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South Loop Chicken Shack Smackdown

(Photo: In Chicago, can a bird by any other name taste as good? Original Credit: Looper.)

As if the death of Marshall Field’s weren’t enough, trouble is brewing yet again between another home-grown Chicago icon and a national interloper. If you frequent the South Loop, get ready for a fried chicken smackdown. Because soon to join the venerable Harold’s Chicken Shack #62 on the same block of South Wabash between Harrison and Balbo…a franchise of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It’s little wonder why KFC wants in on the block. Just across Wabash sits Columbia College, whose hungry students have been frequenting Harold’s #62 for years. Given the chicken shack’s grubby interior and long waits–both fixtures of the citywide chain–the suits at KFC probably think they can outdo Chicago’s south side chicken king.

Except for one thing. Newly arrived college students may not be aware of it, but anybody who’s lived in Hogtown for longer than five minutes knows Harold’s is the best deep-fried bird this side of the deep south. Founded in 1950 on the corner of 47th and Greenwood by self-proclaimed “chicken king” Harold Pierce, the local chain has grown to more than 60 fastidiously numbered chicken shacks, all but one (Wicker Park’s #36) located on the south side of the city. The chicken king’s remarkably loyal fans put up with 15-minute waits (since each bird is custom fried), generally crummy digs, and for north siders, long trips across town, to savor the fried goodness contained on Harold’s expansve menu.

Depending on your shack of choice, that menu can include every possible shape and combination of fried chicken, catfish, and perch, all served on a bed of white bread and fries and, in true Chicago style, slathered in various savory sauces including Harold’s famous, nuclear hot sauce. Each chicken shack decides on the menu variations, so the items available from shack to shack–and the food quality (as reported in this Chicago Reader PDF)–can vary greatly.

By comparison, with KFC’s corporate name comes a higher level of uniformity: patrons know what the menu will look like and exactly how the fried goods will taste from store to store. That’s a good thing, and its a wonder Harold’s has stood for the wide disparity in quality that still exists across its numerous Hogtown chicken shacks. And KFC is making, er, no bones about its product, either. In a new, back-to-its roots marketing push, the South Loop store will be among the first local KFC’s to be rebranded (or is that un-rebranded) with the chain’s full old name, “Kentucky Fried Chicken”.

Furthermore, almost certainly, the new KFC will offer cleaner booths, a more modern HVAC system (i.e. it will actually have one), and far shorter waits, all at similar prices to Harold’s #62. For anyone in the South Loop wanting to grab a quick fried bird amid clean, comfy digs, KFC will pose a seductive presence.

But chain-store uniformity comes at a price. Should KFC manage to dethrone the chicken king from his South Loop throne, that would mean no more cast of neighborhood regulars shooting the breeze while waiting for their 15-minutes of fry to be up, no more Harold’s hot sauce, no more fried catfish, for that matter no more about 20 items on Harold’s much larger food menu.

Still, given how long Harold’s has persevered in the face of various KFC, Church’s, and Popeye’s onslaughts throughout the years, throughout Chicago, I don’t doubt the chicken king will give the Kentucky colonel a run for his money on South Wabash. I know I’ll continue to frequent good-old chicken shack #62. The colonel’s bird may come in a snazzier box. But you can’t make a sandwich out of white bread, nuclear hot sauce, and french fries when you get to the bottom of the container. That’s one reason-defying local delicacy I doubt you’ll see copied at KFC.

And given how long I’ve lived in Hogtown, it’s one I refuse to do without.

Categories: Food and Drink

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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6 replies

  1. Yeah the Harold’s in the B is pretty good too! It was actually opened by some guys from Bloomington w/the help of their frat brother who lives in Chi.

  2. KFC is a mediocre product, although when you’re stoned and drunk that mashed potato bowl full of gravy, corn, and chicken is pretty goddamn good. Otherwise I’m a Popeye’s guy, but if I’m going to be a chicken-snotty San Franciscan I’ll go to Brother In Law’s Barbecue in the Western Addition (the cab rides there and back are worth it…it’s amazing).

    And that’s about enough out of me.

  3. Man I miss Harold’s. And alas I’ve never been to the one near Harrison, but at least there are others around the loop. It’s possible that Harold’s will survive on Wabash.

  4. Cheryl – me too. There is one hideous looking Pizza Hut by my ‘el’ stop at Division (Blue Line), I am mystified at how it remains in business.

  5. Hey….we have a Harold’s Chicken Shack down here in Bloomington, Illinois! It’s been here nearly two years, opened by some former Chicagoans who REALLY missed Harold’s 🙂 GREAT CHICKEN!

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