Originally published June 22, 2006
Let us make an official endorsement for the great summer picnic food of 2006: fried chicken.
What red-blooded American would turn away a crispy bird? People in the U.S. ate roughly 8 billion servings of fried chicken in 2005 (a serving is generally three or four pieces), according to market trendspotters, the NPD group.
"The primal appeal of gnawing off a bone is very forthright," said John T. Edge, author of "Fried Chicken: An American Story." "Fried chicken is a marriage of the right cook, right oil, right seasoning, right bird."
With so many candidates in the Chicago area to choose from, we established some ground rules:
In honor of picnic season, the restaurants had to have carryout service. We focused on a bucket-sized or 8-piece portion.
The restaurants had to serve fried wings, legs, breasts and thighs. Not just wings, not just strips and none of this "broasting."
The restaurants had to specialize in fried chicken. Places like Joe's Stone Crab, which one colleague lauded, were out of contention. Same goes for Stanley's in Lincoln Park and MacArthur's in the Austin neighborhood.
We polled our fried-chicken experts and compiled a list of 13 contenders. From there, four At Play reporters--restaurant critic Phil Vettel, dining editor Judy Hevrdejs and fried chicken aficionados Regina Robinson and myself--divided up the contenders and individually taste-tested fried chicken at each place. On a scale of 1 to 10, we rated the chicken based on taste, texture of the crust, grease (and lack thereof), moistness of the meat and consistency among the pieces. Six restaurants made the final cut.
So on one magical day, with empty stomachs, notepads, Vettel's minivan and a fistful of Wetnaps, the reporters anonymously visited all six finalists in one fell swoop, hoping to confidently say we've found the Chicago area's finest fried chicken.
We think we may have found it.
THE TASTE TEST
Harold's Chicken Shack #62 (click for address, maps, hours)
8-piece mix bucket, $8.59
Can we write about fried chicken in Chicago without mentioning Harold's? We made this South Loop location (one of 65 Harold's in the area) our first stop. The dull but roomy interior has several benches and tables for dine-in customers, and it seems that most of the space is designed for the long line of people waiting to order. Ten minutes after we arrive, that line is already out the door.
The bucket (really a carton) is ready 15 minutes after ordering, with two pieces each of legs, wings, breasts and thighs. We ask for hot sauce on the side. Harold's fried chicken is remarkably not greasy. It's fried in a blend of half beef tallow and half vegetable oil, Harold's operations manager J.R. Williams would tell us later. (Beef tallow, or fat, is the same stuff that used to make McDonald's French fries taste so good.) The result is a perfect balance between crispness and crunchiness, with the crust a consistent brown hue. The taste is unmistakably seasoned chicken--no hints of old frying oil. The succulent breast meat, an 8 out of 10 on the moistness scale, is snow white and cooked evenly.