Yup. We hit another Chicago area Diner’s, Drive-In’s, and Dive’s place. J and I are back in Chicago for another weekend trip. We have tickets to a show in Hammond, IN tonight which isn’t far from her parents house. Her mom and step-dad had a prior commitment during the day, so J and I were on our own for lunch. I had been wanting to check out another place we saw on Triple D that was only about 20 minutes from her parents. After they left for the morning, J and I got going and headed to Willowbrook for lunch.
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket has been on Joliet Road in Willowbrook for almost 70 years. Of course, in the early days, Joliet Road was Route 66. A lot has changed since then. Interstate 55 is in Dell Rhea’s backyard and the old Mother Road is hidden behind an office park. In fact, J is very familiar with this area. Her high school speech team used to stay at a Holiday Inn down the road and her grandma was in an area nursing home for a few years yet she had never seen our destination.
It’s not really hard to find and there are signs from IL-83 for the out of towners like us. The building is a classic Route 66 icon. There’s a big neon sign out front and the decor hasn’t aged in fifty years. Parking is a little wierd. The spots out front are spots that are perpendicular with the building, so you take a sharp 90 degree turn off the road into a spot crossing a lane of traffic in the process.
The building has two sections that are both accessible from the main entryway. To the right is a bar. Straight ahead is the classic dining room. We went straight and were met by a hostess who showed us to table alongside the windows that now overlook the Stevenson Expressway. We’ve had so many bad experiences with service lately that we’ve both just gotten tired of eating out. Dell Rhea’s was just the opposite of all those horror stories and more than anything, that made for an enjoyable experience.
There were four other tables eating lunch when we were there around 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon. Instead of putting us all back-to-back-to-back, they spread us out so we each had space and didn’t have to listen to the other’s conversation. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many places would have grouped us all together.
Right after we were seated, a waitress came with a basket of homemade biscuits and took drink orders. I actually mean right after. We barely had time to open the menu. Again, another huge, a very welcome, difference to so many of recent dining excursions.
In typical Route 66 fashion, drinks are RC products. I got an RC Cola while J got a Diet Rite. I’m not a huge fan of RC, but it really doesn’t taste that much different than most other colas. They were a little pricey at $2.25 a piece, but the menu proudly proclaimed that it was a “bottomless cup.”
By the time the waitress came back with drinks, we were ready to order. We both were anxious to try the chicken, so we both ordered the World Famous Fried Chicken in a Basket. You get a half a chicken with each order plus fries and the aformentioned biscuits and coleslaw. I was fine with the regular basket, but J prefers white meat, so she got an all white basket which had an upcharge of three bucks.
The chicken is cooked to order, so there is about a half hour wait time. While we were waiting, we ordered a basket of corn fritters. Corn fritter are one of J’s favorite guilty pleasures. These fritters were huge and actually had kernels of corn in them. They were topped with a heavy dusting of powdered sugar. J said they were delicious. I had a couple and they were just as good or not better than any fritters I have had in the past, but I’m not a huge fan of the dish in the first place.
Just about a half hour after we ordered, two huge baskets of chicken and french fries were put down in the front of us. The thing that makes the Chicken Basket’s chicken world famous is their unique way of cooking it. All the chicken is marinated for 24 hours in salt and sugar. Yes, sugar! After the 24 hours is up, the chicken is breaded with flour, milk, and finally, an special extra fine breadcumb that comes from a Chicago bakery. The chicken then sits for another 4-6 hours before it’s fried. If all of this sounds atypical for frying chicken, the next part is really going to blow your mind.
The chicken is deep fried in trans fat free oil at 260 degrees for twenty minutes. That’s not a typo. I didn’t hit the two instead of the three. If you know anything about frying, you know that the lower the temperature, the more oil the chicken is going to soak up. That’s kind of the point.
I’m not going to lie to you, the Chicken Basket’s chicken is really greasy. There was a puddle of grease in the bottom of the basket that the fries were kind of soaking in. The chicken itself had a really interesting taste. I love traditional, buttermilk fried chicken. I could eat that stuff every night if it wouldn’t kill me in a week. The Chicken Basket’s chicken tasted nothing like KFC. I really haven’t decided if that was a good thing or a bad. I enjoyed the flavor, but it was so foreign that it really freaked my brain out. The sugar really made for a flavor that I wasn’t expecting. I ate three of my four pieces plus all the fries before my belly told me to stop.
J wasn’t quite as intrigued as I was. She prefers white meat because it’s usually very dry and that’s how she likes her chicken. She said the Chicken Basket’s white meat tasted too much like dark meat…which means, it was very juicy. A great thing for most people, but not J. She thought it was a little rubbery and didn’t care for the texture of the meat. She’s a very picky eater when it comes to meat though. I think most people who prefer dark meat would actually really like this white meat. She still ended up eating a wing and most of the breast. The breasts were huge. They could have been a meal by themselves. The fries were out of the bag thin cut fries and the coleslaw was served in a little plastic shot glass. J said the coleslaw was actually really good.
As we were finishing up our meal, a large party of what could have been a funeral luncheon came in and took our waitress away. This really wasn’t a problem. On one of her trips back to get drinks, we caught her attention and asked for a take home box. We had three pieces of chicken and two corn fritters which will be nice for dinner leftover. A few minutes later, a different waitress came over to take our plates and get our check. You see, even though our waitress got swamped, they didn’t forget about us. Another waitress, who was less busy, picked up our table and got us the check so we didn’t have to wait around for a half hour.
Service at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket was great. To me, that was the best part and most appreciated part of the meal. We’ve had so many bad expereinces lately that is was so nice to go to a place where customer service is a high priority. The chicken was alright, but not something I think I could eat very often. I’m sure the regulars say the same about more traditional fried chicken. The recipe is just so out there that it really plays mind tricks on you. You end up with an entirely different taste than what your brain is telling you is coming.
Our bill was pretty high. Before tip it was just over $36 for the two meals (one with an extra charge for all white meat), an appetizer, and two drinks. I’m glad we went, but it’s not a place I can see myself craving when I come home to Chicago. It’s a place I would recommend to anyone to try once. Just have an open mind when you sit down and realize, you’re not getting a fried chicken the way grandma used to do it.