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May 1, 2013

Taste Bud: A tasty time warp

Sitting in Neil and Patty’s Fireside Bar and Grill is a lot like sitting in someone’s finished basement in 1976 — lots of dark wood, carpeted floors, fireplace, and just a general feeling of warmth. Speaking of the ’70s, while I was sitting at the Fireside Bar recently, a woman picked up a carryout order and paid with a personal check. A personal check.

I thought I’d walked into a time warp.

The menu breathes a similar air of retro comfort. From burgers to pasta to chicken pot pie, you can find all the warmth your belly needs right there at 7611 Highway 311 in Sellersburg, Ind. However, on the advice of my friend Rob, I had come for the signature dish: the Fireside Chicken Fingers.

You see, the regulars at Fireside love the chicken fingers. In fact, legend has it that in recent years (Neil and Patty Smith took over the restaurant and bar — which originally opened in 1956 — in the mid-’80s), a distributor discontinued the signature breading mix used on the tenders, creating a serious problem.

“We had probably a 10-day supply” when they got the news, said Neil Smith. “So panic ensued.”

The Smiths tried to recreate the signature breading, but regulars noticed. Finally, the distributor buckled under the weight of customer demand, and the signature chicken tenders were back. So, I tried some. While the breading didn’t boast enough spice for my taste buds, I understand the frenzy — it was immediately obvious it was fresh chicken, not frozen, and it was delicious.

“It’s the moistness of it” that sells, Smith agreed. And unlike at a fast-food joint, these aren’t cooked based on an operations manual. They’re cooked to order, visually.

“We don’t have timers,” Smith said. “When they float, they’re done.”

While sitting there enjoying my tenders and chatting with Smith about his establishment, he advised that the chicken livers are actually one of his preferred dishes on the menu. One rule I try to live by is that if a restaurateur recommends something, you should probably try it. So I did.

You might have had the fried chicken livers at places like Cracker Barrel or KFC. Not bad, but the livers at Neil and Patty’s place absolutely make the chains’ livers look like pretenders. Smith served up a plate of about eight of them with the signature dipping sauce — creamy country gravy — and I was immediately smitten.

They were probably the juiciest livers I’ve ever had in a restaurant — again, chalk it up to fresh meat — and the batter had more of a homestyle bent than that on the tenders, with a bit more pepper and seasoning. I wasn’t even hungry after having eaten five plump tenders, but I couldn’t stop myself from eating liver after liver.

And then, the strangest thing happened. The affable Neil Smith casually said, “I like them with A-1 sauce.”

A-1 steak sauce on chicken livers? The heck? Forget time warp, I must be in another dimension.

But wait — remember the rule I mentioned in paragraph nine? Yep, so I tried the steak sauce with the livers. And my first thought was, Holy hell, this is perfect. If you’re familiar with the odd sensation chicken livers leave at the back of your tongue, imagine that mixed with the tangy zip of A-1. Even the Schlafly Kolsch I was drinking didn’t wash the flavor away (speaking of, Fireside Grill has a small but eclectic selection of craft beers and other interesting adult beverage options, brought in by Smith’s daughter Lauren).

I asked Smith when he made the insanely delicious discovery of pairing fried chicken livers with steak sauce.

“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “A long time ago.”

Ah yes, a long time ago. And with that, the time warp had indeed come full circle.