Thereâ€™s a fried chicken shack in Memphis that I dream about, a place that serves a juicy-to-the-bone bird encased in a crust so crispy the skin flakes and cleaves like flecks of mica when you bite it. It doesnâ€™t hurt that this same shack serves deep-fried pickles flecked with dill, dripping in ranch dressing. A religious experience, to say the least.
Until recently, I was sure Chicago had no chicken like Gusâ€™s World Famous in Memphis. And so, few weekends have gone by where I havenâ€™t fantasized about hopping a Megabus and riding for 10 hours for the sole purpose of grabbing an order.
Alas, poultry provenance finally has come to our fair city. Top chefs and soul-food cooking grandmothers alike have unleashed their talents with hot oil and spices, and thereâ€™s now a fried yard bird bounty. Even Oakbrook-based McDonaldâ€™s has gotten in on the fun with their local launch of Mighty Wings, which, while I donâ€™t usually celebrate the food of huge franchises, are pretty good. So, without further ado, hereâ€™s a recap of the best fried chicken around town:
They say you often miss what has been there all along. I never made that mistake with my personal relationships, but I certainly have in my love of fried chicken in not paying closer attention to the venerable local chain Haroldâ€™s.
There is an excuse for my oversight. Not all Haroldâ€™s are created equal. Some over-fry. Some do not keep vigilance over the quality of the fryer oil (a tasty mix of beef tallow and vegetable oil). I have been a victim of bad chicken at many of their franchises. But after a few years, I have discovered that one location in particular (1361 N. Milwaukee; 773-252-2424) is really stellar.
Though I am usually a dark meat-loving thigh man, I crave one thing from the Wicker Park Haroldâ€™s: their wings, fried hard (extra time in the oil), smothered in freezer-burnt French fries and two pieces of soggy white bread (the bread and fries Iâ€™d probably throw away if my motherâ€™s voice wasnâ€™t still haranguing my brain about all the starving children in Africa). These wings arenâ€™t quite as juicy as the ones in Memphis, but they have a similar crispy skin and a solid peppery finish.
Haroldâ€™s is good, but maybe the best local mom and pop bird comes from Mini-Hut (6659 W. Archer; 773-586-2115), a tiny take-out dive near Midway that serves up â€œChicken Boats,â€ two pieces of some of the most buttery fleshed fried chicken in Chicago, along with a soft Parker House-style roll and crinkle-cut fries.
Not all great fried chicken is southern. The Little Hotties at Take Me Out, Letâ€™s Eat Chinese (1502 W. 18th; 312-929-2509) â€” chili-, garlic- and soy-coated, lollipop-style chicken drumettes â€” are just the thing if youâ€™re looking to score a nice capsaicin high.
Take Me Outâ€™s hotties arenâ€™t the only Asian bird in town. Crispâ€™s (2940 N Broadway; 773-697-7610) Seoul Sassy fried chicken coated in rice flour, pressure-fried and tossed with a ginger, soy and garlic sauce, used to be my unequivocal favorite fried chicken in Chicago. However, I recently checked out a new Korean fried chicken competitor Dak (1104 W. Granville; 773-754-0255) in Edgewater that serves up fried Korean chicken wings so big, youâ€™ll think theyâ€™re really from a turkey, that give Crisp a run for their money.
The fried chicken renaissance has come not only from ethnic and casual kitchens, but also from some of the classier joints in town. Alpana Singhâ€™s The Boarding House (720 N. Wells; 312-280-0720) serves up a fine Southern-style bird with a thick, breaded crumb and a juicy center.
Chef Paul Fehribach, a man on a mission to celebrate the history of traditional Southern cooking, fries his bird at Big Jones (5347 N. Clark; 773-275-5725) in leaf lard and butter studded with a ham hock in a cast iron kettle. The recipe comes from the late and legendary Southern cuisine expert and cookbook author Edna Lewis. This bird is a touch smoky and tastes like it came from a really talented Southern grannyâ€™s kitchen.
If you canâ€™t decide between gourmet, Southern and Asian fried chicken, you might want to try General Janeâ€™s fried chicken from Au Cheval (800 W. Randolph; 312-929-4580), the dark, upscale gourmet diner in Chicagoâ€™s West Loop. The crispy skin here is light and wispy, almost like a pork cracklinâ€™. As a freak for American/Cantonese-style Chinese, I canâ€™t help but love the sugary and spicy General Tsoâ€™s-style lacquer; a perfect combo.
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.