere: All over the map, there are isolated strongholds of the cooking method, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (or so Wikipedia claims). It also turns up in the Midwest, where broasting began back in 1954. The concept was the brainchild of Beloit, Wisconsin’s L.A.M. Phelan, who had already invented an automatic gasoline pump and launched the Zesto frozen custard chain before he turned to poultry, patenting the Broaster pressure-fryer machine and licensing it to restaurants with a Broaster-branded chicken recipe, including proprietary flour and spices. According to Broaster Company literature, “he was the first employer to use music during working hours to increase the happiness and productivity of workers.”

Phelan’s regional legacy is currently being perpetuated by the Ohio-based Bob Evans chain, which this year introduced broasted chicken to all 570 of its restaurants after a test run in Cincinnati led to sellout situations. Presumably diners in Delaware and Kansas and Indiana will thrill to broasted chicken’s distinctively crisp exterior and salt-marinated meat. What they won’t taste is how essential the dish has become to Pacific Northwest roadhouse culture.

Four years after dropping broasted chicken from its menu, the Pour House Tavern in Springfield, Oregon, still gets calls from drinkers who can’t countenance chugging Hamm’s without eating pressure-fried thighs and jojos, the thick potato planks that register as double-dipped steak fries. In the 1960s, the region’s bar owners were so reliant on the magnetic power of broasted chicken that many of them reportedly reneged on licensing agreements with the Broaster Company when supply costs got too high, commandeering the equipment and slapping together imitation spice mixes.

It’s almost impossible to know for sure,  because so many rural watering holes were swept away with the timber industry, while hard-drinking dives in big cities have been driven out of business by the current thirst for craft beer and cocktails. And if there’s an official company line on the phenomenon of rogue broasting, it’s not available to reporters: I called and emailed the Broaster Company a dozen times over the span of two months and never received a response. No wonder the good tavern keepers of the Pacific Northwest (allegedly) gave up.

While there are plenty of bars on the fringes of national forests outfitted with plain old pressure cookers, “We’re very particular about the machine that we use,” says Miera, Marco Polo’s fourth owner since the bar opened in 1950. “There is a difference between a pressure cooker and a broaster.”

A few years before Phelan coined the term “broasting,” Harland Sanders had started experimenting with preparing fried chicken in a pressure cooker, which he initially wrote off as a “newfangled” contraption when he saw it at a hardware store. By 1956, he was driving around the country with a 50-pound can of flour, an ice chest full of chicken and a pressure cooker. The future Colonel’s plan was to give away franchises and lease the cookers.

“I only had a modest amount of luck,” Sanders admitted in his autobiography. “When you tell a restaurant owner that his chicken isn’t as good as it ought to be, it’s an insult to the average restaurateur.”

But the insult apparently didn’t have the same sting in the Pacific Northwest. In tiny, isolated logging towns, the tavern often provided food out of necessity, not any culinary aspirations, and owners were welcoming to a company selling an all-in-one solution to their dining needs. To Marco Polo’s original owners it was just another salty snack to serve with beer, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a source of pride for the restaurant, and the region.

“It’s funny,” Miera says. “We’ll have people come in from the South and they’re like, ‘Oh man, you don’t know chicken.’ And then they say it’s the best chicken they’ve ever had. That’s just the way we’ve always done it.”

MORE “EATING IN BARS”:

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