It’s not like I’m choosing sides in a NYC bagel war, or somehow claiming to know which joint in L.A.’s Thai Town makes the best khao soi, but when you start ranking fried chicken, I know the haters are waiting in the wings, so to speak, ready to pounce. Although I’m not sure I’m going to get a lot of argument from this list, as I’ve been to each of these places – as well as their brethren throughout the city – several times. I compiled a list just over a year ago, but knew it was time to weigh-in again with a few newcomers. In general, the best birds tend to be Amish or free-range, brined first, then dredged in seasoned flour; occasionally, buttermilk is involved or fine cracker meal; other times, five spice is employed at the end, as an exterior Asian whisper. Each of these versions is slightly varied, but I guarantee none of them will disappoint. Next week: best chicken sandwiches in Chicago.
4009 N. Albany; (312) 857-4221
Like Guy Fieri confronted with a bottle of Donkey Sauce, I was immediately smitten with the fried chicken at Smalls. This, after having eaten the elote, the spare ribs and the ethereal brisket bibimbop (another one of my Something You Should Eat awhile back). You know you’re in for a good time when juice is seen exiting the scene of your bite – kind of like an Italian beef experience. The skin, burnished a golden, deep amber, is almost teeth-shatteringly crisp, and the fact they dust it in a bit of five spice lends the slightest hint of clove and cinnamon, but never overpowers. Get it to go, or just eat it at the adjacent Lizard’s Liquid Lounge, where you can grab a beer to go with it.
2940 N. Broadway; (773) 697-7610
One of the keys to Crisp’s Korean fried chicken (the original KFC), is frying it twice, like a great French fry, first in a pressure fryer, then a second time to-order. You could leave it at that, and go with the Plain Jane, but I would strongly recommend either the BBQ – engulfed in an assertive Korean gogjujang paste with just enough kick to keep you awake at night – or my favorite, the Seoul Sassy, coated in a sweet/tangy sauce combining sesame, garlic and soy. Loyalists of Super H Mart in Niles will claim Toreore Chicken & Joy is superior, but they would be wrong.
1467 W. Irving Park Rd.; (312) 971-7540
Carolina native Joe Scroggs started off with a food truck, which led to a brick-and-mortar store in the old N.N. Smokehouse space across from Lakeview High School. He serves three varieties of chicken, all of them notable for the wonderful ratio of crispy, fried skin to juicy, moist meat: Herb Seasoned is bathed in a buttermilk brine for at least 24 hours; his Spicy chicken is bathed in a similarly long brine, infused with hot sauce; finally, the Nashville Hot is brined, then brushed with a ground pepper paste similar to a wet rub, just after the bird exits the deep fryer. All of the chicken is dredged in flour then fried for about 10 minutes in vegetable oil. Cooled briefly before serving, $9 will get you a quarter bird with 2 sides. Note: they just started delivering in the Loop during lunch on weekdays.
1138 S. California Ave.; (773) 801-0451
Owner Larry Tucker made his reputation nearly 20 years ago, smoking ribs and brisket at N.N. Smokehouse on Irving Park Rd. (current site of Roost). Tucker briefly resurfaced a few years ago, running a family-friendly joint on West Grand Ave. (in the original Wishbone space), then more recently, in Lawndale, just a block from the park on a stretch of South California Avenue desperately in need of some restaurants. He inherited a smoker, which gets used to make rib tips on the weekends, but the rest of the week he focuses on his family’s recipe for fried chicken, involving – you guessed it – a buttermilk brine, a dredge and a fry in canola oil. His sides could use some help, save for the excellent collards and candied yams, but who really cares; it’s all about the bird here.
60 E. Grand Ave.; (312) 379-5637
I know, crazy, right? You thought this muscular, stone crab-laden boy’s club was all about the steak and seafood, when in fact, there’s a dark horse on the menu: the fried chicken. The chicken is dredged in seasoned flour, dipped into an egg wash, then dragged through a vat of finely-ground cracker crumbs, which evenly coat each piece like a neoprene North Face jacket. Fried until it’s golden brown, the bird remains moist inside and yet extra crispy (just for the hell of it, dip the skin into Joe’s mustard sauce. You’re welcome).
3947 S. King Dr.; (773) 536-3300
Southern comfort in Bronzeville with a side of starch and maple syrup
52 W. Elm St.; (312) 573-4000
Art Smith’s homage to his Southern childhood