Route 66 in the News

Chicken is King on Route 66

2011-09-08 17:37:32

CHICAGO, Ill. - Forty-five minutes southwest of downtown, where cities begin announcing their existence on water towers, the mighty fried chicken stands above all celebration foods. Along this stretch of Interstate 55, Sundays play out in orderly ritual: You wake up, don your Sunday best, praise the Lord or the Walmart Supercenter, then bring gramps along for some hot, crispy chicken and coleslaw.

The southwest suburbs elevate fried chicken in a way few other places in the Chicago area do. Loyalties lie with two legendary restaurants: White Fence Farm in Romeoville and Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in Willowbrook.

Between them are 122 years of history, two cartoon chicken mascots (one in chef's hat, one in tuxedo collar), 10 miles of separation along old U.S. Route 66, a billboard war and a billion pieces of chicken, hot-grease-fried during the course of thousands of Sunday afternoons.

White Fence Farm

There are 12 dining rooms inside the massive homestead called White Fence Farm. One is the Red Room, where a few dozen vintage clocks hang, set at various times. Some of the hands stopped spinning long ago. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for a restaurant that refuses to yield to the unstoppable motion of progress.

White Fence Farm doesn't merely suggest or re-create the past; it is the past. The restaurant is as much an antiques museum as a house of fried chicken, displaying the same collector dolls, matte portraits and porcelain trinkets as your Great Aunt Dorothy in her Scottsdale condo. Except here you find waitresses wearing modest green dresses and aprons; busboys in short-sleeve white shirts and bow ties. They are impossibly polite, and your jaw throbs from smiling back. Those who make the hiring decisions tell me they prefer "an old-fashioned plain Jane."

In the 1920s, coal mining executive Stuyvesant Peabody built the restaurant on 450 acres of farmland in the unincorporated outskirts of the middle of nowhere. The construction of U.S. Route 66 drove customers to the farm and built its reputation. In 1954, Robert and Doris Hastert bought the property, spruced up the 150,000-square-foot building and continued the fried chicken tradition (Robert's nephew Dennis would become speaker of the House in Congress).

White Fence Farm was never just about sitting down and eating; it's a half-day multisensory experience that begins with the petting zoo out back (llamas, sheep, the few fortunate chickens). There are musical variety shows performed during lunch and dinner patriotic tinged, always family friendly. Afterward, patrons walk through the arcade games and fun house mirror hall to reach the vintage cars room, where Lincoln Continentals and Ford Model A's are kept behind glass.

Then it's time for chicken, and regular patrons say it tastes the same today, last month, 50 years ago. There's little waiting around. Immediately, the waitress brings a bottomless supply of sugar-dusted corn fritters, working in both savory and sweet directions. Old-school favorites cottage cheese, pickled beets, kidney bean salad and coleslaw make an appearance. The chicken is precooked in a pressure steamer and stored in a cooler until an order comes in. Then it's flash-fried in soybean oil for three minutes, producing a smooth layer of orange-gold shell that breaks away in one clean piece. The chicken is flour-breaded but appears more battered.

The fact that the chicken is precooked doesn't make a difference in taste the skin bears a brittle crunchiness, grease free, aggressively seasoned, with meat beneath that glistens. Most decent french fries employ the same twice-cooked method: a blanch, then a quick fry for a crispier product. I've never seen this done with chicken, but it might be necessary when 8,000 orders emerge from the Frialator every week.

"My grandpa said keep it simple. Don't try to follow fads and trends," said owner Laura Hastert-Gardner. "He would say you just do the same thing, keep it clean, serve it hot, serve it friendly and people will come."

During one Sunday visit, I eavesdropped on a conversation at the next table. An older fellow told his waitress at the end of the meal: "Nothing's changed. It's all still the same."

The waitress replied: "It's like we're stuck in a time warp."

"See, this is a senior citizens club," he said.

The waitress: "If only we appealed to younger generations."

