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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Harold's Chicken Shack fails to impress
A legend that won't last a lunchtime
on (2) Comments

There are plenty of fast-food franchises with rabid fan bases. They're usually enterprises that are limited geographically - and not available where you happen to live. It seems it's easier to fetishize the rare visit to In-n-Out Burger, or Krystal, or the Waffle House, than it is to venerate Culver's when there are three of them within five miles of your house.

Harold's Chicken Shack, of Chicago, is one of the fetishized franchises. Chicagoans, especially Hyde Parkers or U. of Chicago alums, speak of Harold's fondly. There are now outlets across Chicagoland, and as far-flung as Las Vegas and Minneapolis. And now, Madison. Franchises have different owners and can do things in slightly different ways (and if you have heard that Harold's "secret" is frying in half beef tallow and half vegetable oil, know that our branch says it uses all-vegetable).

Madison's new Harold's, in a narrow storefront in a strip mall located within the parking lot of Woodman's West, features a handful of rather small booths (the kind that fit two people fine, but four people with winter coats will feel squeezed). You might want to keep your coat on, too, as frequent blasts of cold winter air from the front door chill the eating area.

Corrugated metal wall trim is the only decorative touch other than a Pepsi signboard and a blackboard with the daily specials. Utensils are plastic, cups are Styrofoam, and food comes on wax paper in cardboard baskets.

Let's start with the wait. The whole Harold's deal is that everything is cooked to order, so you have to wait "12-15 minutes" for your meal. It tends to be more like 20 or longer, especially if you're there around the lunch rush, but you can try phoning in your order ahead of time. Either way, it's not an efficient process. The resulting food is certainly fresh and hot when it finally hits your table, though.

The chicken is juicy, too, but it doesn't have a lot of flavor. The batter is crisp but tastes of grease and little else. Maybe that's a good thing; it depends on what you're comparing it to. Harold's Chicken tastes more like real food than KFC's chemical/medicinal batter, but it's also missing the peppery blast of Madtowne Fried Chicken.

Harold's also serves fish - quite a lot of it, in fact, both catfish and perch as well as shrimp, and you might choose to go there for it. My tablemates liked the catfish filets, mellow, moist and completed with a slightly crunchy cornmeal batter. Perch is also on the menu. The battered, deep-fried chicken livers - a favorite of mine - came up short; they were overcooked, dried out and skimpy, considering the supposed half-pound serving size.

You'll be asked if you want sauce with your meal, whether it's chicken, fish or liver: hot, mild or barbecue sauce. As far as I can tell, "hot" is regular Tabasco sauce, "mild" is ketchup and "barbecue" is indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill store-bought barbecue sauce. Even so, I would liven up the catfish with the hot sauce, just to give the meal a little more personality.

The sides are not the sort that live on in the memory. Fries are skippable; the sweet Miracle Whip-style coleslaw, while actually quite good, comes in a minuscule paper cup that doesn't hold more than a couple forkfuls. It makes the small coleslaw side served with Culver's baskets look positively Brobdingnagian.

Another time, I resampled the chicken livers hoping for better results, and while the serving size was about the same, the livers themselves weren't overcooked.

Vegetarians who eat fish will survive here, but otherwise it's sides of fried mushrooms and okra and the $1 coleslaw side upgrade.

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