Shortly after joining this magazine in 1997, I was assigned to find Chicago’s top fried chicken. I did tons of research, crisscrossed the city, and picked the least awful place. The low point came after a colleague, who went on to achieve massive success at the Food Network, said I had to check out the chicken at a restaurant on the Far North Side. When I ordered it, the waiter’s face darkened. “Eh, you don’t want the chicken,” he said.
“Trust me. You don’t want the chicken.”
After an awkward negotiation, I finally won, and he brought out half a bird. He was right, as waiters generally are. I didn’t want the chicken. To call it rancid is an insult to rancidity, and when the menu said “half a chicken,” it apparently didn’t mean leg, wing, and breast.
That sad state of affairs has changed greatly, especially in the past year, during which upscale restaurant groups, food truck drivers, underground dining chefs, and just about anyone else with a deep fryer and a dream have launched places. I hit them all, plus a few classics, seeking answers. Is this a trend run amok or a true golden age for chicken?
The new wave has raised the bar with sustainable, locally sourced chickens, butchered in-house and served to order. But a recent month of chickenspotting taught me that all the proper poultry handling in the world is not a guarantee against chicken mangling. “There are 1,000 ways to make good fried chicken,” says Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale. “And just as many ways to mess it up.”
Cook the chicken at a temperature too low and you get a depressingly soggy crust; too high and it’s burned. Fry it too soon after battering it and the crust falls off. Wait too long and the batter compresses. Countless variables contribute to a gorgeous crust blanketing bland meat drier than a Baptist wedding, generally disguised by a punchy sauce.
That’s what holds back Pecking Order. Kristine Subido opened her earnest spot for Filipino-inspired chicken in 2012 in a section of Uptown almost as dead as its neighbor Graceland Cemetery. The kitchen sources antibiotic-free chickens from farms in Pennsylvania. Those birds get marinated with sugar, tamari, garlic, and bay leaves overnight, a dusting of flour, and two trips to the fryer.
Subido’s family recipe sounds lovely, but my chicken arrived pallid and bone-dry, overfried and gamy. That promising marinade, through some obscure phenomenon, had worn off. Pecking Order’s likable version of Mang Tomas, a sweet-salty liver sauce popular in the Philippines, deserved a better fate.
Smalls Smoke Shack & More, an eclectic little box that opened last June in Irving Park, went the other direction. Though the place is better known for its St. Louis (by way of Manila) ribs, its fried chicken has gained a following. In a kitchen barely larger than the food truck that spawned it (Brown Bag Lunch Truck), chef Joaquin Soler soaks his chicken in paprika-ginger buttermilk for one to two days, dredges it with cornstarch and flour, then fries it for 20 minutes at a low temperature while you wait.
The result? A beautiful crackly, caramelized exterior. Unfortunately, it did not compensate for the interior of the thigh and leg, which remained pink and undercooked. Strike two.
Parson’s Chicken & Fish, a breezy late-night throwback from the owners of Longman & Eagle, won big last summer with its Negroni Slushy. Can’t speak to the merits of the drink, but the fried Amish chicken didn’t fly as high as I expected. The breading clung to the meat like a toddler to a parent’s leg, but the chicken must have absorbed every drop of oil. Grease city. The damp meat, brined with garlic, lemon, and coriander, had a certain rough charm, but what passes for great at midnight is merely good in the light of day.
I preferred Parsons’s chicken sandwich, a flimsy bun holding a boneless thigh, vinegary coleslaw, melted American cheese, hot sauce, aïoli, and pickle slices. Though it sounds like a train wreck, this sandwich better showcased the kitchen’s skills, the chicken sporting a thinner, crispier batter and sweet meat.
I became despondent about my quest at this point. Had the hype set my standards too high? Was I hitting the wrong places? Rather than push forward, I stepped back. “You need to go to Harold’s,” said my wife, a Hyde Park native. She’s been pimping Harold’s Chicken Shack for years and will go to her grave swearing the Harold’s on 53rd Street—a place with bulletproof glass and a clientele that has never said the words “Negroni Slushy”—represents Chicago’s gold standard. (Her frequent visits ensure she will go to her grave sooner than she should.)
So we got Harold’s takeout, and I realized something. The chicken, pancaked with its trademark soggy white bread and soggier fries, didn’t have much flavor. Harold’s reportedly spikes its vegetable oil with beef tallow, though employees would not verify that. (They also would not verify that they made and sold chicken.) A moot point, because a dousing of hot sauce camouflaged any depth the piping-hot dark meat might have had. When I asked what made this specific chicken so special, my wife couldn’t pinpoint much beyond the thin layer of oil under the skin keeping it juicy. And she liked the sauce. Perhaps I needed to go even further back.
