Kudos to a restaurant founded in Illinois for frying cheese curds as good as Wisconsin’s best.
The Chicken Run, which opened Dec. 19 in Middleton, is a spin-off of Candlelight Inn, a restaurant in Sterling, Illinois, which has been in business for 50 years and is famous for its — yep — chicken.
The chicken is excellent, too. Everything Chicken Run does, it does well. But it caters to a limited local demographic: People who don’t feel the need to eat healthfully, or don’t mind occasional diet damage. Even one meal here will make you concerned for your cholesterol levels.
That’s because all four items on the menu are deep fried: Chicken Run’s signature Chicken George, hand-cut french fries, cheese curds and Oreos.
The Chicken George is simply chicken breast tenders of various shapes and sizes, hand-battered and fried super crispy. Seven came in our half order ($7.99), if you count the two that were stuck together. Fries and one of Chicken Run’s four sauces were included.
It’s easy to see why the sweet, tangy, light-colored Jan’s sauce has its admirers at the Candleight Inn. Equally impressive was the Chicken Run sauce (extra sauces are 49 cents), which had a slight orange hue. Both are mayonnaise-based, but otherwise secret recipes, said the restaurant’s marketing director, Melissa Ryan-Bergstrom.
It would be hard to take issue with the barbecue sauce, which was straightforward and slightly sweet. And my friend enjoyed the thin ranch sauce.
Truth is, all of the food is flavorful and tastes great without sauce. The chicken was moist and juicy and came out hot, but not too hot to eat. The same was true of the cheese curds, which were a departure from most fried curds — light-colored and soft, with a thin, tempura-style batter. They were creamy before they cooled off and, once room temperature, tasted saltier.
The white cheddar curds come from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in the Northwestern Wisconsin town of Ellsworth, Ryan-Bergstrom said.
The fries were different from standard fries. The thin, flat, shoestring potatoes were fried extra dark and seasoned with salt and pepper. They were greasy in a good way.
The young people staffing the kitchen the night we visited put all our food — the chicken, fries and curds — in one basket lined with red-and-white checkered paper. The big, fried feast was almost intimidating.
For dessert, the three fried Oreos ($2.59 — or 99 cents apiece) were kind of roly-poly with padding between the cookie and the shell, almost like a light cake or doughnut hole. The cookie softened to the point where it wasn’t recognizable as an Oreo. They were dusted with powdered sugar.
Beverages — in cans and bottles — are 99 cents.
Chicken Run is mostly a take-out and delivery operation, with its drive-thru getting good use. For those wanting to eat on the spot, there are three tables in the small, well-lit shop, and some chicken art to perk the place up. The building was formerly home to Crandall’s Carryout & Catering.
The Middleton restaurant is the first to be named Chicken Run. The other three restaurants, started by Bob Prescott, are Candlelight Inns. Besides the Sterling restaurant, there’s another in Illinois, and one in Iowa.
The three sit-down Candlelight Inn restaurants now serve about 6,000 pounds of Chicken George a week, according to the backside of the Chicken Run menu card.
Bob Prescott’s son, Matt, now owns the Candlelight restaurants, while Matt and his brother, Bobby, own the Chicken Run. The elder Prescott is still making daily deliveries for the Sterling, Illinois, business he opened in 1967, Ryan-Bergstrom said.
Jan’s sauce is named after Prescott’s late wife, who ran the restaurants with him.
The Middleton location is the first Wisconsin venture for the Prescotts, and if everything goes well it could expand, Ryan-Bergstrom said.
If Chicken Run can make it in the health-conscious Madison area, it can make it anywhere.