Chicago's Harold's is the Best Bad Fried Chicken on Earth

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[Photographs: Layne Dixon]

If you're on the streets of Chicago and see a trail of bones along the curb, follow them. These are your breadcrumbs. Because you don't need a smartphone app to eat well in this city. You need only look for the gnarled wingtips that point toward the storefront illustrated with a chicken fleeing for its life, pursued by a hatchet-wielding chef. This is the red carpet to Harold's, the best bad fried chicken on Earth.

All fried chicken is good food, though there is good fried chicken and better fried chicken. And then there's bad fried chicken, the kind that's too greasy for its own good or blitzkrieged by salt or sheathed in a coating of skin that slips right off the meat on first bite. But bad fried chicken is still better food than most good everything else, and replete with its own baroque pleasures, distinct from and at times even superior to the so-called good stuff. Good fried chicken strives toward something clean and somehow refined, unsullied by grease and excess salt. Bad fried chicken is the no-holds-barred, most direct route on the pursuit of pure pleasure, and in this regard, Harold's has no equal.

Though shared iconography—the madcap man chasing the chicken, bold yellows and reds painted on the decor, and a fair amount of bulletproof glass—suggests that Harold's is a chain like KFC or Popeye's, each Harold's Chicken Shack is an independently owned franchisee with its own quirks. So while the menu is more or less the same from shack to shack, quality and exact procedures can and do vary wildly. There are now dozens of Harold's, mostly around the South Side of Chicago, though some as far out as Detroit, MI and Madison, WI. They open and close regularly, making an exact headcount difficult. A Vegas effort that debuted in 2010 didn't last long.

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What each Harold's has in common is a commitment to always juicy, aggressively seasoned meat with a peppery, craggly skin that's brutish in its crunch but with all the structural integrity of a grease-splattered negligé. There are two completely unnecessary but delightful sauces—a candy-sweet "mild" barbecue and a viciously hot vinegar that'll bring tears to your eyes. And there are glorious, terrible fries, sogged into submission both by their own fryer oil and the chicken juices dripping down onto them.

There's a fine line between juicy fried chicken and recklessly greasy fried chicken, and Harold's crosses it with glee. Take a bite of thigh or drumstick and you may find a river of juice running down your chin. That's a trait more associated with burgers than fried chicken, but Harold's often has a brawny, burger-like aspect; at many locations, the chicken is fried in a mix of vegetable oil and beef tallow.

A flood of beef fat and the sting of hot sauce aren't enough to make great bad fried chicken. What sets Harold's apart from its bad-fast-food brethren is an uncompromisingly good-fast-food tradition: cooking your meal to order. If you place an order at Harold's, you better expect to wait at least a good 10 minutes, as par-fried chicken is finished in hot oil to turn the skin as crisp as possible. Harold's doesn't keep; the skin loses its essential crunch and the meat starts to turn tough. Serve it fresh, though, and it's a whole different story—impeccably juicy, the fries underneath your half-dark still a tad crisp before they're overwhelmed by fryer grease and rendered schmaltz.

At the city's busiest Harold's, in the heart of downtown, the cooks often break this rule and cook large batches completely in advance, rather than the par-cook, finish-fresh method they're supposed to adhere to. The chicken suffers, particularly during the lunch rush. Which is why I prefer the Harold's around the South Side, where the quality's generally higher. Yes, you'll sometimes have to wait a while. Take a seat at a formica table and place an advance order of fries. The chicken will be yours soon enough.

The Hometown Hero

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We spend some time and get some wine have some milds from Harold's I told her this here's overrated but I love your city baby — Wale, That Way

Harold's offers the geographical coverage of a chain with the idiosyncrasies of a local chicken joint. That means chicken shack employees aren't bound by a corporate veneer of faux-friendliness. Here is my favorite Harold's story, told to me second-hand, so it's likely apocryphal yet also entirely believable:

Cashier: I have an order for six chicken dinners! Customer: That's for me. Cashier: Is that for here or to go? Customer: Excuse me? You think I'm going to sit here and eat six chicken dinners by myself? Cashier: Bitch, I don't know your life!

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Harold's unique position in Chicago as the local-chain-that-isn't runs deeper than good chicken and occasionally quarrelsome staff. In the country's most segregated city with a history of rampant social and economic inequality, Harold's isn't just a restaurant; it's a hometown hero.

"It's definitely important to the black community in Chicago," says Mike Sula, a Chicago food journalist who's probably eaten at more Harold's locations than anyone. "Fast food chains are all over the South Side now, but Harold's was the first, and most of the locations are black-owned."

Harold Pierce opened his first chicken shack on 47th Street and Greenwood back in 1950. It didn't take long for the chicken to become a local hit and, as Sula reports, subsequent Harold's locations were opened by friends and family under trademark licensing agreements. But even as Harold's grew to five, 10, and eventually dozens of locations, Pierce remained content to be the local "chicken king, but not a dictator."

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"He helped people start franchises but then let them go off on their own." There was never a conscious effort to open Harold's in food desert neighborhoods; rather, "Pierce was [simply] providing business opportunities."

Today's Harold's management is a little more hands-on; CEO Kristen Pierce (Harold Pierce's daughter) is trying to institute more quality control among locations, both in the chicken and the decor. But the franchise's independent spirit is hardwired into its DNA, and even Pierce admits "we definitely can't force anyone to do anything."

It's tricky business positioning a fried chicken franchise as an instrument of economic empowerment. Opening a chicken joint is hardly the path to financial greatness, and even the best fried chicken isn't as good as a basic source for affordable groceries. But that's not Harold's fight. And consider it this way: Kendrick Lamar didn't talk about flying his private jet to Popeye's.

I don't have a jet to settle my Harold's cravings. But if I did, there are few places in Chicago I'd fly it to before the chicken king.