Fried chicken that’s worth the trip
For nearly 80 years, Rip’s Tavern has been known for chicken and long lines
Anne Ford, Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 10, 2013
To reach Rip’s Tavern, drive about two hours west of Chicago on Interstate 80, and take the exit for the village of Ladd (population 1,283). You can’t miss the place: It’s on Main Avenue, just down the block from Ladd Lanes, the Ladd Public Library, Joe’s Ladd Pizza, the Ladd Pharmacy, Ladd Family Chiropractic, Ladd Automotive, the post office, and the Special Effect Barber/Beauty Salon.
Still don’t see Rip’s? Look for the line. Depending on the day, it might be spilling onto the sidewalk.
Or you might open the door to find a mere 50 or 60 people huddled and chatting in the entryway, amiably squeezing past one another to get to the bar, then squeezing back into line with their Coors Lights or PBRs.
For nearly 80 years, Rip’s has been known for two things: Its fried chicken and the length of time people will stand in line to eat it.
There’s no menu. No need for one. Sure, some people choose the fried fish on Friday nights, or throw in some fried mushrooms with their order. But mostly, you get a “quarter light” (breast and wing), a “quarter dark” (thigh and drumstick), or you go home. Judging by the crowd, no one elects the last option. (Except for the few lucky souls apologetically edging their way out the door, holding grease-stained brown-paper bags of carryout.)
“The average wait time? I’m scared to even figure it,” said Bill Rounds, who owns the tavern with his brother, Dave. Bill runs the front of the house; Dave mans the kitchen. Sixty minutes? Ninety? “A lot of times our wait is an hour,” he allowed. “A little bit longer on Saturday. Sunday goes pretty smooth. On a Wednesday or Thursday, our average wait is probably 20 minutes.” For what it’s worth, on a recent icy Saturday at 4:52 p.m. — less than half an hour after the first pan came out of the fryer — the wait from walk-in to chicken-chomping was two hours. And that was on Thanksgiving weekend, a time when most people might be presumed to have had enough poultry to last them awhile.
At the back of the line, childhood buddies and Kewanee natives Brendan Simaytis and Matt Mirocha were reminiscing about the days before the village passed an ordinance against drinking on the street. Back then, you could bring your own cooler of beer and pass the time out on the sidewalk with a cold one. Is the wait still worth it? Simaytis quoted Aretha Franklin’s character in “The Blues Brothers”: “Best damn chicken in the state.”
Rip’s got its start in 1934, when Bill and Dave’s grandfather — an Italian immigrant named Silvio “Rip” Gualandri — opened a bar in Ladd and started giving away fried chicken to booze-buying customers. Two years later, he moved the operation to its present location, added a dining room, and lent his nickname to the whole shebang. In 1985, the entire place burned down and was rebuilt; a few years later, it was expanded to double the waiting area.
The menu has seen a few changes over the years too. Rip fried his chicken in lard, but his grandsons have switched to a blend of canola, sunflower and soybean oils. Your lips will still end up looking like you’ve bought stock in Bonne Bell — this is fried chicken, after all — but your arteries are in slightly less danger than before. If the regulars have noticed a difference, they’re not saying so. “It’s the same chicken,” said Simaytis, who now lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “I come every time I get back here.” Rip’s chicken is served, for some reason, on a slice of bread. Ignore it. It will only take up valuable stomach space. As for the accompanying fries, they’re good but not as good as the you-know-what. Whether you choose light or dark, the meat is outrageously moist; the skin lightly spiced and cracker-crisp on the outside, with just a gloss of grease beneath. “If you ask, I will give you a fork,” Bill said. Most people don’t bother.
The most popular appetizer: pickle slices. They make excellent vehicles for scooping up “crispies” — the crumb-sized bits of fried-chicken debris that come free in a basket with every dine-in order. The pickles lend a welcome burst of palate-cleansing acid. If Bill thinks about them for too long, though, he gets annoyed. He used to get the pickles from a small outfit in Wisconsin, but about 10 years ago it got bought out by a company that changed the recipe. To achieve the original flavor and texture, he’s now reduced to buying two different brands — “The brine in one is very close, but the pickle is better in another one” — and marrying them. Can you believe that, for a stupid pickle?” he said. “It’s a pain.”
As for the chicken, he said, it’s so good because he knows how to choose his birds. “I want a white chicken,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll see in the grocery store a yellow-skinned chicken, and that has more fat.” Also, “our chicken is a younger chicken,” he added. “A bigger chicken is an older chicken,” and hence one that’s harder to tenderize by means of their special marinade. Would he say what’s in that marinade? “Mmm, probably not,” he said politely, adding only, “I don’t rush it. We don’t change how we do anything.” That includes the line.
While Bill and the servers do their best to keep things moving, the truth is that “most of our customers have come for a zillion years, and they don’t mind the wait,” he said. “They’re relaxed. They watch the games; they visit. A lot of people actually … they’ll get mad if you seat ’em too quick.”
311 N. Main Ave. Ladd, IL
Established: 1934 Known for: Fried chicken
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