Let us make an official endorsement for the great summer picnic food of 2006: fried chicken.
Which led us on this search: Find a perfectly crispy, breaks-the-silence crunchy, juicy and beyond-flavorful piece of fried chicken that would make the hairs on our arms stand as straight as Colonel Sanders' cane.
What red-blooded American would turn away a crispy bird? People in the U.S. ate roughly 8 billion servings of fried chicken in 2005 (a serving is generally three or four pieces), according to market trendspotters, the NPD group.
"The primal appeal of gnawing off a bone is very forthright," said John T. Edge, author of "Fried Chicken: An American Story." "Fried chicken is a marriage of the right cook, right oil, right seasoning, right bird."
With so many candidates in the Chicago area to choose from, we established some ground rules:
In honor of picnic season, the restaurants had to have carryout service. We focused on a bucket-sized or 8-piece portion.
The restaurants had to serve fried wings, legs, breasts and thighs. Not just wings, not just strips and none of this "broasting."
The restaurants had to specialize in fried chicken. Places like Joe's Stone Crab, which one colleague lauded, were out of contention. Same goes for Stanley's in Lincoln Park and MacArthur's in the Austin neighborhood.
We polled our fried-chicken experts and compiled a list of 13 contenders. From there, four At Play reporters--restaurant critic Phil Vettel, dining editor Judy Hevrdejs and fried chicken aficionados Regina Robinson and myself--divided up the contenders and individually taste-tested fried chicken at each place. On a scale of 1 to 10, we rated the chicken based on taste, texture of the crust, grease (and lack thereof), moistness of the meat and consistency among the pieces. Six restaurants made the final cut.
So on one magical day, with empty stomachs, notepads, Vettel's minivan and a fistful of Wetnaps, the reporters anonymously visited all six finalists in one fell swoop, hoping to confidently say we've found the Chicago area's finest fried chicken.
We think we may have found it.
THE TASTE TEST
(multiple locations) 8-piece mix bucket, $8.59
Can we write about fried chicken in Chicago without mentioning Harold's? We made this South Loop location (one of 65 Harold's in the area) our first stop. The dull but roomy interior has several benches and tables for dine-in customers, and it seems that most of the space is designed for the long line of people waiting to order. Ten minutes after we arrive, that line is already out the door.
The bucket (really a carton) is ready 15 minutes after ordering, with two pieces each of legs, wings, breasts and thighs. We ask for hot sauce on the side. Harold's fried chicken is remarkably not greasy. It's fried in a blend of half beef tallow and half vegetable oil, Harold's operations manager J.R. Williams would tell us later. (Beef tallow, or fat, is the same stuff that used to make McDonald's French fries taste so good.) The result is a perfect balance between crispness and crunchiness, with the crust a consistent brown hue. The taste is unmistakably seasoned chicken--no hints of old frying oil. The succulent breast meat, an 8 out of 10 on the moistness scale, is snow white and cooked evenly.
Score: 9 clucks (out of 10)
8-piece combo (1 family side, 9 tortillas, 3 dinner rolls or biscuits), $13.99
From the outside Pollo Campero is bright and inviting, and we have no trouble finding parking in the free lot at this lunch hour. Rewind back to when Pollo Campero first opened in July 2005, and overeager customers camped out for hours to try the Guatemalan-based chicken franchise, a household name in Latin America.
Inside, the dining area is spotless, the chairs comfortable and the ambience a couple of families away from being festive. The chicken sits beneath heating lamps, and we receive our orders almost immediately. What we get is more crispy than crunchy-by-way-of-heavy-breading--similar in texture to KFC's original recipe and not as oily. The crust has an interesting flavor with a noticeable kick of spice, though it's a tad salty. The meat isn't as moist as we would like, but the flavor throughout is bold and pronounced.
