Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
I've been trying to eat healthier these days, so naturally for this week's edition of Lunch in the Loop, I decided to go for fried chicken. Sometimes I wish I could have someone next to me at all times to punch me in the face when I don't follow my own advice. When I grow up to become tall, handsome, and rich, I can hire somebody to do that for me. But we all need a bit of fried chicken to get through the day now and then. And you can find a ton of it at Harold's Chicken Shack, one of many in Chicago, in the southern part of the Loop.
Right after I started writing for Serious Eats Chicago, I did a roundup of 14 fried chicken places (well, 13, Nick ate at one place). I was pretty sure I'd never eat fried chicken again after that. Of course, I ended up working on this too. But it's hard to stay away from some deep-fried yardbird when the craving hits.
Before I dig into the fried chicken, though, I learned that Harold's actually has other things on the menu. Like the popcorn shrimp with fries ($6.99), for example. I like popcorn anything, because I secretly think small things are cute to look at. Kind of like me. But if you blindfolded me and tried to get me to identify this as popcorn shrimp, it'd be difficult for me to identify this as shrimp and not chicken. Each crunchy and breaded little guy is very salty, though, and when eaten in more than a handful the salt crescendoes into a fever pitch of sodium.
The same problem can be said about the popcorn chicken with fries ($5.99). I'd have no problem with it if it were a lot less mouth-puckeringly salty. The popcorn chicken is also spicy, and upon closer inspection, it appears to have been tossed in hot sauce before breaded and fried which likely accounts for some of the excess salt.
Lots of fried chicken places in Chicago do fried catfish fillets ($8.49) too. The fried catfish is genuinely good—the cornmeal breading is light and not grainy, and the fish itself is meaty and flaky. It's somehow hearty and light at the same time. If I'm out with friends at Harold's and my fried chicken fatigue sets in again, I'm going for the catfish.
But do any of these dethrone the namesake fried chicken? The answer is a resounding no. For lunch portions, you can either get a half order of white meat ($8.59), or a half order of dark meat ($7.59). Personally, I favor the dark meat, especially the thighs, because it's fattier, richer, and juicier. I mean come on, you're already eating fried chicken, you might as well go all the way. The breading is crunchy, light, and a bit oily in the way good fried chicken should be. It's not overly salty like the popcorn chicken, and it's hard to put down.
So I'm a complete dingus and totally missed the hush puppies on the menu, which is ordinarily what I would have ordered. But my beady little eyes landed on the fried mushrooms ($3.19) instead. They're uniformly breaded (and likely taken out from a big bag from the freezer) but I love them. Fresh out the fryer, they're crunchy with a burst of juicy mushroom in the middle.
So the moral of the story is that the chicken is delicious, and the fried catfish comes in at a close second. Stick the classics and you'll be good to go. And hey, if you get the fish, you can pretend it's health food.