The Lou-Vhol hot chicken sandwich topped with coleslaw and served with a side of French fries arrives in a paper-lined red plastic basket. Along with Keenan Nichols and Daniel Myers, cook Justin Norcross is one of the three owners of Lucky Boys (1615 Genessee Street) located next to Voltaire and across from the Golden Ox in the West Bottoms. Norcross named the sandwich in honor of his grandmother and added it to the dive bar’s menu.
“Grandma’s from Louisville, Kentucky,” Norcross says. “She’s a ballbuster about pronouncing the city’s name.”
It’s not Lou-iss-ville or Lou-ee-ville. More like Lou-vhull. Since Norcross’ grandmother isn’t on the premises, correct pronunciation is neither here nor there. Speaking of relatives, Lucky Boys took occupancy of the former bar in late 2015, coincidentally named Grandma’s. Here in the Stockyards District, developers, and some Kansas Citians, anticipate that the area will one day become a thriving destination like the Crossroads Arts District. Stockyards Brewing Company is scheduled to open across the street this year. Golden Ox will re-open and begin a fresh chapter in its storied history with the same ownership as Voltaire. The fortunes of Lucky Boys remains to be seen, but Myers, Nichols, and Norcross (which sounds like a law firm) have their fingers crossed.
The hot chicken sandwich is tucked between halves of an egg bun from Farm to Market Bakery. Norcross once worked at the bakery, where he learned a few things about making food from scratch. He has worked as a bartender at Ça Va, The Rieger, Port Fonda, 403 Club, and Local Pig, but doesn’t have much culinary experience or training.
“I grew up at Stroud’s,” Norcross says. “My mom worked there.”
Norcross has worked hard to perfect the hot chicken sandwich. It has undergone more than a half-dozen iterations. The fried chicken has a killer crust. It’s crisp, crunchy, and golden-brown. At least, it appears so in the bar’s dim amber lighting. By name, this version is a clear nod to the spicy, tangy sandwich made and served throughout the South. A bite yields a mouthful of juicy chicken and a satisfying crack through the crunchy fried crust of double-battered chicken breast. Norcross awaits the verdict on the level of spiciness.
“It has some heat but it’s not hot enough.”
Norcross is mildly exasperated but determined. After consulting cooks at Stroud’s and local chefs, he’s developed a detailed process that involves brining, soaking in buttermilk, and dredging in seasoned flour and other steps to get the flavor just right. It’s a damn fine sandwich, hearty and filling with an exquisite balance of texture that wouldn’t be expected from a guy making food in the no-frills kitchen of a dive bar. A dash of hot sauce between bites helps to approximate what Norcross seeks to achieve. The sandwich quickly disappears after a half-dozen bites. When he nails the formula, Norcross will have struck gold. Kansas City needs a proper hot chicken sandwich.
Fried food is the spirit animal of dive bars. That’s an ancient North American wisdom. The limited menu at Lucky Boys honors this tradition of Americana cookery. The catfish basket is loaded with shovelhead nuggets and fries dusted with Old Bay seasoning and served with remoulade. Poutine, the fancy-sounding French Canadian comfort food, smothers fries in mushroom gravy and cheese curds. The patty melt, a burger that defies being gussied up into a gourmet monstrosity, is humbly made with requisite grilled onion and Swiss and cheddar cheese on Farm to Market rye bread. In short, the menu delivers a greatest hits of basic bar food made with pride. It’s blessedly devoid of calamari rings, loaded nachos, and spinach artichoke dip.
Conversation at the bar veers from episodes of “Gunsmoke” to old western movies. Myers and Nichols banter with customers at the bar. They tend to orders for whiskey, cocktails, and old-school beer in a can. These Lucky Boys know the routine.
“All three of us have worked together in bars for years,” Norcross says. “It made sense for us to eventually open a bar together.”
That shared history involves forming a “Lucky Boys” motorcycle club that was once located in a Kansas City, Kansas, garage. The guys and other friends gathered to work on their bikes, drink, and host parties. The latter activities often took precedence over the art of motorcycle repair and maintenance. When the trio decided to open a venue in the West Bottoms, the name stuck.
“We have spent so much time working together. A lot of what happens here goes unspoken,” says Norcross, who learned to tend bar from Nichols and Myers. Each co-owner knows their role and shares in the duties without the need for direction.
“Complex cocktails are not our thing,” says Norcross. He has seen that trend develop during his time behind the bar of several establishments. “This part is supposed to be simple and straightforward, especially when you have distilleries and breweries in town. If Ryan Maybee is putting spirits in a bottle, then I’m going to buy it and serve it. A dive bar doesn’t have to be trashy.”
Indeed, Lucky Boys is not a trashy joint. Explaining what a dive bar is might be like defining casserole. You know it when you see and experience it. Mileage may vary.
The central features of Lucky Boys are the horseshoe-shaped bar and pool table. The walls range from brick to dark panels while a cigarette machine keeps a leopard-spotted lounge chair company in the back. Black velvet paintings hang on the walls, serving their sentences. A Schlitz bar light over the pool table, a mounted fish frozen mid-leap, and a painting of an eagle sum up the decor – Because America. There’s a muted yesteryear aura of masculinity in the space, as if graced by the spirits of grandfathers drinking an Old Fashioned and hard-working stiffs knocking back a pint or three after their shift.
Yet, despite the name and feel of this dive bar, it’s not a place solely for dudes. The music is a mish-mash that depends on the moment, veering from glam metal to pop from the 80s and 90s to the guttural exclamations of Brian Johnson as AC/DC grinds out chords. Conversation skips like a stone from gossip to flirtation to pop culture citations.
Lucky Boys is a place to eat, drink, and socialize, a retreat for West Bottoms and downtown dwellers, artists, blue-collar workers, young cats with no curfew, and even women kicking back after a class at Pole Worx, the pole dancing, aerobics studio, and bachelorette party venue located next door. In due time, the city’s denizens will populate this place seeking a no-fuss drink and maybe a hot chicken sandwich that would make the grandmother of Justin Norcross proud.
Lucky Boys phone number is 816-442-8131.
[Photos by Beau Blochlinger at MacroMen]