Score: 7 clucks
(multiple locations) 8-piece combo (2 large sides, 4 biscuits), $15.29
The Food and Drug Administration would likely tell us we've had a full week's worth of fried chicken in two hours, but no, we are soldiering on. Our next finalist takes us to Lakeview, where we find KFC and a portrait of its ubiquitous colonel. Today, it's the 8th largest restaurant chain in the U.S.
The extra crispy chicken (different from the original recipe) has popcorn-like ridges of batter that are flecked with black pepper and supremely crunchy. It remains crunchy with time, its cracklin' but oily skin holding up well even at room temperature. The breast meat is rather moist, if a bit fatty, with a heavy, consistent taste reminiscent of Southern spices.
Score: 5.75 clucks
8-piece mixed bucket, $9.75
This stucco joint, on the site of a former Little Caesar's Pizza, has been a haunt for Evanston locals and Northwestern students since 1990. It truly epitomizes a shack, with its screen doors, drab walls, chairs that look circa 1975. But shambled appearances could play into the overall experience and ultimately influence the taste. What great chicken shack do you know that resembles the Shangri-La?
As for the bird, this one is done wonderfully. It reminds us of what a picnic fried chicken should be: a heavy coating that fries to an absolute golden crunch. Some pieces are more oily than others, and the taste is not too distinctive, like the exotic spices at Pollo Campero or the purported 11 herbs and spices at KFC. All told, it's a solid, no-frills, moist fried chicken that's cooked the right way.
Score: 7.5 clucks
(multiple locations) 8-piece family dinner (2 large sides, 4 biscuits), $16.49
The first thing we notice about Brown's Chicken is just how colossal the chickens are. If chicken breasts could get implants, they'd look like Brown's. The chicken is fried in cottonseed oil and comes out with a thick but crisp skin, honey in color. The taste holds it own with a subtle hint of buttermilk. It gets soggy after a while.
Score: 5.75 clucks
Farm Hand Pak (8 pieces chicken, coleslaw, dozen fritters, 2 orders of fries or mashed potatoes/gravy), $13.35
We muster our strength and travel to this outpost of Lemont's vaunted White Fence Farm. Though there are no petting zoos or dining tables at this location, this strictly carryout shack has an open kitchen for all to witness our chicken being dunked in the bubbling soybean oil.
We find a public terrace a few blocks away, open up the box and dive in. This chicken has the thinnest and most evenly-cooked skin of all, practically grease-free. Turns out, the chicken is pre-baked and then flash fried for three minutes prior to serving, which accounts for the delicate pieces. The crust is light and buttery, and the meat inside actually has that savory chicken taste. Not a bad way to end the day.
Score: 8 clucks
The results are in
The challenge completed, the scores tabulated, the Russian judge recused--At Play has crowned its Fried Chicken Challenge 2006 champion. Let us stand (gentlemen, kindly remove your caps) and salute our winners.
Gold: Harold's Chicken Shack
Silver: White Fence Farm
Bronze: Evanston Chicken Shack
Have a favorite fried chicken restaurant or shack? Tell us about it at. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Fried Chicken in the subject line, or send to Fried Chicken, At Play, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
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Dashboard dining don't's
If you eat grub on the go, consider "The 10 Most Dangerous Foods to Eat While Driving."
2. Hot soup
6. Barbecued food
7. Fried chicken
8. Jelly or cream-filled doughnuts
9. Soft drinks
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, insure.com
MORE SUMMER FEASTING
Good Eating tackles fried chicken
Find out how to make the best fried chicken at home. In Wednesday's Good Eating.
Bite into `Tastes of Summer' on `metromix' on CLTV
Watch "metromix" on CLTV at 7 p.m. Thursday to see our experts' picks of the top fried chicken spots. The "Tastes of Summer" videos are also online at chicagotribune.com/video.
The best, most up-to-date summer dining listings
We've got 'em on metromix.com. Read updates by Phil Vettel, get tips on Ravinia picnics and brewpub options, plus vote for the Alfresco Flirts, the metromix summer Reader Review crew. Go to metromix.com/dining
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