Friday night they'll be dressed to kill
...down at AC's Bar and Grill, in this week's Friday Newsletter
I want to tell you about a bar I know.
It’s not a fancy cocktail lounge or a craft-brew gastropub. It’s not the best or the oldest or the any-other-superlative bar in the world.
It’s just a regular hangout.
It’s the kind of place where everyone knows your name, and while they’re not all necessarily glad you came, they’ll abide you just fine as long as you abide them.
It’s called AC’s Bar and Grill, but no one really knows where the name came from. There’s no AC, either in name or in the summertime. The owner for as long as anyone can remember is a guy named Len, and if he knows the truth about the bar’s namesake, he’s not telling anyone.
Don’t go rushing to look the place up, because you won’t find anything. It’s not on Yelp or Grubhub. Heck, it’s not even on Google Maps. If you knew where to look and happened to pull it up on Street View, you’d find it was blurred out like some kind of sensitive military installation. Some whisper that Len has special connections that made this happen; others think it’s just a coincidence.
Either way, Len doesn’t court outside attention.
The rare stranger to wander through the doors at AC’s might wonder if they’ve found themselves in a Brigadoon-like apparition, a place divorced from the commonly-accepted realities of space and time, but the regulars just scoff at that fancy nonsense. It’s here, you just don’t need to know where here is. Rarely has a good hangout benefitted from the internet knowing about it.
The only reason I’m allow to even write about it is, well, let’s just say I helped Len out when he got in a little bind with the authorities a while back. I’m not going to elaborate, but let’s just say AC’s tax situation was complex.
I can’t disclose the location and I wouldn’t even if I could, but I can tell you about the place.
It’s cozy. A little residential-looking shack on a quiet stretch of road down by a river, faced with that kind of fake stone bars build in the middle of the last century inexplicably seemed to favor. The sign just says “BAR”. The interior’s a joyful clutter that looks like it hasn’t been touched in decades. The walls are covered in signs for beers that aren’t even produced anymore, the kind of thing that would be called vintage if their anachronism were purposeful and not the simply the product of time and neglect. There’s a big, dusty mirror behind the bar, and a few forlorn strings of Christmas lights above it. The tables look like outdoor patio furniture, and there’s plenty of space between them, but not for dancing; just for personal space. There’s a jukebox, a fish tank that hasn’t had fish in years, and a couple of immaculately-maintained pool tables at odds with the general shabbiness of everything else.
If the internet were allowed to see it, it’d be perfect fodder for Pictures of Dives, but we’ve already discussed why it’s not.
It’s a good place.
7) Fingers you can really count on
The kitchen at AC’s does a brisk business nightly, even though the menu is a mixed bag. The burger is lousy; the steak sandwich is worse. There’s a salad on the menu, but it almost feels like a dare to order it, and no one’s biting. For some reason, there’s a tuna platter, but only Old Tom ever orders that. Gary the Chef used to fry turkeys out back for Thanksgiving, but after he burned down the back of the building one year, that got put to a stop.
Most people stick to the chicken fingers, and with good reason: they’re not just the best thing on the menu, they’re the best thing in town—crispy, flavorful and juicy, with just the right mix of spices. Some say the seasoning is oddly reminiscent of Kentucky Fried Chicken; Gary insists that it’s an old family recipe, and if anything, the Colonel stole it from his great-grandpappy and not the other way around.
I’ve done my best to replicate them here, though of course Gary won’t divulge his secrets to me or anyone else. Still, I think I came pretty close. The actual KFC recipe leaked a few years ago, and that’s my basis of design here, along with Serious Eats’ chicken sandwich, though I’ve made a few tweaks myself.
AC’s Chicken Fingers
2-3 pounds chicken breast tenderloins
2 cups brine from a large jar of pickles
8-12 hours before cooking, place the chicken in a gallon freezer bag and pour the pickle brine over it, sealing and kneading the bag to ensure all the pieces are submerged. Refrigerate until later.