No place in the Chicago area nails the classic postwar American roadhouse quite like Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in DuPage County. It’s been in the same spot for decades, and the old neon sign and kitschy Route 66 details led me to believe I would be blowing dust off my chicken.
Wrong again. The breadcrumb-like coating, thin and golden, practically melted into the giant breast—a made-to-order indulgence so succulent and tender that it shocked me. Owner Patrick Rhea, whose parents bought the place when he was nine (he’s 60 now), says it’s the same recipe that existed before he was born and won’t reveal any details.
Leghorn brought me back to the present. “We Abhor Corporate Bullshit,” blares the menu at this fast-casual restaurant, positioned by Element Collective (Nellcôte, Kinmont) as the anti–Chick-fil-A. If that brash mission statement weren’t clear enough, the menu makes statements about religion and gay rights, and a jar of Leghorn condoms will soon command the counter. Chick-fil-A? More like Chick-F-U.
Thankfully, the naturally raised Amish birds receive gentler treatment. Boneless thighs and breasts get brined in pickle juice, dredged with seasoned flour, immersed in an egg wash, dredged a second time, and dipped in 350-degree canola oil for six minutes before they’re plopped on your toasted duck fat housemade roll. Leghorn will also put the chicken on a crumbly homemade buttermilk biscuit, but the sandwich explodes faster than Solange Knowles in an elevator.
The thigh is a lovely little treat. Mine had been fried to order, so the breading stayed as crisp as the house pickles that topped it, and the flesh underneath surged with sweet-spicy flavor under the bun. “The Parker House roll is ideal for a sandwich,” says Sieger Bayer, GM and one of Leghorn’s chefs. “It has a crispy crust on the outside, and it’s perfectly soft inside.” Just like the chicken it hugs.
If anyone has sold more fowl recently than Leghorn, it’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken, which has gone through about 20,000 chickens since Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski opened it in September 2013. (Full disclosure: I know the chefs from attending their underground Sunday Dinner Club.) The pair perfected their chicken long ago—a luscious beast seasoned with garlic powder and tons of black pepper and pimenton, sprinkled on right out of the fryer. “It hits hot crust and you can smell the sweet smokiness,” says Kulp.
The firm, greaseless breading on my drumstick and breast pulled off a miracle, providing requisite crunch before politely fading into the background while my teeth sank into the robust meat. You’re supposed to slather your chicken with a ramekin of creamy honey butter—a brilliant ploy that Kulp and Cikowski discovered by chance when a Sunday Dinner Club cook put a plate of johnnycakes too close to a chicken and accidentally saturated the fowl with sweet butter. I prefer to lift up the skin and apply the butter directly to the meat. Either way, pure pleasure.
Just as I was ready to proclaim Honey Butter the fried chicken king of Chicago, opening myself up to screams of bias, Joe Scroggs saved me. A native of Pittsboro, North Carolina, Scroggs launched the Roost Carolina Kitchen in April on the heels of his popular food truck.
The 30-seat Lake View storefront doesn’t seem particularly exceptional: reclaimed wood tables set with honey bears and Heinz, a breading station display case, blues blasting. When Scroggs, 30, brought out my quarter chicken, he handed me a fork and knife with a sly grin: You one of those fancy people who use a fork?
Fingers, fork, or face, Scroggs’s spicy bone-in chicken is outstanding. Per his family’s technique, he bathes it 20 to 30 hours in buttermilk to which he adds Louisiana hot sauce, onions, garlic, and sugar, then dredges it with cayenne-laced flour.
The skin becomes perfect, a rocky layer that retains its blazing heat 15 minutes after escaping the fryer. And the meat . . . herby and garlicky, moist and supple, it absorbs its spices and heat like no other fried chicken possibly could. “Anyone can do a good crust,” Scroggs says. “The trick is good seasoned meat.”
Assuming Roost’s great bone-in bird had been a fluke, I got a bone-out Nashville hot chicken sandwich on one of Scroggs’s fluffy homemade buttermilk biscuits for my wife. I took a bite as I walked home. Same sensational chicken. The next thing I knew, it was gone.
“Where’s the chicken?” my wife asked when I arrived.
The truth seemed like a losing proposition: that it had been magnificent, maybe the best in Chicago, and I had eaten it. Instead, I settled on the words of a wise waiter from 17 years ago: “Eh, you don’t want the chicken.”