Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Illinois Fried Chicken Trail

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Where to get the best fried chicken in Illinois

Illinois has a rich fried chicken culture. Huh? It might not sound right right but it's true. In fact this post is/was without a doubt my longest running project. You could say it started back around when this blog first got going and I was exploring the Midwest region through food. One thing I've learned since then is you're never far from some good fried chicken when you're out enjoying Illinois. To prove so I'm going to feature 15 places I've tried over the last decade or so that are known for their fried chicken. Some of them are better than others but they all have a long history in their respective communities and I'll touch on how and why within each places description. I'd thought about including Chicago in this list but decided against it just bc the states largest city has a 'Fried Chicken Trail' all it's own and I've covered most of it over the years. Whether it's the mild drenched chicken at Harold's that's so popular on the South Side or the Saucy Fried Chicken from Uncle Remus that they love on the West Side I've explored most of the city's best fried chicken shops. But I'll remind everyone that on the Southeast side of the city they like their fried chicken served with a neon orange sauce. Then there's the marketing brilliant styles that are butter chicken from Mini Hut and Broaster Chicken from places like Chicken Inn. Is the city's best fried chicken a recipe by way of the Dominican Republic? Maybe. Heck even the local Jewels make some pretty great fried chicken. But today we focus in on some long time spots outside of the city. The type of places you might catch Guy Fieri rolling into.  


Pics from The Illinois Fried Chicken Trail 

Crandall's Restaurant (Hebron, IL)

If you're eating fried chicken anywhere near the Illinois and Wisconsin border it's likely broasted chicken. Broaster Chicken is a food equipment and manufacturing company. They make pressure fryers, and sell / license the equipment and recipes to restaurants across the country. The company is headquartered in Beloit which is why it's so big around the Northern Illinois and Wisconsin areas. Crandall’s in Hebron won the Broaster Company's Golden Chicken Award for Operator Excellence. It's been a popular spot for residents on both sides of the IL/WI state line since 1969. All you can eat broasted chicken served family style and homemade pies are the big draw. A trip to Crandall's is very Northwoods-esque with it's old time dimly lit dining rooms and a bar with large animal heads greeting you from above. If either of these things or the thought of eating 10+ pieces of fried chicken isn't your thing you can also take chicken dinners to go which is what I did. Diners get a 1/2 chicken served with standard frozen food service fries or house mashed red potatoes with homemade chicken gravy which is the better choice. The fried chicken is clearly cooked in batches (for AYCE purposes) so it's not as crisp as I like it but it's also pretty good as is the case with most fried chicken. 

Fried Chicken Dinner at Crandall's Restaurant 

Chick-N-Dip (Hampshire, IL)

I highly recommend taking a summer trip to the Chik ‘n Dip in Hampshire which is about 56 miles west of Chicago. They’ve been serving broasted chicken and ice cream since 1960. The former of which is made using the previously mentioned Broaster Company equipment. The technique of pressure frying was invented by L. A. M. Phelan in the early 1950’s. Today it’s marketed by the Broaster Company out of Beloit. They supply the equipment and supplies needed to make the chicken to over 5000 places most of which are in the Midwest. Because they offer a variety of marinades and seasonings this means each spot using their equipment is producing a slightly different product. I can’t verify that evrry single spot uses something different but I can say that the fried chicken from Chick-N-Dip has the thinnest most brittle skin I’ve ever had when it comes to this style. It’s fried to order so it was also extra crunchy outside and nice and juicy inside. The fries are average but the slaw was above par. 

Fried Chicken Basket at Chick 'n Dip 

Mulkey's Restaurant (Rock Island, IL) 

This family owned spot in the Quad Cities has been an area favorite since 1955. They too use a pressure fryer which I was surprised to learn doesn't come from the Broaster Company. Mulkey's uses a Henny Penny brand pressure fryer which first debuted in 1957. That same year the founding father of Mulkey's, Bob Mulkey, purchased one of these fryers and then Mulkey's was born. I'm not sure where or when they peaked but I read that there's very few Henny Penny franchise's left with Mulkey's being one of them. These spots still use the secret breading mix that gives this chicken what Mulkey's describes as "an old-school taste". Because these Henny Penny fryers cook chicken the same way as the Broaster company I didn't notice a difference in Mulkey's fried chicken from other spots that use a pressure cooker. It's a lighter breading that's not highly seasoned but also not bland.

Fried Chicken Dinner at Mulkey's Restaurant 

Lothson's Karry-Out (Dekalb, IL)

There's very little info online about Lothson's but it's the definition of a mom and pop shop. Ran by a husband and wife team who to my knowledge are the only people that work here. The Karry-Out, as some call it, is a step back into time with it's neon chicken sign and minimal menu featuring fried chicken and perch. A sign outside says they've been open since 1949. The inside of the place certainly feels like not much has changed in more than 60 years. The fried chicken is fried to order so locals tend to call ahead. It wasn't highly seasoned but it was extra juicy due to a fantastic fry job. Some fresh cut fries, cole slaw, and a dinner roll accompanied the chicken when ordered as a dinner. 

