I’ve driven past the Hager Heights Drive-in, three miles across the river from Red Wing on U.S. 63, more than 300 times in the past 10 years, I’d guess, and I’ve never stopped.
Why? In part because there’s often a line of cars waiting to order and eat. It’s a popular place.
When I went in search of the best broasted chicken in the area, though, I had to slow down, take time to smell the flowers and get in line at Hager Heights, which is easily identified by the big cement chicken out front.
It was worth the drive and the modest wait: Hager Heights is a true, old-fashioned, home-owned drive-in like the type that used to pepper the landscape in the 1950s. They later were replaced by chains such as A&W and now by Sonic, but a few survive, and this one appears to have been assembled by hand, from the speaker stations to the arching, corrugated-steel canopies where you chow down at picnic tables.
And you’ll enjoy the chicken: They broast a lot of it, and it’s juicy, crispy-skinned and hot.
Hager Heights, which is at the junction of U.S. 63 and Wisconsin Highway 35, is one of the Four Stars winners this month for broasted chicken, along with Wally’s Covered Bridge Bar & Grill in Zumbrota (featured in 507 last week), Cathy’s Catering & Cafe in Pine Island and Kelly’s Taproom Bar & Grill in Red Wing.
What was I looking for in brilliant broasted chicken?
Good, big birds: The plate can be a bit underwhelming if the chicken breast is modest in size and then served with one or two scrawny wings. Good flavor comes with generous portions.
Broasted, not deep-fried: There’s a reason broasted chicken is so popular: It’s not deep-fried. I’ve had some broasted chicken in the past month that tasted like it had been doused too long in a deep-frier.
Time is money: Broasted chicken takes time, but the kitchen needs to keep it reasonable. Fifteen to 20 minutes is OK; after that, I assume their broaster can’t keep up, and I get impatient.
Keep the pricing simple and fair: The menus can get dizzying with all the pricing options for extra white meat, all breasts, take-out versus dining in, etc. Simple is better.
What’s on the menu for Four Stars next month? Surf and Turf, the classic supper club combination of a petite steak with fish or seafood. Call it what you will — Land and Sea, Beef and Barramundi or whatever — any entree that combines beef and fish or seafood is eligible.
That column runs on Thursday, Aug. 7, and as you’ve figured out in this new 507 world we live in, I’ll tease you between now and then with what I’ve discovered so far, with tips from readers.