Last August the Department of Health shut down Harold’s Chicken Shack No. 2, and a sign went up indicating it would reopen under a new owner. This was upsetting–the dingy little storefront on the 3100 block of South Cottage Grove was my first and favorite Harold’s. It remained one of my favorites even after I’d eaten chicken at 34 other Harold’s this past year.
The ordering area was grubby and dark, but fried yardbird did not get more decadent than a half regular with hot sauce at No. 2. A peppery lightly battered leg, thigh, breast, and wing were bedded on a nest of crispy shoestring fries atop two slices of white bread. The bird was drenched in a vinegary, bright orange sauce and boxed in cardboard, whereupon a unique series of reactions occurred: The hot sauce soaked into the crunchy batter, then slowly dripped from the chicken and mingled with the hot grease. This solution then seeped into the underbelly of potatoes and bread, and as the chicken was consumed, bits of cracklings fell into the net of fries, creating a miraculous open-faced sandwich worthy of peer review in Alchemy Today. But it’s not the same at every shack, and it’s near impossible to predict which ones fry good chicken. Counterintuitively, a few of the brightest, cleanest, and busiest sling the most manky, discouraging poultry outside of a crab trap. Most fall in a middle ground.
While training to be the poster boy for acid reflux, I attempted to mathematically evaluate each shack within the city limits, excluding suburban stores and the handful operating out of state. I developed a list of 14 criteria to be judged on a scale of 1 to 10. These included grease, a controversial category given that a low score due to too much grease might result in a higher score in the next category, the fries-bread-grease ratio. Next was size. Some shacks pushed scrawny birds, others served brawny brutes. The juiciness factor was determined primarily by how moist the breast was. The flavor score was enhanced by chicken that stood up to the competing flavors of grease, batter, and seasoning. Oil–did the frying medium taste old or rancid?
The freshness category was an important one. Was the chicken fried to order, or had it been sitting around all day? The service category was an easy way for a shack to bump up its score–if a chicken slinger displayed a shred of personality or friendliness he received a high mark.
Many, many shacks lowered their overall score with the fries. It’s amazing how rare well-cooked fries are. Packaging counted: was the meal carefully wrapped or tossed in the bag? Cleanliness–were there dead flies trapped between the neon lights and the window? Did the air smell of sour mop water? In decor the shacks that scored highest remained true to Harold’s Pierce’s original restaurant design. Points were awarded for neon and prominent display of the original logo, original artwork, and a framed portrait of Harold Pierce.
I quickly recognized the primary flaw in my evaluative process. Since I only had the guts to visit each of these shacks once, how could I be sure a low-scoring shack wasn’t just having a bad day? For this reason I have determined my system to have a high margin of error; when you’ve eaten at 35 Harold’s Chicken Shacks, you can quibble.
Even so, there was no clear winner. Most shacks scored in the six-to-seven-point range, with a few on the lower end of the scale. The highest score, 8.2143, was for Harold’s No. 55, at 100 E. 87th, one of the newer shacks in the city. Owned by Percy and Carolyn Billings, who run a few others, the bird here was explosively juicy, obviously fried to order in clean, fresh oil. The second-lowest-scoring shack, at 5.1429, was perhaps the busiest, No. 62 at 636 S. Wabash, one of three downtown stores. The chicken here was large, but so gamy and soggy I felt guilty giving it to a panhandler. The shacks with the lowest (No. 40, 4.9231) and second-highest (No. 4B, 8.000) scores are both owned by the same man, Lavern Burnett, who used to deliver chickens for Harold Pierce. With 14 city franchises to his name, he owns more than anyone else.
Then in November, Number 2 reopened under new owners: CBN Inc. I was ambivalent about the news–CBN owns No. 53, which received a very respectable score (7.4286) but also No. 65 (5.5714). Inside the new No. 2 looked just as hopeless as before, though the menu had expanded. Hanging on the wall were about a dozen paper plates markered with sides that departed from Harold’s usual fare: mac ‘n’ cheese, mustard and turnip greens, hush puppies, sweet potato pie, okra, string beans and potatoes, corn bread dressing, baby lima beans. It was hard to see how the single harried guy behind the glass could handle the home-style eats. He was sweating down what sounded like a confounding order over the phone and took a full ten minutes to get to me, apologizing that his helper was out on a delivery. Because of this my chicken took close to 15 minutes to fry. I’m not complaining–it got a 9 for freshness, and the guy threw in an extra wing for my trouble, earning him a 10+ on the service score. But the chicken itself was puny, the breast was dry, and the fries-grease-bread ratio didn’t even approach that of the magical old No. 2, which brought the new store’s score down to a respectable but hardly laudable 6.7143.