My youngest brother Jake is a salesman. I mean that literally; it is his job, but it’s also a philosophy for him. I don’t think he’s ever seen the 1992 movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” nor Alec Baldwin’s iconic scene detailing the ABC’s of selling (always be closing), but the guy is of that mindset.
He’s always selling anyone who will listen on the latest idea for an app, a podcast, a TV show treatment. His latest is a party trick of sorts where you can give him any exit off I-5 between the Oregon border and Renton and he can tell you the best restaurant off the exit. Even though my brother is a salesman through and through, he’s also hilarious and fully invested in people having a great time, which saves this bit from being obnoxious.
I recently put him to the test, quizzing him about the exits where he lives in Kent. But I had a caveat. I had been in Kent recently at Nana’s Southern Kitchen picking up fried chicken wings and catfish, and I wanted to know where else I could get great fried fish or chicken in Kent.
“Easy. Szechuan First off S. 180th St. from 167,” he said.
And sure enough, he was right.
But first, let me tell you about Nana’s Southern Kitchen. There are two locations for this soul food specialist — one in Kent, the other in Covington. The Kent location is in a small strip mall called East Hill Village. You must order online or in person for takeout; there is currently no dine-in option at the Kent location. I ordered for my family of four: chicken wings, fried shrimp, catfish and fried pork chops — each $12 — plus sides of green beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and potato salad — each $6.
The standouts were by far the chicken wings and catfish. The wings are a full wing — the drumette, flat and the tips. They’re skim-coated in an incredibly thin, crispy crust that gives way to remarkably juicy chicken. These are wings to take your time with, tearing apart the flat and drumette, finishing by crunching your way through the tip. There are four big wings per order.
The catfish, breaded in a light cornmeal that is sturdy enough to create that all-important barrier — allowing the fish to steam quickly while being fried but thin enough to flake away — is the best catfish I’ve had in a year. It did not need any sauce, the breading had just the right amount of salt and spice. I have absolutely no notes except that I’m wishing I would’ve ordered more than one filet.
When it comes to Szechuan First — which is nearly hidden behind a car dealership in a very small strip mall just off East Valley Highway — again, you’re going to want the chicken and the fish. While I was very intrigued by the delicate little dumplings I saw being wrapped by two employees sitting at a booth, a bowl of filling between them, sheet trays of dumplings rapidly filling while I waited for my food, I only had eyes for the Crispy Spicy Fish ($13.95) and the Chong-Quin Chicken ($12.45).
The tagline on the menu reads “Specializing in Hot & Spicy Food” and these dishes are a testament to that tagline.
They are alike in that they both come awash in chili oil and flecked with bits of peppers. There are slices of garlic and scallion, a few stray green beans (which provide a little heat relief and a soft snap to break up all the crunch). The fish comes as small filets while the chicken is small, fat little strips — almost like miniature popcorn chicken.
What’s fascinating is how differently they reacted to the seasoning. The chicken is crunchy, slightly greasy and juicy; the mouth-tingling Szechuan spice doesn’t build up or linger with each bite. It truly is like popcorn chicken in that you want to grab these little bits by the handful and shake them into your mouth.
On the other hand, with the absence of fat, the fish is delicate and dry. The subtle coating crackles slightly. There’s the spice that lingers, but also salt crystals cling to your lips creating a depth of flavor that’s spicier but less heavy than the chicken. I kept reaching for bites of green bean to cool the heat between snacking on the fish — completely ignoring the side of rice I ordered.
Praise to the wizards at both Nana’s and Szechuan First for mastering the subtle art of the deep fryer, providing two terrific places to find fried chicken and fish. And thank you to my brother for his wild knowledge of restaurants off highway exits. Where should I quiz him on next?
Nana’s Southern Kitchen: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday; 10234 S.E. 256th St., Kent; 253-243-6711, nanassouthernway.com
Szechuan First: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:15 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 18124 E. Valley Highway, Kent; 425-656-0889