- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
My cheeks slowly caved in and my eyes bulged as I drew the thick chocolate milkshake through the straw. I looked like a cartoon caricature of a little kid spiraling into summer nirvana. A sketch artist could have replicated my look and reproduced it with some retro graphics to create an advertisement for J.T. Youngblood’s.
The shake made me feel like I was a youngster being rewarded at the ice cream shop by the soda jerk in the paper hat who feigned secrecy as he dropped an extra scoop of ice cream into the blender.
But it wasn’t just nostalgia comforting me on that hot summer night at J.T. Youngblood’s in the Mueller development. The organic soft serve ice cream in the shake had a secret weapon working in its favor: 8 percent butterfat, more than double what you usually find twisting from similar machines. It’s the kind of touch that not only adds flavor to a dish but also comforting character to a restaurant already rich in backstory.
Lenoir chef Todd Duplechan, Jeffrey’s co-founder Jeffrey Weinberger and former Trio at the Four Seasons general manager Jeff Haber earlier this year rebooted the once-beloved fried chicken brand that originally opened in the 1940s and grew to more than 30 locations across Texas before shuttering around 1970. Despite the fine dining pedigrees of the three partners, they didn’t bring a high-minded approach to this family-friendly endeavor.
A lot has changed in the decades since J.T. Youngblood’s captured the hearts of Texans, including those who remember an Austin location near the current P. Terry’s on South Lamar Boulevard. But a lot hasn’t — such as Texans’ love for fried chicken, pie, ice cream and classic side dishes.
It’s the kind of cuisine that has bound family reunions and church picnics for as long as any of us can remember, and the vaunted place the food holds in our cultural memory is reflected in the restaurant by the stained glass window treatments with the restaurant’s logo and the bright primary colors that look swiped from the 1970s elementary schools of our imaginations.
Duplechan, whose cottage restaurant in South Austin is consistently one of the best in town, could have brought some chefly touches to the menu, but part of being a good chef is restraint — knowing when a dish is already just right. And the fried chicken from the original J.T. Youngblood’s gave the former Four Seasons chef what he needed for the backbone of his restaurant. The chef says he did little to change the tightly guarded recipe.
The bird is washed in a milk and buttermilk mixture, tossed in a mild spiced flour mixture that’s not afraid of salt and fried violently in soybean oil to ensure a crunchy armor. The frying technique leaves a knobby, auburn shell that doesn’t just slip from the chicken but clings to the juicy meat, giving each bite some crackle and snap. You order the chicken by the piece ($9 for two, $12 for three, $17 for five, and $29 for a box of 10 pieces), and each order comes with puffy yeast rolls (also an original recipe), bread-and-butter pickles and a choice of sides.
The loud dining room with its hard surfaces and one of the most cramped and utilitarian bars in town don’t make you want to linger long, but this is a place to eat, not have an experience. And I can put up with a little bit of noise and some lagging bussers when I have Cholula hot sauce and honey (made by the Youngblood family) at the ready to sweeten and spice my fried chicken and make me feel at home.
You can ratchet the fried bird up to the “Texas Heat” level, with a showered spice mixture that leans on cayenne, without worrying that you might numb your lips, and possibly your eyelids, like you did that one time you visited Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. For those not inclined to pick bones, the surprisingly moist fried chicken breast sandwich ($13) is one of the best in town, though the poseur Southerner in me did yearn for some Duke’s mayonnaise.
Those wanting to avoid fried chicken (do not trust these people) won’t be disappointed with the alternative chicken option, a half ($17) or whole ($29) roasted bird with a stocking-tight skin speckled with a fragrant mixture of lemon zest, rosemary, thyme, paprika and smoked habanero pepper. You can supplement the roasted chicken with one of 10 side dishes (starting at $3 per single serving).
Duplechan and his team, which an old eagle eye confirmed for me includes former Mars restaurant owner Tim Kartiganer, don’t get overly fancy with the sides, either. The macaroni and cheese is tossed in a slightly nutty and very creamy mix of gruyere and cheddar flecked with herbs, but after that we’re talking straight comfort: buttermilk whipped mashed potatoes with the kind of deep, silken gravy that comes from a recipe shared by generations of family members; red cabbage slaw zipped with a splash of apple cider vinegar (goes great on the fried chicken sandwich); and firm smoked butter beans swimming in a pool slicked by chicken grease.
Exercise some temperance and ask for a to-go box, which features a cartoon graphic that hearkens back to the ’50s, because you’ll want to save room for some pie from pastry chef Jessica Tanner, a former Lenoir server. The flaky-crusted slices, like the chocolate creme pie that tastes like pudding under a cloud of whipped cream, may not make your cheeks cave in, but they will send you into a nostalgia freefall.