The great Chicago fried chicken renaissance of recent years has shown no signs of levelling off. These days, it seems like the city is awash in finger lickin’ options, from Nashville hot to buttermilk brined to Korean and upscale classic American takes to carry-out buckets and barbecue. We’ve tasted our way through Chicago’s ever-growing roster of crispy birds (limiting our search to bone-in, main course-sized portions) to determine which fried chicken dinners are truly winners.
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The best fried chicken in Chicago
Up until now, all attempts to bring Nashville-style hot chicken to Chicago have been hampered by unfortunate missteps, from texturally weird breading to too-viscous, barbecue sauce-like cayenne paste to wimpy spicing. Enter the Budlong, a snug new Lakeview spot frying up hot chicken that hits all the right notes. That is to say, the chicken is briny, the breading is shatteringly crisp, and the cayenne paste that coats it gets you sweating and stains your fingers just the right shade of atomic red. (Four heat levels—“naked,” classic, medium, and extra hot—are available; we find the medium packs a reasonable burn.) In true Nashville fashion, it’s even crowned with a skewer of cooling pickles and served up on a slice of white bread that draws in crumbled crust and spicy drippings like a delicious sponge.
It seems like this haute diner’s burger gets all the love. And we’re fine with that, because it means more General Jane’s Honey-Fried Chicken for us. A playful reworking of the greasy Chinese takeout standard General Tso’s chicken, the dish is anchored by a half-bird that’s exceedingly soft in texture. An almost shell-like breading somehow retains its crunch despite being liberally sauced. And let’s talk about that sauce: It’s thick and sticky, heady with soy and ginger, sweet and at once possessed of a smoldering chili burn that takes a few bites to announce itself but leaves your lips tingling. Um, burger? What burger?
A cheerfully-hip aesthetic all but dares you to dismiss this Avondale spot as a trend-surfing lightweight. Boy, would that be a mistake. The namesake fried chicken—a mix of bone-in drumsticks and boneless breasts and thighs—wears a hearty breading that’s supremely crunchy and fragrant with smoked paprika. Slather it with the sweet, airy house honey butter, which melts and mingles with the poultry’s juices, and you’ve got one of the city’s best takes on fried chicken. Bonus: Chicken orders include petite, crispy-edged corn muffins, perfect for mopping stray butter and breading crumbles from your tray.
In 2015, our city became home to the first northern outpost of beloved Tennessee institution Gus’s. Lucky us; just like at the Volunteer State original, the chicken here has a kick that doesn’t scorch the palette, but rather lingers pleasantly. The breading—all golden-brown ridges and nooks and delicious craggy bits—maintains its structural integrity to the last bite, while the moist chicken beneath (particularly the thigh) practically demands to be picked clean.
Attempting to put her finger on the essence of the chickens in her one-time home of France, Julia Child mused, “They were so good and chickeny.” A similar assessment fits the fried bird at one of Chicago’s most iconic dining institutions, Harold’s: It’s just so fried chickeny. The meat is tender, with a faint funky undertone of grease; the breading savors simply of salt and pepper, and fresh from the fryer, it boasts a pastry-like flakiness—a result, perhaps, of the beef tallow allegedly incorporated into the cooking oil. A vinegary hot sauce adds an optional acid zip.
A trifecta of fats—ham drippings, leaf lard and clarified butter—endow Paul Fehribach’s signature cornmeal-dredged fried chicken with richness and tremendous crunch. It’s served up (with sides of hoppin’ john and biting voodoo greens) in shareable half-bird portions, and while the smaller pieces can be overwhelmed by their crusty cornmeal encasements, the textural ratio clicks into perfect balance with the meatier thigh and breast, whose succulent strata conceal torrents of briny juice.
Judging by the sweet banana ketchup and cucumber “not slaw” served alongside it, you might expect some sort of fusion twist from the fried chicken at this diminutive Irving Park barbecue joint. In fact, it’s one of the most straightforward renditions in town—and one of the tastiest. The tender bird practically bursts with tangy buttermilk brine, while the breading—fried just shy of well done—clings about each piece like a raised relief map, contributing a hint of peppery piquancy and a magnificent bite.
Fluorescent lighting and canary yellow formica are about as much as you’ll get in the way of ambience at this neighborhood favorite, tucked down a side street just off of Archer Avenue in Garfield Ridge. But that chicken, though. Fried to order (veterans know to call 30 minutes in advance), it arrives clad in a mellow gold coating (or “butter crust”) that’s sturdy and salty and satisfyingly crunchy—a beautiful complement to the juicy chicken beneath.
A trio of sauces—BBQ, Seoul Sassy and Buffalo—applied post-fryer give the chicken at this cheerful Lakeview Korean spot the power to assume multiple identities. Personally, we’re total suckers for the Sassy, a sweet but not cloying concoction of ginger and garlic over a deep, dark base note of soy. On occasion, the bird itself can lean toward the dry side—but chances are you’ll be too busy licking your fingers to take much notice.
This Wicker Park newcomer is still buzzing on a turbo shot of hype courtesy of Beyoncé and Jay Z, who hung here after the former’s recent Soldier Field show. Props to them; with its crisp, pleasantly light breading, the house fried chicken (available in traditional and “kickin’” styles) is eminently late-night snack-worthy (even more so with a drizzle of honey). Tender biscuits are part of the package too; though the whipped butter and spiced preserves that accompany them are perfectly serviceable, we recommend splashing out for a side of sharp, creamy pimento cheese. One bone to pick: We wish the kitchen would ramp up the burn on the so-called kickin’ bird, which for now hardly raises a blush.