Everyone, it seems, has a favorite Harold’s Chicken Shack. You might claim the one on 75th Street has superior sauce or that the cook in Dyer, Indiana, is generous with the fries. It’s an intensely personal choice, a mix of nostalgic attachment and sheer chicken-fat craving.
Harold’s launched as a takeout joint at 47th and Greenwood in 1950, with founder Harold Pierce proclaiming himself the Fried Chicken King. The empire now stretches beyond Chicago, into Indiana, Iowa, and Georgia. (Don’t be fooled by the numerous similarly named knockoffs.)
The ritual is the same at every Harold’s: You order your chicken, often through bulletproof glass, then wait an interminable 15 minutes for it to be fried in vegetable oil and beef tallow, doused with vinegar-heavy sauce, and slid through the turnstile on a bed of soft fries and white bread. But the experience can vary wildly from store to store.
I wanted to finally, once and for all, end the argument over which Harold’s is the best. So I decided to visit all 20 of them in the Chicago area. To avoid getting suckered by a pretender, I kept my ranking only to those locations the company claims on its website.
My takeout routine was the same every time: I ordered a “half dark hot.” And I often ate a thigh before I was out the door, licking my orange fingers under the neon light from that familiar sign of an ax-wielding chef.
1 Harold’s No. 88
124 E. 35th St., Bronzeville
Here you see exactly what made Harold’s a legend. The golden, muscular birds are fried in consistently fresh oil, seasoned to peppery perfection, and saturated in the famous acidic sauce. The Muhammad Ali–fixated decor makes perfect sense, because No. 88 floats like a butterfly, even during the heavy lunch hour, and the sweet, salty, and tangy flavors sting like — well, you get the idea. The agreeable staff and the nonstop crush of customers know it: This Harold’s is the truth.
2 Harold’s No. 19
101 Joliet St., Dyer, Indiana
Just across the Indiana border, this cheery little box of a restaurant — which sports a custom welcome mat emblazoned with the store number and location — is everything a Harold’s should be. The fowl’s delicate but rich batter shatters at first bite. Go at lunch and join other patrons in calling
out answers to Family Feud on the TV.
3 Harold’s No. 55
100 W. 87th St., West Chatham
In a strip mall abutting a larger strip mall, this reliable and charmingly ramshackle outpost — where Katie Couric once broke white bread with Chance the Rapper — boasts plenty to do while you wait. Galaga! Digital jukebox! Unfortunately, you’re always waiting; fortunately, the blistered drumsticks are worth it.
4 Harold’s No. 83
3577 E. New York St., Aurora
The holding cell decor won’t win any design awards, but the chicken — in a sauce sweeter than typical — is some of the chain’s finest. Moist, greaseless skin oozes with beef tallow flavor (this is a good thing) and melts into tender meat.
5 Harold’s No. 49
4527 W. Lincoln Highway, Matteson
The striking orange walls mimic Harold’s famous sauce — a fiery ambrosia that No. 49 magically infuses both the chicken and the fries with, without nullifying the satisfying crunch.
6 Harold’s No. 29
4142 W. 167th St., Oak Forest
Touchscreen payment? A marble countertop? A chipper employee who actually welcomes you when you walk in? What is this, Chipotle? Thank the Lord for No. 29’s juicy, thick-battered thighs, which overpower the cognitive dissonance.
7 Harold’s No. 52
7200 S. Western Ave., Marquette Park
The cartoonishly large fire extinguisher dangling over the fryer bodes well for this stark carry-out-only location attached to a Mobil station. Best gas station food in Chicago.
8 Harold’s No. 36
1361 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wicker Park
This high-traffic entry gets plenty of homespun details right, including the framed poster of Harold, and adds some oddball touches like a magazine rack. As for the chicken, it has a clean, fresh-tasting exterior craggier than a Martian landscape. But the kitchen gets docked for serving the fries separately instead of letting them soak in the sauce as God intended. Blasphemy.
9 Harold’s No. 46
3418 W. 183rd St., Hazel Crest
Standard Harold’s: the founder’s portrait on the wall, the bulletproof glass, the hulking Pepsi machine. The chicken parts are uniformly small, but well prepared — and the people are south-suburban friendly.
10 Harold’s No. 5
337 Howard St., Evanston
A block from the Howard L stop, No. 5’s pristine mirrored storefront looks like a Kubrick film set. A surreal wall-length mural involving hot air balloons and a barn, as well as signs for “Mystic Juice” — a Kool-Aid-like drink of unclear provenance — add to the drama. At $6.06 with tax for half a chicken and fries, it’s the cheapest Harold’s in the area, and one of the most consistent.
11 Harold’s No. 24
407 E. 75th St., Chatham
Pure, grungy, old-school Harold’s, right down to the water-stained ceiling and hand-written signs telling people to get off their cellphones. In this context, the unending wait, brusque service, and familiar marriage of bright orange sauce and grease feel like beloved cousins at a family reunion.
12 Harold’s No. 81
1994 Grant St., Gary, Indiana
The kind of place that tacks business cards to a bulletin board. The chicken comes out downright wet and slippery, which proves it is possible to go too far with the sauce. Who knew?
13 Harold’s No. 95
2237 W. 95th St., Beverly
You never know when this Harold’s is going to be open (it took me three tries because the shop doesn’t seem to follow its posted hours), but when it is, its chicken is passably crunchy. The kitchen may have doctored the sauce, amping up the chile enough to singe nose hairs. Bonus points for the optimistic “Farm Fresh” chicken sign.
14 Harold’s No. 60
6690 Broadway, Merrillville, Indiana
With its charming window booths and sconce lighting, the only standalone Harold’s on this list feels like its own restaurant instead of a chain offshoot. Signs boast “One Bite We Gotcha!” but I didn’t quite get got by the strangely chewy chicken.
15 Harold’s No. 47
1505 W. Madison St., Near West Side
Cops on their lunch break dig in under the soaring sports-themed mural, but the batter on the chicken is too thin, the oil ain’t the freshest, and the fry cook must apply the sauce with a fire hose, because everything is so drenched you can almost smell it from the United Center.
16 Harold’s No. 62
612 S. Wabash Ave., South Loop
Slow down, you move too fast, No. 62. At this ginormous, suspiciously clean double storefront with copious flat screens and LED menus, my number was called approximately three minutes after I ordered. And what I got was lukewarm and ridiculously peppery. Crisp, seasoned fries were not enough to redeem this glossy pretender.
17 Harold’s No. 17
1559 Sibley Blvd., Calumet City
“Don’t forget to ask how to jazzy up your meal,” a note on the menu reads. When I asked the lady behind the glass — who could hardly be bothered to listen and couldn’t master the ancient-looking Casio ordering system — she all but shrugged. Apparently it means thin-skinned legs with an off taste born of not-terribly-inspiring oil.
18 Harold’s No. 61
1537 S. Western Ave., Chicago Heights
This bleak room in a scruffy roadside strip mall serves up scrawny, dismal chickens annihilated in rancid oil.
19 Harold’s No. 6
3224 Ridge Rd., Lansing
The Harold’s that doesn’t care. Pallid, skeevy chicken in trace elements of sauce with last week’s stale white bread. No one goes to Harold’s for comfort, but the “seating,” which consists of laughably low stools at laughably high counters, tells you everything you need to know.
20 Harold’s No. 71
2132 S. Michigan Ave., South Loop
Mushy, puny chicken, indifferent staff, and a TV that no one bothers to turn on. Hell’s waiting room.