South-Side People & The Fried Chicken Adventure
Yesterday was one of those days that I’ve come to deeming “Adventure Sunday”. Girlfriend and I usually have an “Adventure Sunday” about once a month, which usually comes about when I’m bored and restless after having spent the morning and some of the afternoon indoors and my heart begins racing at the thought of a day spent *not* stuffed into a small office being wasted. In yesterday’s case, it had also been raining and hailing all morning and afternoon, so when the sun finally peeked from around the drab gray for a few moments before setting into the horizon, I decided vehemently it wasn’t too late to have an “Adventure Sunday”.
I roused Girlfriend from, what I’m told, was a very relaxing, peaceful nap on the couch at the same time that I decided I had a serious hankering for fried chicken. I’ve been consistently dieting and exercising since the holidays, first for vacation in February and then thereafter because I’d ingrained it into my routine and I liked how I was feeling. Progress is nice, but yesterday I wanted grease. Like some sort of starved wildebeast unleashed from the forest, I decided we shouldn’t just settle for *any* fried chicken – Oh no, we needed The Best Fried Chicken in Chicago, which is located in a shack off of I-55 in the South suburbs. The restaurant itself, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives and countless travel blogs and brochures. And, yes, it *really* is The Best Fried Chicken in Chicago.
It was of no difference to me that there is a KFC within walking distance from our home; as I waited, impatiently filling my iPod with tunes for the road and drumming my fingers against the desk in excitement as Girlfriend demanded a few minutes to make herself presentable, I could practically picture the tender chicken, crusted in the famous top secret breading, falling off of the bone.
After two highway changes, three counties and roughly two hundred and fifty tolls, I was practically vibrating with energy as we cruised down Route 83, breezing past the opulent and formidable mansions of Oak Brook and Hinsdale, past The Best Outdoor Mall in Chicago (yes, I was sorely tempted, but no, I decided to save that for another “Adventure Sunday”), and through countless strip malls. My excitement reached a fever pitch by the time we officially entered the South Side, because I knew inherently, like a mother might know where to find a child that’s hiding, we were close.
South-Side People, I’d like to take this time to try to better explain, are oftentimes an entirely different breed of Chicagoan. They’re a little more abrasive, a little rougher around the edges – Toughness, I’m convinced, is an ingrained trait in South Side People. This is, in no way, an insult or meant to be anything other than a funny generalization – I have a large number of relatives that are proud born and raised South Side People, all of whom still reside in various habitats on the South Side. My mother was a South Side Person up until she was eighteen. I have quite a few friends that I absolutely adore who are South Side People. So, given my insider knowledge of the myterious, often volatile, South Side People, I felt more than comfortable sneaking over to their side of town for a couple of hours.
Before you begin to wonder if I’m mercilessly poking fun of the South Side People, I’d like to point out that it’s just as obvious to them when a “North Sider” is in their midst. Of course, I took a few creative liberties with how exactly the conversations went, but this is basically what happened:
Setting: A hole-in-the-wall corner bar located conveniently directly behind a South Side Friend’s house. The lights are low, a football game is on and everybody is minding their own business drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon amongst the dark wood paneling straight out of the 1970’s.
South Side Friend: Look at that girl sitting at the bar over there, with her designer shoes and Cubs hat. She looks so uncomfortable. I bet she’s a North-Sider Person.
Me: How can you know that? A Cubs hat doesn’t necessarily make someone a North-Sider Person.
South Side Friend: Well, or it makes you a really dumb South Side Person. But, regardless, the way she’s carrying herself. The look on her face. The way her legs are crossed. She’s definitely a North-Sider Person.
I walk up to the girl in question and tentatively tap her on the shoulder. She whirls around, clutching her over-sized purse closer to her body, with a look I recognize as poorly disguised Fear of the Possible South Side Person (although I am not – But I was hanging around with a raggamuffin that was, so I guess, that night, I was by default).
Me: This is going to sound so stupid, but, um, uh, you look, uh, *familiar*! Where are you from?
North-Sider Person (still clutching obnoxious purse): No. I do not think we know each other. But, anyways, I’m from Evanston.
Me: Oh! Wait…Well…Shit.
There are, of course, other, smaller ways in which the South Side People sniff out the North-Siders that infiltrate:
-Hair that is not the result of an at-home dye job,
-Not checking the couch before you sit down, because you don’t have yours covered in thick plastic,
-Eyeglasses and sunglasses that are on different frames.
So, after practically drooling onto my shirt, we finally get to the Chicken Basket, after winding around behind a cluster of hotels located off of the highway. Between a deserted office park of low-lying brick buildings and large self-storage business was Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, and if there wasn’t angels singing, bells ringing and a crescendo of music, there damn well should have been. We were seated immediately, at a back table between a brick fireplace that took up an entire wall and a dusty window cluttered with hundreds of chicken figurines arranged on the ledge – Mama, I’m comin’ home!
The next hour was spent with a heavy silence over the table, punctuated only by sounds of chewing, murmurs of “Oh my god”, “This is ridiculous” and “Amazing…Just amazing” and silverware clanking. I believe there may have been a comment from Girlfriend about how only I “would travel this far for fried chicken”, but I didn’t hear her complaining once her giant bowl of homemade baked macaroni and cheese arrived. The only thing that diverted my attention from the chicken at hand in that hour was a birthday party at the next table over – The waitstaff sang “Bawk, bawk, bawk” to the tune of “Happy Birthday”, an absolutely priceless icing on the cake – Or grease on the chicken, whatever.
The Chicken Basket, where it stands now, was erected in 1946 and has since been one of the most popular restaurants in the South suburbs of Chicago. They used to have ice skaters on the roof in the winter and were always known for live music on the weekends. Also interestingly enough, and a true sign to the age of the structure, the bar/lounge part of the restaurant is completely separated from the family-friendly dining area – One is only accessible to the other through a single door behind the dessert counter. It’s a true piece of “old Chicago” that has withstood the difficult tests of time, changing demographics and urban modernization because they can talk the talk and walk the walk to back it up – In short, they’re famous for a reason, much like South Side People are *infamous* around Chicago: They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.