After doing some work at a Madison library branch on South Park Street, a friend and I thought we’d find someplace in the neighborhood for a quick dinner. We considered the options and decided to check out McGee’s Chicken, which opened in May 2016 in a former Taco Bell at 1920 S. Park St.
McGee’s is a familiar name around the Fitchburg, Madison and Sun Prairie area for chicken restaurants. Esperdell McGee has had a few of them over the years, including McGee’s Chicken and Gyro House, which he operated for about three years at a gas station on East Washington Avenue before moving over to Park Street.
In October he launched a second restaurant in downtown Sun Prairie, where he lives.
McGee’s serves wings, gizzards, tenders, breasts, legs, thighs and whole chickens, but there are plenty of other options on a menu that, according to advertising, crosses fast food with soul food.
The menu includes sandwiches (hamburgers, cheeseburgers, gyros, Philly-style steak), appetizers such as fried okra and chicken and catfish nuggets, gyros plates, rib tips, pork chops, catfish and chicken shawarma. Most meals are served with french fries or corn bread.
On the night we visited, large cardboard signs at the counter advertised homemade chicken noodle soup and peach cobbler, among other desserts. But we were most interested in McGee’s chicken, which features crispy skin and moist, tender meat.
It turned out to be a good thing we had chicken in mind, because when we entered the dimly lit restaurant and stepped up to the counter to order, we discovered chicken was about the only option—no rib tips, catfish, soup or peach cobbler. A person behind the counter said McGee had been so focused on opening his Sun Prairie restaurant that he hasn’t been able to keep up with his Park Street location.
There are some other quirks about the restaurant, as well. For example, security seems to be a priority. What had been a standard counter for ordering food at a Taco Bell has been modified so there are only small square openings at which to order and receive your food. I’ve never before had to show a photo ID to use a debit or credit card, and there’s a handmade sign near the counter indicating the cashier does not accept bills over $20.
There was a steady stream of customers during the 90 minutes we were there, and all of them ordered their food as take-out. My friend and I were the only ones to actually sit and eat in the rather dingy dining room, which featured a single TV tuned to a basketball game.
Everything about the restaurant seemed a bit on the run-down side except for the restrooms, which were clean and bright.
While McGee’s has its shortcomings, there are some things to appreciate, as well.
We learned the restaurant’s servers and cashiers are mostly volunteers who attend a black church in the neighborhood, where McGee serves as pastor. And we deduced that most of the customers who came for take-out orders were regulars from the neighborhood. There was a distinct sense of community—even affection—between the workers and customers (whom we noticed often addressed each other as “babe”).
The food is served in paper to-go containers. If you want a fork or knife, you have to request it—and it will be of the plastic picnic variety.
We were surprised at how long it took to receive our food after we ordered, but we took it as a good sign our meals were at least being prepared per order.
A plate of fried chicken that came with fries was terrific—crispy, moist and really tasty, if a bit over-salted. A breast and wing with fries is $9.25 while a leg and thigh is $7.49. (The fries themselves were substandard, however.)
We liked the kitchen’s fried okra ($3.29) as an appetizer. Drenched in flour, it was fried to a golden crisp and served in a paper bag.
About the only other option on the menu the night of our visit was a plate of gyros ($7.49) that came with a pita, tomato and onion. My friend was pleased with its flavor, but we had to go to the counter to ask for the traditional cucumber-dill-yogurt sauce (tzatziki) that comes with a gyro—and we were happy that find out they had it.
McGee’s does not serve beer or wine. Beverage options are restricted to various sodas.
It’s obviously hard to recommend a place that doesn’t have most of what’s listed on its menu and serves food in throwaway containers in a somewhat unpleasant dining room. But if you love fried chicken and are a little bit flexible, hungry and on South Park Street, you might want to give McGee’s a try.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.