In the 2006 underground classic “Harold’s 6 Piece,” the south-side hip-hop crew Dip Unit paid homage to the ungovernable craving that arises at the mere suggestion of a trip to Harold’s Chicken Shack. Set to the infectious refrain “Mild sauce, fried hard,” the four-and-a-half-minute YouTube video was a sincere, unsolicited, viral advertisement for the venerable fried-chicken kingdom, a fast-food empire that’s grown steadily for 63 years, mostly out of sight and mind of the great majority of white Chicago.
Meanwhile, on the north side, fried chicken (like burgers, pizza, and tacos before it) is in the early stages of an upscale renaissance—at Andersonville’s southern-revivalist Big Jones, at the highly anticipated Honey Butter Fried Chicken (due to open later this summer in Avondale), and now at Parson’s Chicken & Fish, a perpetually mobbed Logan Square facsimile of a fast-food chicken and fish shack brought to you by the folks behind Longman & Eagle. You won’t exchange money for bird through bulletproof glass as you would at a great many Harold’s, but it is fairly likely, depending on the time of day, that you will suffer other indignities, such as sharing an uncomfortable wooden booth with a motley assortment of tightly packed beardos and painted ladies, an extreme manifestation of the increasingly ubiquitous communal table.
Conceptually, Parson’s has as much, if not more, in common with Big Star as it does with a typical Harold’s. It has a great big patio, servicing drinkers with brisk, boozy cocktails and cheap pours of whiskey from a converted shipping container. And it distracts the impatient with a Ping-Pong table set off to the side. For now, when the weather isn’t wet, this is the place to be, as every soldier in the nascent Logan Square stroller militia has discovered.
Whether you can normally abide this milieu or not, you owe yourself the fried chicken—and the fish. The birds are, in the words of Dip Unit, fried hard, in a thin jacket of buttermilk-flour batter, and spiked gently with chile heat. The batter looks almost scorched, fried to the very edge of acceptability, and it clads explosively juicy flesh, adhering faithfully until it shatters like glass to the tooth. Great fried chicken, accessorized by two hot sauces, one red and vinegary, and the other green and vegetal. Neither mild.
The fish, a daily rotating variety of something white and flaky, is expertly fried as well. Pollock, in particular, arrives as lightly battered, hot, fluffy, minimally greasy planks.
It’s difficult to overemphasize the delicacy of the fryer’s art, a juggling act of hot, clean oil, careful process, and impeccable timing. Elusive success yields a product of deceptive simplicity. It’s clear from these two items that the cooks at Parson’s have achieved this balance—and they’re charging for it. The chicken, priced at $24 per whole bird—nearly twice the equivalent amount at a Harold’s—is prohibitive. Same for the fish, at $24 per nine-piece bucket.
But the cooks don’t reserve these skills for just fish and chicken. Ham-and-cream-cheese-larded hush puppies and dense, chewy nuggets of crispy baccala benefit from them as well. And in the dubious event you’d care to finish this parade of lipids with some fried dough, there’s a fancy-pants funnel cake accessorized by honey, brown butter, and a green peppercorn brittle.
The time I’d question the kitchen’s frying skills is in the case of the clam roll: rubbery fried clam strips that are overburdened by bread, lettuce, and pickled peppers. Structural problems also exist on the shrimp toast, a thick slab of the restaurant’s Texas toast (which, along with a creamy slaw, comes with chicken and fish buckets), piled high with a creme fraiche-tossed shrimp salad—delicious but, given its ungainly construction, a pain in the ass to eat.
Nonfried items are represented by the likes of a delicate arugula salad with feathery grated Parmesan and shaved fennel, asparagus, and radish that’s the embodiment of spring on a plate; a chickpea-and-grilled-octopus salad seasoned with Moroccan spice; and pimento cheese toasts tarted up with pickly radishes.
The kitchen really shows grace under pressure when it comes to raw oysters, with a single east- and west-coast variety available each day. On one visit, when the restaurant had just opened, I received a dozen of some of the more perfectly shucked oysters I’ve ever encountered, brimming with liquor and not a flake of nacreous shrapnel to corrupt the creature’s body. I ordered them again when the kitchen was much busier and found them just as good.
It’s this level of competence that gives me hope for Parson’s when the short patio season ends. Despite its emphasis on chicken, the restaurant is just as devoted to drinking, with respectable selections of spirits, beer, and, to a lesser extent, wine, and about a half-dozen house cocktails, including a brain-bending, beautifully bitter Negroni slushy squirted from a machine behind the bar, and one of the most delicious, savory-salty micheladas I’ve ever encountered.
But despite its current popularity, I’m not sure Parson’s will ever inspire Dip Unit-level passion. It’s too rarefied in both price and accessibility to be that beloved. Sure, there’s a projected 40-seat indoor expansion in the works, but when the weather turns, Parson’s tiny dining room and indoor bar will become intolerable. That’s why it needs to ramp up a carryout methodology, stat—and perhaps put that 1977 Chevy El Camino parked idly outside in service as a delivery vehicle.