Legendary | Worth driving from anywhere
Rip’s | Illinois Valley Fried Chicken At Its Best
Review by: Michael Stern
How to Make Great Fried Chicken
Many places along the Illinois River serve Illinois Valley fried chicken. Rip’s serves the best. What makes it so good? Bill Rounds, the man whose grandfather started the place, says, first of all, you need to start with fresh chicken, not frozen nor cryovacked. He gets it twice a week. “We can do that because we have such a big turnover. Poultry is especially hard to keep. Beef can age; fish always smells; but good chicken spoils easily. Everything depends on freshness.
“When we get it, we fine-tune it. We trim it, cut it, remove 60-70% of the skin. Then we brine it. There is an extreme amount of work that goes into good chicken before it gets battered and fried. Our recipes are simple, we don’t have a lot of ingredients. But each step along the way is crucial.”
Details matter. The oil used by Rounds’ grandfather is no longer available, so he has devised his own oil, blending three different kinds. Granddad got his flour from one supplier for more than half a century; but that supplier moved to Canada. Rounds says, “Now we need to blend our own to get the spring wheat quality for its lightness.”
Rip’s efforts produce chicken with significant crust, but no doughy softness. Each bite of savory crust is just-right salty. Even white-meat breasts are moist and full-flavored down to the bone. In some areas, the batter clumps, absorbing chicken fat flavor as well as frying fat. These are some of the most sumptuous bites imaginable. And yet, miraculously, this chicken sheds no oil. The pallet of white bread on which it arrives remains dry and intact even after every scrap of meat has been dispatched. While forks are available, no one uses them. This is chicken you want to touch as well as eat.
Now, consider crunchies. After the cook pulls a batch of chicken from the bubbling oil, he sweeps through the oil with a big screen. The screen retrieves a great tangle of squiggly skin and fried batter that have detached from the large pieces. These crunchies are hot, rich, reminiscent of cracklins or gribenes. Intense chicken flavor infuses bits of pure, fat-crisped batter. They come with a cup of tart dill pickle chips. Betha, the bartender, showed us that the custom is to fold a pickle chip around a little cluster of crunchies, creating a finger taco. Fried-food-lovers, you have found heaven!
A great side dish for Illinois Valley fried chicken: crisp-fried al dente mushrooms, their earthy rankness nearly truffle-strong. Catfish and whitefish are fried on Fridays.
The only other things you need to know are that Rip’s is always crowded and that while you wait in line for table, you can drink beers from the bar.
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