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Leghorn Excels At Sensory Overload Except Where It Counts

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Apr 4, 2014 9:30PM

Leghorn's "Nashville hot" chicken thigh in buttermilk biscuit with chicken fried fries and hush puppies. (Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)

When it comes to Chicago food trends, fried chicken is the new bacon and there’s no shortage of places that focus on it as a menu item. Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Small’s, Parson’s Chicken & Fish, Pecking Order and Roost have all opened to critical acclaim and/or long lines of diners looking to sink their teeth into some crispy, juicy poultry.

The latest entry in Chicago’s growing fried chicken scene, Leghorn, has settled down a bit after completely selling out of its inventory on opening day last month; you can now walk into Leghorn for a late-afternoon lunch without waiting in line.

The newest restaurant from chef Jared Van Camp and the Element Collective hospitality group is replete with the cheeky details that inform Element’s other properties: Kinmont; Old Town Social; Nellcote and RM Champagne Lounge. Whether that’s a good thing or a detriment to a visit to Leghorn depends on the diner. The menu board gives a shoutout to Avon Barksdale, the alpha dog drug dealer from the HBO series The Wire, while much hay has been made on culinary chat site LTHForum about Leghorn’s loud and insistent hip hop soundtrack. (Customers are warned about the music with a sizable “Parental Advisory” sticker on the restaurant’s front door; detractors can’t say they aren’t warned.)

Then there’s Leghorn’s socially conscious mission to consider. They’re already billing themselves as the anti-Chick-fil-A: they’re open on Sundays; donate 2 percent of their receipts to LGBT-friendly organizations; use locally-grown produce when possible; use locally raised chicken; and soon will be giving away free Leghorn-branded condoms.

Personally, I like a little bit of Eric B. and Rakim, Outkast and Boogie Down Productions when I’m trying to shove chicken sandwiches down my throat, and discussions on a restaurant’s soundtrack and the volume which it’s played takes away from the main reason to dine at a restaurant—the food. On that note, the chicken at Leghorn is good, but not at the salacious and overblown levels of the rest of the dining experience there.

If you’re going to project to the cheap seats you need to commit to the performance, especially if a restaurant advertises serving Nashville-style hot chicken like Leghorn. Mind you, the “Nashville hot” here is spicy but not on the level of Music City chicken joints like the legendary Prince’s Hot Chicken, where “hot” equates to “remove your tongue from your mouth with a blowtorch.” In that case, Van Camp and chef Sieger Bayer may be doing Chicago a favor. Conversely, Leghorn’s pickle-brined chicken suffers from loose breading and an overall bland flavor one can zest by building a chicken sandwich to one’s exact specifications.

Leghorn's pickle-brined chicken breast on homemade bun with fries. (Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)

The “build your own sandwich” concept is the genius of Leghorn. Diners choose between the pickle-brined or Nashville hot, breast or thigh, served on a homemade bun or buttermilk biscuit, and an array of toppings or sauces. At $6, this is one of the best steals in town and I recommend the Nashville hot thigh on a biscuit with spicy mayo, tomato, cheddar and an extra side of Leghorn’s house made dill pickles.

Leghorn’s sides fare much better than the chicken. The hand cut nori fries, if Leghorn had opened sooner, would have easily made Chicagoist’s best fries list. They’re a revelation but the Tuesday special, where those fries are cooked in chicken fat, may be one of the most decadent menu items in town. Green chile hush puppies, made from Iroquois cornmeal, are arguably the best thing on the menu, especially served with buttermilk rancho verde sauce.

The word of mouth, Van Camp’s pedigree and the reviews that are only now beginning to trickle in guarantee Leghorn will be one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year. Just bring ear plugs if you aren’t a fan of East Coast hip hop.

Leghorn is located at 959 N. Western Ave. They’re open seven days a week from 11 a.m. until they run out of food.