Fried Chicken Dinner at Lothson's Karry-Out  

The Country School (Rochelle, IL)

Here's another stop on the I-88 west trail. If you grew up in Rochelle you learned about fried chicken at the Country School Restaurant. It’s been a town fixture for over 50 years. Fried Bird and Ice Cream being their specialties. While this wasn’t the best I’ve had in Illinois it was still damn good. That’s the thing with fried chicken, the gap between the fast food spots and the places that make the best of the best isn’t that all that far and wide. So whatever your favorite fried chicken joint might be the gap between it and a place like Popeye’s isn’t as wide as other foods like pizza, burgers, or tacos. 

Fried Chicken at The Country School

BBY Carry Out (Dixon, IL)

Continuing along on the I-88 West route aka Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway brings us into Dixon. The 40th US President spent his youth in Dixon, IL - Home of BBY Chicken. They’ve been serving takeout fried bird since the 80’s. While there’s a few spots to sit inside your best bet is to bring your box of chicken across the street to the public park on the Rock River. The thick crisp bird has that golden hue that lets you know it’s the real deal as soon as you see it. Paired with the scenic backdrop it makes for a great lunch. Also of note is their signature orange dipping sauce. Some sort of honey mustard / thousand island concoction. Not much different than the namesake sauce at Chik-Fil-A.  

Fried Chicken from BBY Carryouts 

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket (Willowbrook, IL)

Two of the more historic fried chicken stops in the Chicagoland area can be found in the city's Southwest suburbs. One of them is Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket out in DuPage County. It had been more than a decade in-between visits to this Route 66 institution for me. It began as a simple lunch counter selling sandwiches at a gas station along Route 66 in the 1920’s and then it switched over to fried chicken in 1938 when two local ladies convinced the owner to ditch the gas and add fried chicken. These days it kind of lives off that legacy. If you liked shake n bake type chicken as a kid you’ll love this iconic Illinois stop. Someone told me they fry their chicken at a lower temp than normal but I'm not sure what their thesis is for why. They do have one of the best neons left on old Route 66.

Fried Chicken at Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket 

White Fence Farm (Romeoville, IL)

White Fence Farm is the other historic South Suburbs fried chicken business. It's original campus like location is in Romeoville but they have carry out shops in Downers Grove, Riverside, Plainfield, and Joliet. They also had a location in Denver, Colorado but it closed for good not too long ago. I called the original location a campus bc it's exactly that. About the size of a small town high school with a dining room that can seat 100's of people as well as a petting farm, museum, and a completely separate building where they do takeout seven days a week, the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday. It's location on old Route 66 dates back to the 1920's when a local Coal Company CEO opened a restaurant across from his 450-acre Lemont horse farm, where thoroughbred racehorses were bred, boarded and trained. The story goes that "Jack Peabody often had weekend guests at his horse farm, but there was no restaurant in the area where he could entertain them – so he started one himself". White Fence Farm was enjoyed by the famous 1920's restaurant critic Duncan Hines. I also enjoyed a recent visit since I hadn't been in forever. The chicken here is pressure cooked and refrigerated in bulk before being individually flash-fried to order. I have to say I liked it much more than I thought I would. It's some juicy chicken and I've always loved mashed potatoes served with it. The dinner includes half of a bird, mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, cole slaw and fritters. 

Fried Chicken Dinner at White Fence Farm 

Sip-n-Snack (Mendota, IL)

The fried chicken found in and around the Lasalle County area is largely regarded as the best in the state. You'd be hard pressed to find another region in the Land of Lincoln who likes fried chicken as much as those that come from here. Almost every restaurant in the area serves it and everyone has a favorite spot they like to get fried chicken from. About an hour and 45 minutes west of Chicago is the town of Mendota. Home of Sip-N-Snack. The fried chicken served from here is very similar to that at Rip’s (read on). I don’t know if there’s a connection between the two but I would not be surprised if that was the case. The atmosphere here is pretty festive but their hours are somewhat limited. The chicken has that crisp batter that’s become synonymous with Rips. A contender for the best in-state. 

Fried Chicken at Sip-n-Snack 

Rip's Tavern (Ladd, IL)

Anyone that’s been down to Starved Rock knows it’s a beautiful state park. That said I use trips there as an excuse to come to here. Rip’s is my pick for best fried chicken in the world. I know it’s a bold claim but I love crunch and you can’t get it crunchier than this. It’s battered but I call it shattered bc the crust does just that when pressure is applied. Unknown to many Lasalle County and the Illinois River Valley area is one of the great fried chicken regions in the nation. Everyone from down here has a favorite spot and Rip’s is the most popular. They’ve been at it since 1936 and show no signs of slowing down. More times than not there’s a line to dine but they have a system that makes it so that your chicken is arrives shortly after you sit down. Each meal at Rip’s starts with an amuse bouche of slurry and pickles. Slurry being the crispy little bits of batter that fall off the chicken when frying. They’re a treat paired with sliced pickles. The fries are also fantastic but they're an afterthought as that chicken is worth the ride alone. Why is fried chicken so big in these parts? My best educated guess is it came with miners who moved to the area from places like Kentucky and West Virginia looking for work at the turn of the century. The 1909 Cherry Mine disaster occurred one town over. 

