If you enter the address for Duke’s
into your phone at just the right downtown GPS coordinates, the voice navigation will instruct you to “Head west on West South Street, then turn left on South West Street.” That’s some catchy phrasing. Add in a fiddle and steel guitar, and you have the makings of a nice little honky-tonk song, which is very on-brand for a roadhouse that touts both its live music and fried chicken and is so meticulously dressed for the part that it might as well wear a string tie. There’s a lot to take in here: the sarcastic neon signage tucked up near the rafters (“I’m glad I thought of that”), the bathroom corridor muraled with a paint-by-numbers Western scene, and the googly eyes stuck on the illuminated Jesus painting behind the bar. It takes a while for your attention to land on what is actually the best feature of this low-slung establishment that shares a gravel road with Russell’s Trailer Repair—the food.
Customers who duck in at lunch order fried chicken sandwiches stuffed inside ciabatta rolls dressed with smashed black beans, pickled red onions, and lime-avocado mayo. The modest hand-breaded tenderloin isn’t trying to set any Guinness World Records for size, but its meatiness holds its own inside the crunchy, peppery coating and appropriately squishy bun. The daily taco special might be a tender shredded chicken version that you can squirt liberally with the house hot sauce sitting on the table, doctored-up Texas Pete with pepper seeds settled ominously at the bottom. The grilled cheese oozes with housemade pimento, and everything arrives on battered metal barbecue-shack trays with a handful of those addictive puffy wagon-wheel chips, duros de harina, tossed on the side.
The preparation is simple but spot-on—anything fancier would seem out of place under the canopy of vintage neon lights with Dale Watson singing “I Lie When I Drink” in the background. “Everything you see on the menu are dishes I would make at my own house,” says Dustin Boyer, the 38-year-old owner who transformed a southside landmark, The Ice House, into his dream dive bar in March.
This is not his first rodeo. The former operations manager at Sun King Brewery who once ran downtown’s The Stadium Tavern dreamed of eventually opening his own honky-tonk bar somewhere off the beaten path. Then one day last year, he was out riding bicycles with his buddy, made a stop at the old watering hole on the outskirts of town, and fell in love with its blue-collar charm. The next day, there was a story in the newspaper about how the owner of The Ice House wanted to sell. And that’s how this 34-year-old structure with the heavy, tomb-like front door became the hot new place for the young and the hungry to discover.
Boyer took the small bar-side kitchen down to the studs but kept the flat-top grill and Henny Penny pressure double-fryer, adding a Big Green Egg smoker. He designed his menu to run lean and mean, knowing that there would be nights when he would have to oversee the bar and the kitchen by himself. Beer selections range from PBR to Pachanga, and the standard library of booze bottles line up like soldiers against a corrugated metal wall, but Duke’s does not offer a dedicated cocktail list—no metal shakers or elaborate martinis to muck up the flow of alcohol. “This is a dive bar,” says Boyer. He did, however, buy a frozen drink maker, which constantly churns behind the bar, extruding alcoholic slushies like a sweet-tart vodka lemon shake-up. But mostly, customers drink straight from the can or sip fast-pour drinks from glasses embossed with Duke’s logo—an eagle with its wings spread in full, majestic Americana glory.
That logo was lifted from a treasured belt buckle that belonged to Boyer’s late grandfather, Hayes “Duke” Boyer, the bar’s namesake. Grandpa Duke and Grandma Doris were big fans of country music, and the bar’s live-music lineup pays tribute to that. Hank Haggard & the Orange Possum Special, The Cold Hearts, and Joe’s Truck Stop have taken the stage at Duke’s and packed the house with fans wearing cowboy boots in both broken-in and brand-new condition, if you know what I mean.
In fact, the place seems to have a nice balance of new clientele and old customers who might remember the Ice House days. On a lazy lunch hour, you can spot a table of men with their names sewn onto their shirts going over a set of blueprints while they eat, across the room from a couple of young women taking selfies in front of the googly-eyed Jesus, a few chairs down from a guy having a solo Hatch Smash Burger lunch.
I wish I could say that this universal draw is what I love most about Duke’s. But actually, what I love most here is the fried chicken. Served only at dinner—indeed, the only entrée served at dinner—the chicken comes with some heavy side action. Brussels sprouts fried to the point of tender crunchiness and tossed with pickled red onions, pistachios, Granny Smith apples, and apple cider reduced to a thick syrup stand out as the most complex treatment of the cruciferous veggie I can remember. Spiral mac and cheese sits in a housemade Velveeta-like liquid that I wanted to use as a dipping sauce for everything on the table. Tater tots transferred straight from the deep-fryer to a waffle iron along with sharp cheddar and Hatch chile peppers are pressed until the corners and crevices achieve the proper crisp, and the result is plated with a scoop of sour cream and a drizzle of hot sauce. That dish is as insanely delicious as it sounds—starchy and crunchy with pockets of cheese and heat.
But back to the fried chicken. Every bite of it makes that satisfying crackling noise as the meat peels off in puffs of steam. Boyer experimented with his method and ingredients before arriving at this recipe that begins with a brine similar to the one he uses to make brisket—a combination of salt, pepper, garlic, and kitchen spices that imbues the meat with just a touch of sweetness. The dredge has some spice to it, but you can also dip the pieces into the little dish of spicy honey that comes out with the plate of golden yard bird. It is hefty yet delicate, a nontraditional version of fried chicken that still takes you back to the Sunday dinner table. Who cares if it’s the only thing you can order in the evening at a new bar that pays loving tribute to its past? You don’t need more than this.
2352 S. West St., 317-643-6403
Mon.–Thurs. 11a.m.–midnight, Fri. 11 a.m.–2 a.m., Sat. 5 p.m.–2 a.m.
Smoked meats and Hoosier-fried sandwiches at lunch with fried chicken dinners in the evening.
The tenderloin sandwich. Come back for “the whole damn thing”: fried chicken with tater-tot waffle, fried brussels sprouts, and mac and cheese.
Lunches $7–$11.50, fried chicken dinners $12 (half)–$24, sharable sides $5.50.