Fried Food. It's practically one of the basic Chicago food groups along with cheesy and saucy. The city's South and West sides are noted for their various chicken stands. But with new "rinky dink" eateries opening what seems like everyday, it can be easy to consume an inferior supper most fowl. For this edition of Chicago Food Wars two of Chicago's best fried chicken fortresses will be highlighted. In one corner, representing the areas of Chatham, Auburn and all other regions of the Southside, Harold's Chicken Shack. In the other corner, the more obscure food haven, hailing from the streets of the likes of Austin and Humboldt Park near the Westside, Uncle Remus.
When researching the history of both businesses I was left the proverbial which came first, chicken-egg, sort of situation. After some extensive "googling" and searching via small business website, Manta.com, it turns out that Harold's was indeed founded first, with the earliest shack opening nearly 55 years ago! While the earliest Uncle Remus was open a mere 15 years in comparison. Despite this, Uncle Remus' crunchy coating remains a big contender against the established recipe of Harold's. Which would win? I, Shavon "Vonnie" Coleman, on behalf of 4-Star Explorer was poised to find out.
Myself and 4-Star Explorer's part-time photographer and errand boy, Christopher Thompson scoured various rating websites and along with feedback from readers like you (why do I suddenly feel like I'm pandering for the latest WTTW marathon?), we nailed downed one of the best locations for each business; Harold's Chicken Shack #55 located at 100 West 87th Street and Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken located at 5611 West Madison. There wasn't really much to judge when it came to decor and service. Both offer an old school minimalistic approach to decorating, Harold's went so far as to have retro arcade games like Galaga. And in true city etiquette, the service left much to be desired. Don't expect any sirs, ma'ams, or thank yous here. One restaurant even went so far as to answer the phone to haughtily ask, "what do you want?" But hey, rudeness is pretty much a second language where I'm from and I've long since learned how to place my city armor on. Place your order, lean up against a corner, don't look around too much, grab your order and haul ass. Throw in a couple of lip smacks and eye rolls and I'm sure you could pass for a bona fide Chicagoan any day.
In hopes of keeping Chicago Food Wars ever evolving it was decided to do the judging process slightly different from the usual. In 4-Star Explorer's first ever blind taste test, wings from each restaurant were taken and placed in a clear tupperware box with no identifying marks or labels. A sample of each wing was tried, with a drink of water in between as to not let the previous saucy deliciousness from the previous sample linger, and the participants made a decision ol' Column A or Column B style. The wings from each competitor were drizzled with the exquisite blessing known as mild sauce. What is essentially barbeque sauce mixed with ketchup and some other odd ingredients, regardless of the varying processes in it's creation, mild sauce has existed almost exclusively in Chicago and is just as renowned as the chicken havens themselves.
Acting as a halfway point between the two business we decided to set up this palatable procedure in University of Illinois at Chicago's Student Resource Center near Roosevelt and Halsted. When we entered the large entertainment and eatery centered structure we expected the walls to be vibrating with the sounds of hungry and bored college students. Friendly Mathematics major, Veronica Magdaleno, alerted us that students were still out on winter break. But she rekindled our hopes as along with being a statistics expert she proved quite the social coordinator as Veronica took the recruiting reigns and gathered many of her friends by either pulling them while walking through various corridors and even reaching out via cellphone. Her efforts did not go unappreciated as she helped organize our first panel of testers: Jed Surio, Bria Henderson, and Brice Mosby.
After serving the first sample, which unbeknown to the subjects was Harold's, we got some interesting feedback. Jed loved the tangy taste of the mild sauce in combination with the breading. Brice who is a self proclaimed Chicago Fried Chicken PhD immediately blurted out that the sample wing must have had it's origin from Harold's. The most common critique given, though the mild sauce was exquisite when doused on the wing, the meat itself without coating was bland. After cleaned palates and chicken bones disposed, the subjects took back to the flavor field research and tried the second sample of Uncle Remus, which again they were not alerted to. Instantly a better response. Subjects loved the crunchier exterior of the wing. They mentioned that the sauce in sample one was sweeter, but sample two's sauce didn't overpower the meat. And Jed could of sworn he tasted a hint of honey oozing from the wing's fleshy core. The decision was unanimous, in a true upset, Uncle Remus swept the board! Though both wings were divine in taste it was Uncle Remus' distinct lacing of a buttery honeyed sort of flavor, that made it easy to clobber it's more unseasoned competitor, Harold's. "It was like the breading, sauce, and seasoning were in a perfect harmony," exclaimed Brice.
After the experiment another friend of Veronica's, Mike Brooks, showed up as we were clearing away the remnants soiled napkins and coating debris. We decided to use his comments as a wild card sampling seeing as he had never tasted Harold's nor Uncle Remus. We applied the same testing with one minor difference, we switched the order of each wing served, this time choosing to serve Uncle Remus first and Harold's second. With no prior warning or discussion of results we were amazed to find that the critiques were almost dead on to the previous test group. Mike emphatically chose Uncle Remus as the superior supper choice, highlighting again that Harold's flesh portion of the wing was bland and unseasoned.
After a long day filled of driving across town in a self imposed race against time and fighting warnings from my bladder as well as stomach, I finally sat down and sampled the two choices myself. Now Uncle Remus is undoubtedly the crunchier crispier treat but I'm not sure if it's my undying loyalty to all things Southside or the fact that I hadn't eaten anything for most of the day but I enjoyed Harold's just a tad more. Well, that's all for this installment of Chicago Food Wars. We want you to weigh in. Sound off in our comments section and let us know who offers the perfect poultry platter?
Thanks so much to Veronica for her help rounding up some subjects as well as the participants for offering their time, guts, and feedback.
- Pictured l to r: Shavon "Vonnie" Coleman, Veronica Magdaleno, Bria Henderson, Brice Mosby, Jed Surio
For more pictures from our first ever Chicago Food Wars Blind Taste Test check out our facebook page at Facebook.com/4StarExplorer and don't forget to hit the "like" button! Got any other Chicago culinary contenders you'd like to see matched up? Email us at email@example.com.