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Standing Room Only: Harold's Chicken Shack

"I was especially taken with the breast meat—it had a shockingly white appearance, near Mr. Clean white, and was not a bit dry."

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Harold's Chicken Shack #36

1361 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL (map); 773-252-2424
The Short Order: Crisp skinned chicken with impressively tender meat.
Want Fries with That? The boring crinkle cut variety come with every order.
Want Ketchup? Just extra hot sauce, please.

When the words "fried chicken" are uttered in Chicago, it's a fair bet that the name Harold's Chicken Shack will usually follow.

It's the most famous purveyor of chicken in the city with an operation of over 62 outlets, all of which have randomly assigned numbers that don't seem to correspond to anything. (The original is oddly titled #11.) Harold's Chicken Shack is the perfect example of a family-owned business that keeps quality controls high.

When I had the gall a few months ago to point out the very good stand Uncle Remus's Fried Chicken, I was reprimanded by Serious Eaters for ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Harold's was next.

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Of course, the question was, which of the 62 outposts to visit? The original isn't around anymore, so any claim at "which was first" isn't important. There is some discussion about which one is best, including a heroic endeavor by the Chicago Reader's Mike Sula [PDF] to eat at all of them. (For the record his favorite is Harold's #55 at 100 E. 87th, but not by much.)

For my first immersion I decided to go to the one located closest to my place.

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That turned out to be a relatively new outpost in Wicker Park, #36. It's sparklingly clean, with scrubbed red and white tiles, and a wide view of the kitchen. No bulletproof glass here. It almost feels like you had just walked into a Chipotle.

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There aren't any tables or seats, just two counters and a few stools around. Like Uncle Remus, it takes some time. The chicken is fried to order, which can take up to 15 minutes or so. You can call ahead or read one of the many magazines out for your reading pleasure or watch the big-screen TV. This is fried chicken shack luxury.

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Though some of the particulars are nicer and cleaner, it's comforting to know the food still comes in a container with all the usual trimmings—the obligatory slices of white bread and French fries. I also ordered some cole slaw on the side. All are merely distractions from the main course, especially the fries. If you are getting this at home, I'd suggest making your own sides or picking some up at another location.

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But the chicken. Harold's chicken is tossed with seasoned flour, which comes out shatteringly crisp and blessedly ungreasy, with meat that's wonderfully moist. I was especially taken with the breast meat—it had a shockingly white appearance, near Mr. Clean white, and was not a bit dry.

It's great chicken just on its own, but there is a customary condiment that helps enliven in bite. Hot sauce is my weapon of choice. The bright red sauce soaks into the nooks and crannies of the crust, and wakes up your tongue for each amazing bite.

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