Memories of Louie's the Bookstore Cafe and a recipe
I got the best e-mail (from someone who wanted to remain anonymous) when we did a Top Ten on Locations We Miss Terribly. In it, I said I still regretted not getting the recipe for the Chestertown Chicken at Louie's the Bookstore Cafe in Mount Vernon.
Anyway, somehow the e-mail got lost in the hundreds I've put aside for future posts because they're so good. I just came upon it today. It contained this vignette as well as the recipe. I'm going to reprint it in its entirety: ...
"After some searching to locate the old cookbook into which I’d shoved this recipe I finally found the old Chestertown Chicken secrets from Louie’s. But to get it you’re going to have to read the long and not very exciting back story.
"I worked there long ago and there was a time they tried to do weekday breakfasts. I got stuck on those shifts (Monday mornings, no less) and they were horrible. The manager would show up only to go back to sleep in the upstairs office, leaving the lone server to prep produce, coffee, receive the bread order, and set up tables & stations. Busy office workers would come in and expect to get out quickly. But one latte order and you would be in the weeds, steaming the milk while an impatient line formed.
"By mid-morning the main chef would show up and generally get annoyed that a lowly server needed access to his kitchen. I wore him down in his less cranky moments and he opened up the big binder of recipes for me to copy my favorites. Some of the recipes were his and god only knows where the rest of them came from. Recipes, like people, had a way of just falling into Louie’s and seeming as if they’d always been there. Nobody who worked there sweat too many details and, to me that benign neglect was no small part of the café’s charm.
"For me, what started as a desperation job (the only thing college really taught me was how to make cocktail party chatter and wait tables to pay the rent), became a much richer experience than I ever imagined. I’m constantly amazed by how old Louie’s friends have come back into my life over the years.
"So here’s the recipe for the secret marinade. I hope you’re good with ratios because this is enough to fill a bathtub. The cooking instructions were never given, but basically it was pan seared then finished off in the oven. While this was given to me, I feel a little guilty about sharing it. So please don’t let anyone know where you got it.
"5 ½ cups of chili powder
1½ cups of ginger
2 ½ cups of curry powder
10 quarts of lemon juice
2 ½ cups of garlic
5 cups of onion
1 ¾ gallons of 10 percent olive oil (I often use mostly grape seed oil or something that can withstand the higher temperatures of the skillet)
Combine all the ingredients and mix oil in slowly. "
Photo of Jimmy Rouse, owner of Louie's, 1997, by Kenneth K. Lam/Sun photographer)