Irresistible fried chicken and other dishes to try at Chicago favorite Split-Rail

Fried chicken is among the highlights at chef Zoe Schor's Chicago restaurant Split Rail. Photo credit: Split Rail
Fried chicken drumsticks at Chicago restaurant Split-Rail

While her restaurant background is in fine dining with stints at Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller restaurants, chef Zoe Schor found culinary inspiration in less fancy environs. “Fried chicken is my love language and passion,” she says. It also saved her Chicago restaurant Split-Rail.

Before Schor leaned into poultry, Split-Rail’s menu featured modern American dishes with whimsical titles and avant-garde techniques (think “Fajitas, Reimagined”). Schor harnessed what she loved about fine dining and left out the things she didn’t: fussy food and ambiance. “I love the dedication of craft and discipline it takes to achieve food at that level, but I don’t love the cost associated with fine dining or the sort of attitude of servitude that can go along with it,” Schor says.

Split-Rail in West Town earned accolades, including a spot on the James Beard long list for Best Chef: Great Lakes, but not diners. After an event dinner where fried chicken was the star, Schor had a lightbulb moment. She closed Split-Rail for a week, bought some extra-large fryers, added a takeout window, and reopened as a fried chicken restaurant.  

The new concept was a hit, with March 2020 looking to be Split-Rail’s best month ever. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant pivoted to takeout only. Once again fried chicken saved the day with that walk-up window doing a lot of heavy lifting. 

When restrictions lifted, Schor knew things had to be different. “If I’m going to essentially open a restaurant again and put myself and my staff through that hell and hard work after all this, I asked myself if I could do it just for fried chicken,” she says.

The answer was no. Sort of.  

Out went one of those deep fryers and in came a grill. “That allowed us to upgrade the menu to something that felt both closer to the original concept and much more genuine than that original concept,” she says. 

While the fan favorite fried chicken is still a cornerstone of the menu (including gluten-free and vegetarian versions), it has plenty of new friends. Read on for three must-try dishes at Split-Rail, including, yes, Schor’s fried chicken.

Crab Gravy 

A yellowish-brown crab gravy at the Chicago restaurant Split-Rail
As the first dish Schor created on the new menu, this crab gravy is dear to her heart. Photo credit: Split-Rail

As the first dish Schor conceived for the new menu, crab gravy is close to her heart. “After the fried chicken, it’s the most important dish on the menu,” she says. 

Technique-wise, the dish looks to gumbo for inspiration with a dark roux at its core. “For a Jewish woman from Boston, I have a real love affair with Southern comfort cuisine,” she says.

Crab shells add thickness and flavor, a technique borrowed from bisque. A jumble of crab—Blue or Gulf, depending on availability—is added to the smooth gravy. Carolina Gold rice crisped up on the flat top grill serves as the base. Schor likens it to eating a curry with equal parts rice and gravy.

“I love any kind of thing you do in the kitchen where you start with a couple of humble ingredients and they get totally transformed,” she says. “That’s always very miraculous.” 

Spicy Caesar Salad 

A caesar salad at Chicago restaurant Split-Rail
Schor was inspired to create this Caesar salad after eating too many bad ones. Photo credit: Split Rail

Caesar salads are one of Schor’s favorite menu items to order and eat. After one too many bad ones, she got inspired. “That sometimes fuels my fire, where I take this thing that is often terrible and make it better,” she says.  

For her version, Schor adds some heat via Calabrian chiles in the housemade dressing. Local purveyor Werp Farms provides the Little Gem lettuce, which is like romaine but more tender. Pickled red onions add acidity, while aged pecorino and garlic breadcrumbs bring in some salt and umami. “We went out of our way to make this one vegetarian, so no fish products,” Schor says of her decision to leave out the anchovies traditionally found in Caesar salad, making the dish more accessible to those who don’t eat fish.

Fried Chicken and Biscuits 

Two hands shown holding a piece of crispy fried chicken at Chicago restaurant Split Rail
Schor perfected the recipe for this fried chicken over 10 years. Photo credit: Split-Rail

Schor is the first to admit that putting fried chicken on a menu can be tricky. “Everybody has an opinion of what fried chicken should be,” she says. But after ten years of tinkering, she was ready.  

Schor dry brines free-range chicken with salt and other seasoning for at least 24 hours to deepen its flavor. When butchering the whole birds, the legs are gently butterflied creating more surface area. Schor says this technique helps the breading stick more evenly to the meat.

The dish comes with two half breasts, one leg, one thigh, and two buttermilk biscuits. A house hot sauce, chicken gravy, and chile-maple butter are served on the side. 

While you can just order the fried chicken by the piece, don’t. “If you come to this restaurant and don’t have the biscuit, you’re selling yourself short,” Schor says. “If the chicken is the cornerstone of the menu, then the biscuit is the star of the show. You can’t make biscuits without love and care.” 

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Lisa Shames is a writer focused on travel and food culture in Chicago, IL, and is the U.S. contributor for Sogoodmag. Find her on Instagram 

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