Fried chicken is almost irresistible. I’ve seen even vegetarians and members of the “oh, I-never-eat-fried-food” congregation nibble at the crispy edges of a wing or nab the crunchy bits out of a bucket of KFC. And if the fellow frying the chicken is Frank Fejeran, whose smoked meats have garnered a faithful following at his Ricewood barbecue truck, the draw is that much greater.
Fejeran took over the sunny yellow Hidden Dragon storefront on Ypsi’s Michigan Ave., keeping, at least for now, the golden color but stripping the curtains off the windows and door to let in light. For the decades I’ve lived in the Ypsi area, Hidden Dragon seemed to take its name literally–the windows and door were masked, and I never saw anyone pass through the door. Now I regularly see students, local business folks, and officials from city hall up the hill making their way to Ma Lou’s (named for Fejeran’s grandmother) for fried chicken and a side or two.
Ma Lou’s specializes in Nashville-style spicy chicken–pieces battered twice, fried, and then slathered with a spicy paste that makes liberal use of cayenne pepper and fry oil. The dripping chicken is served on slices of white bread to soak up the extra heat and garnished with pickles. You can get the chicken southern–that is, plain fried, without spice–medium, or “spicyAF,” the initials of an unprintable phrase. Generally I’m a medium-spice kind of gal, preferring not to have my taste buds vaporized, but I didn’t find the AF incredibly hotter than the middle option. Perhaps the ratio of meat to paste mitigates the heat–the spice doesn’t penetrate below the crust–though I’ll admit I didn’t snatch up every last bit of the red-hot crumbs. What I didn’t enjoy about the spiciest version was the bitter aftertaste of all that dried chili powder and cayenne pepper (a liquid hot sauce would avoid that). In all the versions I tasted, though, the meat was moist and nicely seasoned, the crust crunchy.
And portions are generous. Jumbo wings are just that–four whole limbs with a hefty chunk of breast meat included in the sectioning. Other options include dark meat, breast, half chicken, and family boxes. The “Sammy” layers a fat boneless fried thigh on an onion roll along with Gouda, cheddar, pickles, and slaw, making for a skyscraper too tall for most mouths to bite into easily. Nor can I say I really tasted the cheese. I’d rather have had extra fat in the form of mayo–nothing like suave creaminess to enhance crispy skin! Observant vegetarians can get their Sammy with a chicken-fried slice of Brinery tempeh.
As tiny as the menu is, Fejeran doesn’t seem to have perfected his recipes yet. Over the course of three visits, the chicken’s heat levels varied, and the vegetarian baked beans went from a thin, bland, reddish-tan replication of Campbell’s to a delicious, molasses-y, dark, walnut-hued stew. Our first order of potato salad, composed of fingerlings and baby reds, was freshly made and tasty, heavy with mustard, dill, and red onion; our second order a couple of weeks later had lost its punch. The coleslaw and hand-cut fries were consistently good, but the Biscuit Donut, a buttermilk-glazed ring, remains a mystery to me. The first one I tried was undercooked; two later orders were better executed but still dense, heavy, and dull–certainly not a substitute for a bona fide donut. A better dessert by far was Ypsi Ice Cream Pie, a collaborative effort of the city’s Go! Ice Cream and Hyperion Coffee. Pairing fabulous brown butter ice cream with a dusting of finely ground coffee beans on top and in the crumb crust, the treat kept us all going back for another taste.
Fejeran wants to create a Midwestern chain out of Ma Lou’s, and the red, white, and black logo, with retro lettering and a stylized silhouette of a chicken, is ideal for replication. The wallpaper reproduces the bird’s cartoon image, and red-and-white picnic tables add to the casual, playful decor.
Service is counter style and fairly quick, given that the chicken is fried to order. And the chicken–logo and real fried–will be the main draw of Ma Lou’s, a boon to downtown Ypsi and to all those who find fried chicken irresistible.
15 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti
Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.
Chicken options and sandwich $6-$30; sides and desserts $3-$5