2 cups whole-milk buttermilk
After removing the chicken from the brine (don’t exceed 12 hours, it’ll cure too much), submerge each piece fully in buttermilk. Now, for the flour:
2 cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon dried mustard (I prefer Colman’s)
4 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder*
1 tablespoon garlic salt*
1 tablespoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons white pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne**
*the KFC recipe uses 2 tablespoons garlic salt only here, but I found it a mite too salty, especially with the pickle brining
**an addition from the KFC recipe; Gary’s have just a little more bite
Whisk all the dry ingredients together; you’ll find the flour takes on a distinctly “spiced” appearance, as there’s a heavy amount of seasoning in it relative to many other chicken recipes.
Preheat a high-sided pot of oil to 375F, as measured with an instant-read or candy thermometer. Working several pieces at a time, toss the chicken directly from the buttermilk into the flour, and roll to fully coat.
Carefully drop the pieces into the oil (I’ve got a big burn mark on my hand right now that suggests I did not heed this advice myself), and let them go for 5-6 minutes, checking the color and testing with a thermometer to ensure they’re fully cooked.
Let’s see how we did.
Beautiful. A nice, thick, craggy and crunchy breading giving way to a moist, succulent interior, with a strong peppery zing from the spices that calls for the cooling power of ranch. You’ve already got buttermilk, why not make your own? That’s what Gary does.
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup Duke’s Mayo
juice of one lemon
fresh chopped chives
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Heck, you’ve also got leftover pickles from the brine now, you could slice them up and fry them.
(I was going to, but decided to quit while I was ahead and bandage my hand.)
Time for a drink.
6) Rust on the rocks
The drink menu at AC’s isn’t any fancier than the food; this is a place for beer in cans and shots in glasses—big, thick shot glasses that feel more like paperweights in your hand, ones that can hold a lot more than a standard shot measurement and often do if the person pouring likes you.
You could order wine—there’s a dusty bottle back behind the bar—but it was probably opened six months ago, and you’d be better off drinking a glass of vinegar.
Barb, the bartender at AC’s for the last thirty years, isn’t a mixologist and doesn’t want to be. She’ll pour you a Jack and Coke, a vodka soda or a screwdriver, but there’s only one cocktail she’ll make that has more than two ingredients, and that’s only because of Mike.
“Rust Belt” Mike, a regular at AC’s for more than a decade, was beloved by pretty much everyone who spent time around him. A tall, boisterous man with a booming laugh, he once declared himself “the Worldwide Wes of the Middle West”, and though few understood exactly what that meant, he endeared himself enough that everyone just took it on faith. One snowy February night, he hopped behind the bar with a couple bottles he’d brought in himself and worked up his own spin on a Manhattan—a distinctly-wet version of the classic cocktail that swapped out black walnut bitters for the traditional Angostura.
It was a hit with the few other regulars at the bar that night, even if Barb derided it as “college boy nonsense” and told Mike to “keep his ass on that side of the bar”. Well, three weeks later, Mike fell asleep on the train tracks, and after that, Barb put it on the menu. She always keeps a fresh bottle of walnut bitters around, too. Call it a tribute, or a monument, just like the empty bar stool that no one sits at anymore, the one everyone knows not to sit in, even though it’s not marked.
That’s Rust Belt Mike’s stool, and this is his drink.
I used nicer ingredients here, but Mike swore the only part worth spending money on was the cherries; good, dark, real cocktail cherries, Luxardo or Jack Rudy or the like, “not those bright-red clown-nose ones, they’ll ruin it”.
If you get the cherries right, the whiskey can be cheap. That’s the beauty of it.
Rust Belt Manhattan
2-1/4 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
1-1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
4 hearty dashes walnut bitters
1/8 teaspoon of the liquid from a jar of good cocktail cherries
Shake with ice, then strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice, and drop in a cocktail cherry.
Normally, I’d serve a Manhattan up in a cocktail glass or coupe, but this is an assertive drink that benefits from the dilution of ice, and besides, AC’s doesn’t have fancy cocktail glasses. Barb didn’t like him that much.