Fried Chicken at Rip's Tavern 

Veruchhi's Ristorante (Spring Valley, IL)

I recently decided it was time to finally try this 106 year old Spring Valley institution. It’s pronounced Ver-u-key’s and anyone that’s from the area has celebrated something or another here. It’s one of those rare old school Italian spots where there’s no pizza on the menu. Instead it’s all about fried chicken which is the name of the game down here. You can make a serious case that this little pocket of the state along the Illinois River is one of the best places in the country to eat fried chicken. As previously mentioned there’s a connection to the old Italian mining community some of whom probably came from West Virginia and Kentucky. So one of the most common sides served with fried chicken in these parts is tortellini that’s regionally referred to as 'ravs'. These are almost always served with a meat sauce marinara and sometimes served alongside spaghetti. The four piece dinner at Veruchhi's nets you some really well fried chicken with zero traces of grease and plenty of crunch. It can compete with the popular spot one town over (Rip's Tavern). What Rip's doesn’t have though are the aforementioned ravs and some really good homemade hash browns. I'll be back for all three. 

Fried Chicken Dinner at Veruchhi's

Mona's Italian Foods (Toluca, IL)

Nildo “Mona” Arthur Bernardi founded Mona’s Italian Restaurant as a bustling beer parlor in Toluca (31 miles North of Peoria) in 1933. He and many other Italians had immigrated to Toluca to work the coal mines that were prevalent in Central Illinois at the time. It's possible that the regions love for tortellini pasta aka "ravs" comes from Mona's which has featured this pasta since it's beer hall days. In fact there's a factory in Toluca where they make frozen tortellini and the family that started that company now owns Mona's (they sold the company to Keebler originally and it's now owned by Windsor Foods). Mona's small little bar has morphed into a full fledged restaurant / banquet hall that today can sit more than 200 people. The family that owns Mona's also owns another Italian restaurant down the block it used to compete with called Capponi's which opened in 1934. Both spots sport some top notch neon signs and are popular dinner options for fried chicken and spaghetti / ravs. 

Fried Chicken and Ravs at Mona's Italian Foods

Midway Duck Inn (Low Point, IL)

Up and down the Illinois River you'll find spots like the Midway Duck Inn. It's a real road house type place that attracts bikers and families with it's popular pan fried chicken. If it's warm outside they have a really nice patio with their location on the river and all. This chicken tasted like it had honey so I asked the cook who said no but that they brine with brown sugar. It comes served with fresh cut fries and a warm fresh fried corn fritter. Delicious. We caught a sick sunset along the river post dinner too.

Fried Chicken Dinner at Midway Duck Inn

Gil's Supper Club (Hanna City, IL)

Next stop up! Gil’s Supper Club here in the tiny town of Hanna City, IL about 20 minutes west of Peoria. Gil's Supper Club is said by many to serve the best fried chicken in Central Illinois and it's certainly some of the better in state. I thought the breading was similar to Popeyes original (it wasn’t spicy). The Sunday special ($9.50) gets you two pieces of fried chicken a half order of spaghetti. Also included was a house salad and some terrific corn fritters. Gil's claims that "to get a better piece of fried chicken, you have to be a rooster" and there's many from the Peoria area that would agree. They've been dishing out their famous fried chicken in an old supper club setting since 1962. Only about 1,200 people live in Hanna City but Gil's goes through about 1,500 lbs of chicken a week. 

Sunday Special Fried Chicken Dinner at Gil's Supper Club

Mick & Mary's (Thayer, IL)

Nestled in a very quiet area of a very small town (pop. 706) is one of Sangamon County's oldest watering holes. The drive here feels like you may have missed a turn and maybe that's bc it's an old prohibition bar. It's located just off the old Route 66 and in 1926 when it opened it was called Maggie's, named after the bootleg owners wife. The business was remodeled into a restaurant in the late 1930's but a fire claimed the original building in the 40's or 50's. The current building was built shortly after that and the business changed names with new owners in 1957. The original menu at Maggie's consisted of fried chicken, homemade bread, house canned peppers, and spaghetti. The new owners later added steaks and their now popular pork chops but the fried chicken remains their biggest draw. It comes served with some fresh cut fries, spaghetti with an extra meaty sauce, and a scoop of corn that was likely from the can (our visit was in the winter). We loved the food and setting. 

Fried Chicken Dinner at Mick & Mary's

Map of the Illinois Fried Chicken Trail 

See ya next time @chibbqking 


Kyle said...

Lived in DeKalb for 7 years and ate my fair share of Lothson's. Great chicken every single time. This was unfortunately during the Trans Fat ban in Illinois and the taste did suffer a bit. Still great food and hidden gem.

Josefa said...

Still lamenting the loss of Lanuti's. It was across the street from Rip's and when I first opened the post and saw the picture, I had my hopes up that it had reopened. The fried chicken and turtle soup there were the best.

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