Driving by Puree’s last winter, I spotted the sign “Mild Sauce” in the window facing Lake Street. Mild sauce, like giardiniera, is a Chicago original condiment, and I’d never seen it offered in Oak Park. When I went back to Puree’s, however, it was closed for good, and the signs on the windows announced the arrival of Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken.
When we were living in Hyde Park/Kenwood on the South Side, Harold’s Chicken Shack – with the fetching neon sign of the chef with a hatchet chasing a chicken – was a favorite place that we visited as much as our student budgets would allow. But Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken is not related to Harold’s Chicken Shack. They’re different companies, though they offer many of the same menu items, including mild sauce.
Harold’s Chicken Shack has long had a very popular version of mild sauce, and mild sauce versions vary by vendor. The recipe for each version of mild sauce, though closely held, frequently includes ketchup, and maybe also barbecue sauce, sometimes hot sauce or vinegar, or a combination of those ingredients.
Mild sauce, like many Chicago-invented foods – Italian beef, flaming saganaki, deep dish pizza, etc. – has an uncertain genesis. Various contenders fight for the title of “originator” of the stuff.
Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken has four locations around Chicago, and the one we’ve visited to is right across the border from Oak Park in Austin, 5611 W. Madison. The founder of Uncle Remus – and perhaps the inventor of mild sauce – was Gus Rickette, who first started selling chicken in the early 1960s.
Mild sauce is one of Chicago original food items that Monica Eng and I cover in our upcoming book, “Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 of the City’s Best Hometown Bites” (University of Illinois, 2023).
Oak Park’s Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken was very crowded at noon last Saturday, May 14th; it had opened only an hour before, and the place was filled with customers waiting for their orders. Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken prepares your food when you order it, which is definitely the way you want it: hot and fresh, rather than cooked ten or more minutes ago and then set under a heat lamp waiting to be ordered. The chicken meat from Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken was moist and abundant; the breading on the bird was light and crisp, as was the breading on the fried shrimp, though for some reason a lot of breading fell off the shrimp before it got to my mouth (the flavor of the shrimp itself was very good).
Alas, the fries were mediocre (commodity stuff, not so crisp) and the cole slaw was not good: it had a slightly off-flavor. This was, however, the opening hour of opening day, and it’s likely those items will improve with time. And realistically, no one probably goes to Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken for the fries or the coleslaw. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for good fried chicken in downtown Oak Park (and admittedly, there aren’t a lot of options), Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken is a solid choice – and if you’ve never had mild sauce, ask for it on the side. It’s a Chicago original.