5) The sound of the best bar in town doesn’t need the internet
You know those TouchTunes machines, the internet-connected jukeboxes that sit glowing the corners of bars everywhere these days? Len never wanted one. Their jukebox was good, and a good jukebox isn’t about letting just anyone access any song they want. It’s about setting a mood properly; every option should be pre-vetted.
Well, business was slow for a bit, and Dickie (we’ll get back to him in a minute), convinced Len he could make a lot of money if he put one of those fancy computer jukeboxes in. He grudgingly acquiesced, and for a short time it seemed like AC’s might join the 21st century.
Then one night, Dim Kenny drank five vodka Red Bulls and played “Sandstorm” six times in a row, and the next morning the TouchTunes machine was found in the river two miles downstream. When the jukebox company rep came by a few days later and expressed dismay at the expensive machine’s demise, Len made it clear that other things wash up in that river from time to time. The matter was quickly closed.
AC’s jukebox was plugged back in the next day, and after extensive study and lots of quarters, I’ve managed to replicate it in its entirety here.
300+ songs, over 20 hours of music, and not an ounce of deadweight.
4) Competition comes and goes
Barb’s the old hand behind the bar, but Sheila’s the innings-eater of AC’s. She does all the running, bringing chicken fingers out from the kitchen, shuttling drinks to tables, always headed three directions at once. She covers a good five miles on the floor on a weekend night, and Barb hated her from the day she started.
A few years back, Sheila took a job at a chain restaurant up in the newer part of town by the mall, the kind of place with corporate standards and laminated menus and up-to-date health inspections. She’d pop in on an off-day and sit at the bar, reminding Barb how much better the customers tipped there.
Well, corporate must’ve decided the customers weren’t spending enough before tips, because the restaurant abruptly closed last year, and Len hired Sheila right back, to Barb’s outward consternation and inward relief.
(She didn’t like doing all that running herself.)
One slow night, Sheila told me all about her experiences working there, and it reminded me a lot of a book I’d read recently, Stewart O’Nan’s slim 2007 novella Last Night at the Lobster.
The book is a real-time recollection of the final day of business for a soon-to-be closed Connecticut location of Red Lobster, on a day just before Christmas marked by an oncoming snowstorm. I read a few online reviews of the book after finishing it, and handful of readers criticized it for lack of plot, which belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the book’s point. There isn’t much plot, no, but there’s incredibly vivid scene-building and character development that’s worth the read alone. It’s cinematic in an indie-film sort of way, and reads like a screenplay, full of rich, realistic detail. In certain ways, it reminded me of films like Big Night or Clerks, where the plot is secondary to the feeling.
Also, the scenes O’Nan paints—of the corporate ennui, frustrating customers, tension between coworkers and the daily mundanities of the job—should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever worked a service industry job.
3) Be a good sport
There are two televisions in AC’s. One is behind the bar, and Barb controls that remote with an iron fist. The other’s tucked in a back corner, over one of the faded, cracked vinyl banquettes that line the wall, and it’s usually watched over by Dickie Numbers, the man in town to see if you want to place a bet. On any given night, you’ll find him deep in the channel listing following a different sport—cricket, curling, log-rolling, cornhole—it doesn’t matter, he’d got odds on them all, and he’ll happily take your money to prove it.
There are whispers around town that Dickie might’ve played a hand in the local high school boys’ basketball team’s surprising second-half collapse in the state championship game two years ago, and in the suddenly-cold-shooting point guard’s father having a new F-150 in the driveway two weeks later despite being out of work.
Dickie demurs if you ask, but you should know better than to ask a man like him a question like that anyway.
The whole scenario reminds me a lot of Bad Sport, an excellent series of sports documentaries that debuted on Netflix this week. Building off the streaming service’s recent success in sports content, including the terrific UNTOLD series, Bad Sport offers six standalone films, each featuring a lesser-known scandal from the sports world. As with UNTOLD, the strength of these films lies in their ability to bring the central figures in each story in to tell their own side firsthand.
The first—and in my book, best of the bunch—is Hoop Schemes, which tells the story of a point-shaving scandal that rocked Arizona State men’s basketball in 1994, resulting in prison time for several players and their fixer.