I brought this up with Hastert-Gardner, who agreed her greatest challenge is catering to a new generation without alienating the core clientele. She said one of the most frequent comments she gets from diners is how surprised they are that the restaurant is still around.

To attract more working families, White Fence Farm started a carryout business, now at four locations in the west and southwest suburbs. A fifth outlet is planned in Orland Park. But those carry-and-go stores are charmless boxes compared with the flagship. Eating chicken with pastel wallpaper and stuffed moose heads in your peripheral vision is vital to the experience. Kitsch can be an endearing flavor.

Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket

A 15-minute drive to the northeast from White Fence Farm, there once stood a gas station in the DuPage County stretch of U.S. Route 66. Back in the 1930s, when it was owned by a man named Irv Kolarik, you'd wait for your oil change at the lunch counter inside, passing time with a sandwich and a piece of pie.

Kolarik soon grew tired of the car-service trade. Two female farmhands overheard Kolarik's complaints one day and made him an offer: They would teach him their proprietary fried chicken recipe and help out in the kitchen; in exchange, he would buy eggs and poultry from their farm. He accepted the deal.

The fried-chicken diner turned into a gold mine, and eventually Kolarik sold the restaurant at an exorbitant price but not before giving its new owners the incorrect chicken recipe. When Kolarik's noncompete clause lapsed a year later, he built a new fried chicken restaurant next door, and soon the diner with the incorrect recipe went out of business.

When the new Interstate 55 opened, customers couldn't locate Kolarik's restaurant, figuring that it had closed along with Route 66. At the former mile marker 274, business all but disappeared. A bank took over the restaurant from Kolarik and in 1963 sold it at a bargain price to a well-known Chicago hotel manager named Dell Rhea. Rhea gave the restaurant a bluesy Mustang Sally, Pink Cadillac aesthetic, a psychic pre-emptive bait for Guy "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" Fieri to visit in the future (he did in February 2009). More important, Rhea secured Kolarik's original chicken recipe.

The hallmark of Dell Rhea's version is its bread-crumb coating, fried to a gold closer to yellow. It's reminiscent of breading found on fried frog legs, a gritty crispness that assumes a butter richness.

Unlike White Fence Farm, the birds here are cooked from raw, and take up to half an hour to reach the table. The four pieces arrive in a red basket lined with checkerboard paper, hot as a dying star, with a shelf life measured in minutes. A downside of a product so juicy is the liquid pools in the basket, rendering the underside of the bottom piece (usually the breast or thigh) soggy. Transferring it atop the fries solves this problem. The chicken, seasoned overnight and milk washed, has a texture suggesting it was brined. It wasn't. But that juiciness produces an immense flavor, like chicken times three, amplified and condensed into a single drumstick. As we highfalutin food scribes like to say, the chicken was very chickeny.

Then and now, local fans are either Team White Fence Farm or Team Dell Rhea's. Competition between the restaurants is friendly, though at times it has veered toward fierce. Once, during White Fence Farm's two-month winter hiatus, the Rheas erected a sign by their competitors that read: "Jump the Fence to Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket!" This got into White Fence's craw. There were rumblings, too, of one restaurant's taking down the other's advertisements with a chain saw.

"It was kind of funny, but we never had bad words for each other," said Patrick Rhea, son of Dell. (Patrick now runs the restaurant with his mother, Grace. Dell Rhea died in 1992.)

Of course, Patrick Rhea still thinks his restaurant's recipe is superior to White Fence Farm's. And Hastert-Gardner thinks waiting a half hour for food is unacceptable. Not that it matters, because the two restaurants present such contrasting takes on the fried chicken, both worthy of your time. White Fence's all important skin is better, but Dell Rhea's has the tastier meat. Dell Rhea's biscuits are more interesting than White Fence's corn fritters. White Fence is more fun for families. Dell Rhea's menu is more ambitious. White Fence has a chicken statue out front. Dell Rhea's was sanctified by Guy Fieri. And so on and so forth. The photo finish reveals nothing. The winners are Sundays.

~Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune


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