In the late 13th century, Marco Polo departed from Venice and journeyed all the way over to Turkey, India, China. Two hundred years later, Christopher Columbus made it over to the Americas. Neither explorer had GPS. No smart phones. They just went on an adventure. Today we honor them with a holiday and a game of tag at the local swimming pool.
Fast forward to 2019. A modern-day adventure in Lakeview East. I’m walking along Broadway and see this spot called Ms. T’s Southern Fried Chicken. I’ve never noticed this restaurant, so before I go look at the menu, before I even cross the street, I instinctively reach for my iPhone to check the score on Yelp.
How sad is that? Christopher Columbus discovered the new world. Christopher O’Brien isn’t ready to discover a new restaurant without seeing how many stars.
I had my phone in hand and decided, you know what, no, I’m gonna live this day like it’s 2007; a bygone era when you’d see a place and wonder, “Is that any good?” You’d walk in and ask, “What’s good here?” “Everything’s good.” “Great.” There was no search for amazing. Every place didn’t have to be featured on Chef’s Table. We just wanted a good meal and then afterwords tell our friends, “Yeah, that place is good.”
I channeled this early 21st century spirit and walked inside. There were a couple of tables and chairs, some stools and a counter to sit at the window. In front were pies and desserts. There was this massive menu displayed on the wall. White meat. Dark meat. Chicken sandwich. Buckets of chicken. Gizzard. Nothing is wasted here.
Two people were working, Ms. T and another chef. You can see the kitchen right behind the counter. Ms. T, wearing an Auburn University orange hat and big glasses, greeted me with a smile. “How are you?” She instantly makes you feel at home.
I look over the menu, order the dark meat lunch special. “Be ready in ’bout 15-20 minutes.”
Everything at Ms. T’s is done one plate at a time. There’s no stack of fried chicken like you’d see at a KFC. I take a seat and, again, instinctively reach for my iPhone. Do some aimless scrolls. But I decided to keep the 2007 theme alive. Sit in a chair with nothing to do except look around the restaurant. I looked over the menu some more. Sweet, they do fried catfish. I noticed some more Auburn University items. I think the only rule at Ms T’s is to avoid saying, “Roll Tide.”
“Alright honey, here you go,” Ms. T said bringing out the styrofoam container.
I open it up and a choir of angels start to sing. The chicken and fries are incredibly hot, temperature wise. This is right out of the fryer, no heat lamps. Again, there’s that iPhone urge to start snapping photos. But we’re going old school here, sticking with written descriptions. The breading is extra crispy and the meat is cooked perfectly. The fries are the kind you devour handfuls at a time. And then the Ms. T special sauce, where do I even begin. It’s kind of like a Carolina bbq sauce, but that’s where the comparisons end. This stuff is delicious and brings a unique flavor. You know how some bbq places or fried chicken spots you reserve the sauce for the meat and pour ketchup for the fries? Not with this sauce. Everything on the plate, every bite gets a pour. I’m pretty sure the napkins would taste great dipped in this sauce.
Finish my lunch, Ms. T asks how it was and I don’t even try to play it cool. “This was incredible.”
As I stand up, I’m expecting the fried chicken punishment. Because, as great as fried chicken is, there’s an unwritten agreement that you have to spend the rest of the day on the couch doing nothing but second guessing yourself. But at Ms. T’s, I felt like I could go run to the lakeshore. I was like a basketball player with a new ACL.
Ms. T told me about the oil she uses, 0 trans fats, and she ships it from a place in California. The chicken is all fresh from a butcher in Chicago. I’m no doctor, but I’ve felt worse after a chicken caesar salad than I did after eating fried chicken at Ms. T’s. That whole night, I felt great. Wasn’t groaning on the couch. Didn’t have to break out the Tums.
A couple weeks later, my mom and dad were in town for an early Christmas visit. First stop: Take them to Ms. T’s. You gotta try this place. Next time they’re in town, it’ll be the same thing.
Then, in the fall of 2020, six or seven months into COVID-19, I went in craving a homecooked meal. There were more rules this time around. Ms. T let one person in at a time, place your order, wait outside for 15-20 minutes. She’s following all the rules, but I bet it kills Ms. T not to be able to have people sit inside, make themselves feel at home.
I sat out on a bench and watched as pickup drivers came in for delivery orders. Ms. T would hand them their bag then use some hand sanitizer, thoroughly cleaning her hands before going back to the kitchen. On to the next order. She was still cooking everything one meal at a time.
I thought about all the Ms. T’s type of places across Chicago, across America, and how hard this year has been on them. For as much as cable news dials up the outrage about people not following rules, I think back to Ms. T – when nobody’s watching – using the hand sanitizer, wearing a mask, keeping distance, doing everything right. John Wooden said, “Character is what you do when no one’s watching.” Well, our local restaurant owners have some of the highest character around.
And I still have no idea what Ms. T’s Yelp score is. Still haven’t checked it out. To me, it’s a spot that can’t really be described in four or five stars. Instead, I’ll end with a story.
On Thursday, November 19th, my grandma passed away after a fight with COVID-19. My wife had tested positive for COVID a week earlier (she’s recovered now) but at the time she was battling a heavy cough and a migraine type of headache. Long story short, traveling down to Missouri for the funeral, sadly, wasn’t going to be possible.
The emotions came in waves. There’s sadness and feeling helpless about the whole thing. Then there’s anger, not at cable news, not at any politician, you’re upset at the virus itself. COVID-19 is a horrible thing and there’s no silver lining to it. It just really sucks. But then you get this Marco Polo/Christopher Columbus sense of adventure where you somewhat seriously question, “Maybe I could ride my bike down to Missouri? Is that doable by Monday?”
At the core of each emotion was wanting to feel closer, wanting to have some type of connection to Grandma Cooper. Remember and honor her in some way. And the first thing that came to mind was her cooking. How she made everything from scratch and poured hours into meal preparation. I asked my Mom for a list of Grandma’s signature dishes. Mom sent back a long list. Chocolate meringue pie. Lemon meringue pie. Fried catfish.
The next day, Friday the 20th, I pulled up Ms. T’s delivery menu. Ordered the chicken and fried catfish lunch. Extra Ms. T’s sauce. And of course it wasn’t exactly the same. I wasn’t in Grandma’s kitchen seeing her bread the catfish, fry it on the stove top. I wasn’t at the dining room table and on Monday, I wasn’t there in person at the funeral, I was sitting on the couch, watching it streamed on Facebook Live. All of that is true.
But when I opened that lunch from Ms. T’s, this piping-hot home-cooked meal, in that moment, I felt close to home.
This article is part of an ongoing series this year featuring local restaurants and businesses all around Chicago. For the finale on Wednesday, December 16th, I’m mixing things up with a post about Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery up in Traverse City, Michigan.
To catch up on previous posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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