Penny Red’s (Detroit, MI)

One of the more developments I keep seeing these days is the development of “food halls” and “beer halls” (such as the Market Hall Victoria in London that I detailed in my review of Gopal’s Corner) in which one or more bars and a handful of restaurants are combined in a large hall, reminiscent of the food courts of a classic US shopping mall, but including alcoholic beverages and a more curated selection of dining options. In the United States, this concept has been used a lot by the Galley Group who has opened “Galleys” in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit (with more coming in Chicago and Minneapolis), combining beer bars and cocktail bars with a handful of selected dining establishments that all bus your ordered food out to common dining tables. It’s a rather nice model. A more limited version of this opened this Spring in Detroit behind the new Shinola hotel at The Brakeman. Nominally a beer hall, the Brakeman also has two associated businesses attached to it: a cocktail bar inside the Brakeman, and fried chicken joint, Penny Red’s, the focus of this review.

Unless going late at night (when they sell chicken direct), the experience of vising Penny Red’s is synonymous with visiting The Brakeman, since you order your chicken from inside The Brakeman’s seating area. To be honest, The Brakeman’s model is a little weird to me, one of my restaurant peeves is places where someone has to explain how you actually buy something. Maybe it’s because I’m a dinosaur from a former era, but I really prefer one of two old-school approaches: table service, or counter service. At the Brakeman, it’s really a weird fusion. As you come in the door, your first stop is a ticket window where they sell you beer tokens for $7 each. Then, you’ve got a nice, spacious beer hall where you can wander up to the bar, select from a rather nice assortment of Midwest-based beers, and pay with your tokens (no cash, and when I was there they didn’t have a graceful way of handling tips). Oddly, if you want cocktails, those are credit-card or cash at the cocktail bar.

But if you want some chicken, that’s when you head to the back of the beer hall to visit Penny Red’s. It’s a real simple setup; since the beer hall is doing most of the support, the menu is minimal: chicken, chicken sandwiches, buckets of chicken, and a handful of sides. When dealing with fried chicken, I usually like to check whole chicken pieces, since that’s the best way to see if a chicken place really has their game on: can they do an entire chicken breast leaving the meat cooked but tender and juicy, the skin crispy without being overly breaded, and the whole thing not absolutely soaking in grease. However, I wasn’t all that hungry on this visit (having literally come from the above-mentioned Fort Street Galley earlier), so instead I opted for their K-Town Cutlet, a biscuit, and some potato salad. My host Brian opted for a simpler basic Chicken sandwich and some fried Brussel sprouts. We took our buzzer, returned to drinking some nice Michigan beer from Bell’s, and a few minutes later, our order was ready.

Starting with the chicken sandwiches: I was really impressed with my chicken sandwich. The combination of spicy fried chicken with kimchi is getting to be common (I’ve run into exactly that combination most recently at both Little Brother and Poor Thom’s back home, the latter doing a masterful version of it). But for a chicken sandwich, it ticked off all the boxes: A crispy but not overly bready coating, a nice bit of spice to the breading, a tender interior, and a selection of toppings that complement the chicken. Not the fanciest sandwich, but a rather nice accompaniment to some beers? Perfect.

The sides didn’t disappoint, either. The potato salad was a good, solid potato salad focusing on the potatoes and not the dressing or eggs, with just enough vinegar and mustard tang to give it a little kick. The fried Brussel sprouts were a decent version of a basic dish, with a decent sear and not too much grease. The biscuits? Over my many years of food reviews, I’ve learned one truism is that you can’t expect Northerners to do a good biscuit (instead, producing some sort of biscuit-like puck), but Penny Red’s does decent justice to the concept of a basic biscuit. When I finally get feed up, win the lottery, and cruise around with a truck titled “Rich’s Traveling Remedial Biscuit Baking Academy”, the folks at Penny Red’s won’t warrant a stop, since this was indeed a decent, Southern-style, flaky but not delicate, perfect for buttering or sopping up sauce biscuit. Well done, folks.

Overall, I liked Penny Red’s. The overall model of The Brakeman and Penny Red’s business model is a little stilted and weird, but when it comes down to it, I enjoyed the beer, the biscuits, and the chicken sandwiches. I’d love to come back when I’m hungrier and try out a bucket of bone-in chicken and see how they fare with it.

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