Rooster’s House of Ramen unceremoniously closed on Sunday, Feb. 26, after six years in business. But that wasn’t the end of chef/proprietor Mark Henry’s work at 323 N. Tejon St. Instead, it was just the beginning of something new.
A few days later, he made a cryptic post on Rooster’s Facebook page about how “We will Spiedily determine what is next and will tell you all about that when the time comes.”
That typo was the clue. And folks didn’t have to wait long for the big reveal. The following day branding changed over to Kelley’s Spiedie Shop and Henry told me he’d be open by the weekend — that’s after very “Spiedily” doing a total interior renovation, to include newly painted walls to make them appear as picnic table checkerboard cloth. Doors will open at 4 p.m., Saturday March 4, for daily service from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. for now.
Before we get to the why of Rooster’s closure, let’s get right to the point (for those unfamiliar) of what exactly is a spiedie and what’s this new concept? First, let’s hear it from Mark and his brother and fellow chef Chad, in their words, from their Facebook post:
As you are all aware, Rooster’s has closed for good. However this is not the end of our story. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Chef’s Chad and Mark Henry are so excited to share our new concept with you. By way of Kelley’s Spiedie Shop! Kelley is our Mother’s name, who passed some years back from a hard fought battle with cancer. Our Mother was a “Mess Specialist” AKA Cook in the Navy.
After her time in the service, her love for food continued on, and she is responsible for the love of cuisine, that Chad and I (Mark) have. We spent our summers gardening, and harvesting ingredients to cook with her. She introduced us to the regional cuisine of our hometown, Binghamton New York…The Spiedie. Upstate NY Italian BBQ. Spiedies are regional to the Greater Binghamton Area, and they may be small in size, but they are a BIG deal. Spiedies are the cornerstone of county fair style events, giving birth to the Spiedie and Balloon Rally, and multiple regional restaurants in our home town.
Contained on this menu, are recipes from our childhood that have been fine-tuned over many, many years, and always regarded as celebratory family favorites. From Chef’s favorite Birthday Cake, to Mushroom Deviled Eggs, everything on the menu pairs perfectly with the Humble Spiedie Sandwich. Marinated in a secret family recipe.
We are firm believers that Food creates memories, and we would love nothing more than to share our most memorable cuisine with you and yours while you create your own memories. … Please come and let us honor our Mother, while we make food we are excited to share with you. Once again we appreciate all of the support you have shown us through the years, and hope that this new chapter is something you will grow to love as much as we do! -Chef Mark E. Henry, Amy “Rooster” Henry, & Chef Chad Henry
Now, back to Rooster’s for just a moment, and a final time: I spoke with Mark (now 37 years old) ahead of Rooster’s closure and throughout the makeover week. (Yeah, I was let in on the plan early.) He made it clear that Rooster’s didn’t fail, but he and Chad (who’s now 29 years old) were “ready to do something different.” Retire the old concept, start fresh, indulge a new passion for their childhood food. He cited some other difficulties with Rooster’s in recent years, including product costs and margins and labor concerns and the difficulty of training others on ramen prep. He was also honest in saying somewhat jokingly: “We’re excited to cook something that’s not served in a bowl.”
One last thing he shared was that he’d taken some flak over the years for “how Rooster’s wasn’t traditional.” As if he was out of his element or without social license to make Japanese food. “Now,” he says, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone around here who can do a spiedie as authentically as Chad and I can… we’re brining our upbringing into this product… this is food to eat while creating family memories. I think there’s a great story behind it.”
Mark adds that it’s highly marketable — the #4 Best Sandwich in the World according to a current TasteAtlas ranking that he’s posted to Kelley’s Spiedies Facebook page. He says he may want to add more locations down the road, and that his spiedies’ price point will be more accessible and affordable than his former ramen prices: about $3 to $4 less per foot-long sandwich than a bowl of ramen was priced.
In line with that, Kelley’s will be counter service instead of table service, and offer both grab-and-go sandwiches (partly for late-night food service for attached business Allusion Speakeasy) as well as a small marketplace (to open in the coming weeks, behind the initial launch) for retail sales of house-marinated meats, side dishes and items like the Amoroso Philly bread they’re plating their spiedies on. They’re unable to get the most authentic rolls from Binghamton because those are made without preservatives, so they don’t ship them, but Mark says he’s in talks with Shawn Saunders at the Sourdough Boulangerie about possibly hacking an ideal version locally. Both Mark and Chad say the Amoroso are very close to their preferred bun, though, and they say they don’t get soggy once filled with ingredients for grab-and-go.
Here’s a look at some of the new items and the full menu:
If you’ve quickly scanned the above menus and photos, you’ll note the somewhat stark presentation (just meat on bread) to most of the spiedies. That’s how basic the sandwiches are traditionally. They’re working-class food. Simple by nature. Mark says they’ve been careful to stick to form and not dress them with personalized interpretations — though they have added the portobello mushroom spiedie as a non-traditional offering to serve their vegan clientele.
As for the line item that says “ask about our specials,” Mark says to expect some limited barbecue dishes like brisket or a rack of ribs, which are a traditional accompaniment to spiedies à la Lupo’s back in New York.
The spiedies here at Kelley’s will all get the same base marinade: grapeseed oil, white vinegar, lemon juice and “a shit load of herbs and garlic,” says Mark. The beef is a lifter cut, the chicken a blend of thigh and breast, the lamb is leg meat and the pork is sirloin. The buffalo chicken gets Frank’s RedHot and butter. And the Italian Beef (recently re-popularized by the hit TV show The Bear) does get dressed up here with horseradish cream, pepperoncini and optional provolone cheese. (I stopped by for a brief pre-opening sampling with Mark and Chad and this sandwich was easily my favorite.)
Desserts are constructed mostly from purchased items to be authentic to the story of the brothers’ childhood. Mark concedes “I’m not a pastry guy,” when I ask what he is making for them. When peaches come into season he says he will make a cobbler, but for now it’s store-bought apple. Special to the story of picking berries with their mom, they do also make the strawberry jam that goes atop biscuits with whipped cream, from her recipe. The Chef’s Birthday Cake is literally what the boys ate every year for their birthdays, that she would make for them. It’s actually a fudge brownie with glazed cherries and whipped cream, but Kelley would call it “liver pâté” says Mark, adding “I don’t know why she called it that, but mom was a smart ass.”
She passed away in 2015, and Mark says his biggest regret was that for as long as he’s been a chef (more than a decade), he never got the chance to cook for her professionally.
Doing something as personal as rebranding around childhood nostalgia, family and a cultural cornerstone of his hometown has clearly impacted him emotionally. (That, and overhauling a restaurant inside of a week is straight bananas, and exhausting.)
Mark says when he was doing his staff-training tasting, just before I arrive, that he couldn’t help but cry when talking to his crew about his mom’s food. I told him I get it. My mom also passed away from cancer, in 2021, and I happen to be writing this post on her birthday, March 4. Honoring our moms in whatever ways that are authentic to us is all we can do anymore. It’s powerful.
And what’s more comforting in the whole world for most people than the thought of mom’s food?
Suffice to say, for these chefs and brothers, Kelley’s Spiedies opens with weight and gravity underlying the fresh enthusiasm to be in the kitchen. It doesn’t launch as a sad shadow of a former self, but as a mindful tribute, sincere if utterly basic by design. Beauty in stark simplicity. It’s as true to from-the-heart food as it gets.