Evanston Chicken Shack
Evanston Chicken Shack is a fine example. A hole in the wall in the truest sense, it opened in 1990 with but a handful of red-checkered tables. Its menu houses the usual suspects, from rib tips to catfish, hot links, and spaghetti. Skip them all in favor of a crazy-cheap, crackly crusted half-bird (mixed, $6.99). Its flour batter is flecked with a generous salt and pepper mix. Plunk yours in hot sauce or barbecue sauce if you wish. However, I find the former Trappey's-esque, while the latter is too sweet for my taste. Besides, these juicy numbers need little in the way of accoutrements. Standard slaw and fries are fine-enough companions, but for an extra 99-cents get the decent gravy-topped mashed potatoes and a flaky biscuit instead. Throw in a side of cornmeal-breaded okra ($2.24), and you're good to go.
Just down the road is juggernaut Hecky's Barbecue. Though known more for its Mutt (a 'cue sampling), the fried chicken remains a thing of great worth. Handily seasoned, incredibly moist and a steal for a ¼ bird ($5), the crunchy, densely battered meat comes hot out of the fryer on a bed of season salted, crinkled-cut fries. Some advice: ditch the white sandwich bread that comes with—stomach space can be put to better use. Do yourself a favor and order some vinegary hot barbecue sauce and uber-creamy, cheddary mac and cheese to go with. But skip the forgettable mashed potatoes and too-saccharine cole slaw.
Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket
It's no secret that the southwest suburbs are home to two time-honored spots. If you ask me, Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket tops the list. Located "along" historic Route 66 (tucked in the shadow of I-55, to be precise), its shelves are adorned with ceramic cluckers. Ask to be seated by the roaring stone fireplace, and make your way to the salad bar for one reason alone: cheddar cheese-spiked cottage cheese dip. It's a godsend when crafting a relish tray of crisp carrots, celery, and green onions. Try the homemade soups, too. Naturally, the star of the show is the gritty-textured fried chicken. It's different than your standard coating, mind you, though it doesn't disappoint. Make like a regular and gussy up pieces with honey and a zap of Cholula. There is one bone to pick, though: the breading doesn't alway stay adhered. Upon tasting the buttery, skin-on mashed potatoes sauced with country-style gravy, however, all is forgiven.
White Fence Farm
A bit further off of I-55 lies another beacon: White Fence Farm. Owned by the Hastert family, this rambling 1920s homestead, petting zoo, and antique oddities museum is a quaint reminder of bygone days. As for its twice-cooked chicken, well, its assertive seasoning and glistening, crunchy exterior draws crowds in droves—especially on Sundays when church lets out. Too bad the drumsticks are so dinky! Opt for family-style service ($14.50 for a half-chicken), and begin with the delicious, if geriatric, procession of relishes: vinegary slaw, large-curd cottage cheese, pickled beets and creamy kidney bean salad. Couple that with sweet, airy corn fritters and mashed potatoes soused with highlighter-yellow gravy, and a memorable meal is in store. Just remember to get some brandy ice (brandy-topped soft-serve) before hitting the road.
As enjoyable as these joints are, though, venerable Rip's Tavern blows 'em all away. Situated in the sleepy town of Ladd, it's within two hours of downtown Chicago. I know what you're thinking: that's a haul for a piece of fried chicken. Trust me: it's worth it. Just get there early—there's a no reservations policy, and people queue up from open until close, so hour-plus waits are de rigueur. Just grab a beer from the bar, and chat with locals until you finally get seated. Then, order the fan favorite: a quarter-light, which consists of a miraculously moist breast and wing ($5.25). It comes with fries, but you want - make that need - a basket of crispy bits and bracing dill pickles on the side (free for the former, 75-cents for the latter).