I wrote about the series in detail for Decider this week, and you can read that here.
2) Hold the door
Gib doesn’t really work at AC’s, but at the same time, he also doesn’t not work there.
Gib—Gibraltar Jones, the one-time star center for the local high school football team, is about as wide as he is tall, a man built like the spirit rock out front of the the high school that the seniors spray-paint each week. He’s a fixture at AC’s, and I mean that in both the sense that he’s always there, and that he seems like a physical part of the bar. He’s not the bouncer, per se, but he’s also the reason AC’s doesn’t need a bouncer. Conflict doesn’t happen much around here, and that’s because no one would dare start something in front of Gib.
He doesn’t drink, but he still likes to spend time at AC’s, sitting at the table right by the door all day, reading books and gabbing about them with anyone who’ll listen. He’ll tell you the whole plot of the book in an attempt to convince you to read it, even though you won’t need to by the time he’s done.
I thought of Gib when listening to the long-running Overdue podcast, a delight of a show where co-hosts Andrew Cunningham and Craig Getting alternate reading books and recounting them to the other. It’s very funny, especially when it’s a book you’ve read yourself, though that’s certainly not a prerequisite for enjoying an episode.
I started with their episodes on NK Jemisin’s Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, books I enjoyed deeply, and enjoyed the absurdity of one trying to recount the plot of an adventurous science-fiction-fantasy saga to the other sight-unseen.
1) The other regulars
State health regulations say pets aren’t allowed inside restaurants or bars, but state health regulations say lots of things that don’t square exactly with what happens at AC’s Bar and Grill. Your ability to bring an animal inside depends mostly on whether or not your tab is current and what mood Barb is in that night, but she’s usually in the mood for dogs.
(More than she is for you, that’s for sure.)
I couldn’t get a picture of any of the dogs in the bar on my visits—Len’s no-photography policy is set in stone—so we’ll have to rely instead on your good girls and boys, as we do here every week at The Action Cookbook Newsletter.
First up this week, @duntronic has a couple of happy fellas:
I hear your queue is running low. This is our foster Korby (or Corned Beef depending on who is addressing him). We’ve only had him a few days but he seems to have mastered sleeping. Previous queue appearer Roscoe likes him too.
[extremely coach Steve Addazio voice] what’s better than this. Guys bein’ dudes.
Also I cannot express how much I love Corned Beef as a name for a dog. A+. No notes. Great dogs.
Next, Pedro F. has a cozy cat who’d be right at home on the bar on a slow night:
This is Lito, my friend Bruno's cat. Since being vaccinated, I have rebuilt my relationships with my friends' pets (they usually don't care for Zoom calls). Lito is the most affectionate cat I've ever known. He likes giving me eskimo kisses and loves just sitting on laps, waiting to be petted. I took this pic because It looks like he's winking at me.
This is my kind of cat. He understands how good it can be to live your live as a sentient couch cushion, and embraces the lifestyle. Great cat.
Finally this week, @sideoutpar takes us in the next great hotspot:
Heard you’re hard-up for pet photos. We've started sending Gus to doggie daycare once a week. Even though we got him a couple of months before Covid, he's still essentially a pandemic pup in terms of socialization and attachment, etc. So this seems to be really good for him. They, of course, send us pictures, which I pass along.
For reference, he's in the 'Big Dog Room' with about a dozen others.
[to the tune of Daft Punk’s “One More Time”] BIG DOG ROOM
Listen, if you were to start a bar of your own, you could do a lot worse than pulling from some of the elements of AC’s Bar and Grill that I’ve shared here today—the chicken fingers, the Manhattan, the jukebox and more.
And if you were to build your own dream bar from these parts, you could do a lot worse for a name than “The Big Dog Room”.
Anyways, great dogs. All of them.
Thanks for humoring me on this epic journey of questionably-true travel journalism today; you can never prove that AC’s Bar and Grill isn’t real, but I know you’d never try. We both know the world is a better place if it is real.
I hope you have a great weekend, wherever you spend it.
I’ll see you back in the real world on Monday.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)