Leghorn

Pickle-brined sandwich on a bun at Leghorn (Hilary Higgins / For RedEye / March 13, 2014)

Review: Leghorn Chicken
959 N. Western Ave. 773-394-4444
Rating: 3 (out of four) Off to a good start

Boy, I say, boy ... . Apologies. I promised my editor this review wouldn't be written in the voice of America's most famous rooster, Foghorn Leghorn. The dim-witted fowl isn't the inspiration behind the latest spot from Jared Van Camp and Element Collective, the crew behind Old Town Social, Nellcote and Kinmont. Rather, it's named after the venerable heritage breed itself, a bird that came to the U.S. in the mid-19th century and was farmed (and farmed and overfarmed) primarily for its ability to produce eggs—and lots of them. Today, small farmers have stepped in to revitalize the breed, and the mighty Leghorn chicken has plenty of reasons to crow.

But that doesn't mean you'll find it on the menu at Leghorn, contrary to my assumptions. Van Camp said the team is sourcing its birds from local farms—the day we spoke, they had arrived from Miller Poultry in Orland, Ind.—regardless of breed. "The Leghorn chicken symbolizes the narrative that we wanted to convey," Van Camp said. "What the efforts of a few can do in the face of big corporations and industrial agriculture."

And Chicago has responded. On its first day of business, March 6, Leghorn completely sold out its stockpile of 600 sandwiches in about 90 minutes. "We called in the troops, friends and employees from our other locations, to see if they could help us butcher chickens," Van Camp said. After that, he said, the team more than doubled the number of chickens it's breaking down, but they're still running out. With that in mind, my date and I stopped by just after opening time on a recent weekend to stuff ourselves with Leghorn's sustainably-sourced treats.

The service
Though Leghorn was bustling on the day we visited, the line at the counter moved quickly and the cashier was eager to answer my chicken-related queries. I grabbed a number and had barely settled in at a table when a mountain of food arrived. My server cheerfully snagged silverware and an equally gigantic heap of napkins from the self-service area.

The sandwiches
Nashville hot or pickle-brined bird? Thigh or breast? Biscuit or bun? Leghorn's sammies ($6) are a customization-lover's dream. My date opted for hot/thigh/bun, while I fancied myself a pickle/breast/biscuit girl. Tomato, lettuce and Leghorn's multitude of sauces will set you back a quarter each to add on, while premium items such as Wisconsin cheddar and extra pickles are 50 cents.

Leghorn is absolutely not messing around with these sandwiches. The expertly fried piece of bird dwarfs its surroundings, bursting forth from your chicken-delivery method of choice (read: bread). This becomes somewhat of a problem; after several bites, my biscuit was well on its way to becoming little more than crumbs, while my date's bun managed to hold its own a little longer. I would suggest keeping your sandwich tightly swaddled in its wrapper while eating, or having a knife and fork at the ready.

The difference between the hot and pickle-brined chicken wasn't immediately apparently, with my date commenting that his bird wasn't nearly spicy enough. We did agree that, when it comes to these sandwiches, breast is best.

The sides
While Leghorn bills itself primarily as a chicken shop, you might be tempted to think otherwise based on the plethora of sides. This section of the menu seems to be designed as a vegetarian's paradise; slightly spicy green chili hush puppies ($3) and a beautifully balanced shaved vegetable slaw ($4) were two standout faves, though the latter could have benefited from some extra acid. Hand-cut nori fries ($3) seemed to have taken one trip too many through the fryer and were devoid of any detectable nori flavor, while fresh pineapple and mango with togarashi ($5) suffered the opposite problem—a seriously heavy hand had laid down the Japanese spice. The fruit was greatly improved, however, when mixed with the slaw.

The extras
Leghorn doesn't sauce its sandwiches; rather, you can choose from eight options for 25 cents apiece. Van Camp named rancho verde, barbecue and spicy mayo among his favorites, but admitted that his top choice is the Kewpie mayo, a jacked-up Japanese delight that's the only spread not made in-house. "I've tried, but I can't touch it," he said of trying to duplicate the recipe. I could see why; it's one killer sauce, delicious on everything from fries to hush puppies to chicken tenders to sandwiches to ... well, you get the idea. My date and I also sampled the honey mustard (perfectly sweet, savory and full of mustard seeds), house-made catsup (slightly sweet but balanced) and thousand island dressing (way too watery).

Elsewhere in the chicken department, Leghorn offers fried tenders ($5, "until we run out"), and daily specials of fried chicken skins (Monday), chicken-fried fries (Tuesday) and fried chicken nuggets (Wednesday). I was lucky enough to snag a basket of tenders during my visit and proceeded to dunk them in every sauce. "Tender" is exactly the right word here; these lovely hunks of chicken breast were moist and the perfect level of crispy.

The sexy stuff
As part of its mission statement, Leghorn donates 2 percent of its profits to organizations supporting gay rights and is "emphatically uninterested in your organized religion, secular religion, agnosticism, atheism or nontheism. Whatever tickles your pickle." When I asked whether this had anything to do with a certain non-inclusive chicken franchise, Van Camp was quick to respond: "I would never cite any names or franchise." That's just how Leghorn rolls.

The menu also promises free Leghorn-branded condoms at the counter, but on the day I visited, there was no birth control to be found. What gives? "What we didn't expect was the lead time to get your own personalized condoms," Van Camp said, adding that the prophylactics would arrive in a few weeks. Try to keep it in your pants until then.

The bottom line
Leghorn does its namesake proud; it's easy to taste that this chicken has been prepared with tender, loving care. Other sections of the menu could use some refinement, but if you're going to get one thing perfectly right, it had better be the main event.

RedEye reporters visit restaurants unannounced and food is paid for by RedEye. damoran@redeyechicago.com | @redeyedana