Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Searching for a Golden Nugget

Chicken nuggets are one of those rare staples of American cuisine that defy explanation. Examine almost any menu in the country, and you'll likely find some version (usually for kids) of a nugget/tender. They're conveniently sized, often tasty (it's deep-fried chicken... of course it tastes good) and usually the cheapest thing on the menu. What's more American than that? We decided to taste-test the fast food options of America's new "apple pie."

Chick-fil-A: For starters, opt for the Kid's Meal. 4 or 6 nuggets with waffle fries and a small soda is more than enough for any normal person. It's also a great way to work around Chick-fil-A's pricy menu. A 6-pc. Kid's Meal sets you back less than five bucks ($4.35 + tax.)

Surprisingly, the nuggets weren't greasy at all (score!) They're plump with meat, despite their relatively tiny size. Chick-fil-A's Polynesian sauce was delicious... like sweet 'n sour on steroids. I love their waffle fries, but they were light on salt. Overall, darn tasty: It's good to be a kid again, even if it's just for a lunch break.

Grade: B

Chick-fil-A Nuggets Kid's Meal

Burger King: One of the few things that BK does better than it's arch-rival McDonald's is the chicken nugget. While not exactly chicken-like, BK's nugget is softer and tastes fresher than McD's fried counterpart. Strangely enough, BK fries their version as well... It just doesn't taste like they do. There's no grease, and no oily aftertaste. 10 nuggets (the perfect amount) run $3.29. A solid B.

Grade: B

10-pc. Chicken Nuggets at Burger King

Burger King: Take two. Last night (January 8th) was my first time trying BK's new chicken nuggets. I saw an ad on TV offering 20 nuggets for $4.29; so I decided to give them a go. That was my first mistake.

In an earlier review, I mentioned that BK's nuggets were one of their only items that topped rival McDs. So what does Burger King do? They change the recipe, practically duplicating the nuggets at McDonald's (except for the taste, which still doesn't taste like chicken.) I don't know how they do it, but Burger King is a living, breathing example of how not to reinvent a company.

This time around, BK lost me at the register... where they charged $4.99 for the nuggets despite the sale price ($4.29) being advertised on a big screen DIRECTLY OVERHEAD (see pic below.) Strike one.

Strike two comes in the details. You get two sauces, not four (and you have to ask them for it... I'm guessing they hope you forget.) Also, not one napkin in the bag (fail.) Napkins would be helpful when you consider how greasy BK's new nuggets are. You can actually see the sheen of grease in the photo below. Strike three is result of the nuggets' new taste, which is almost nonexistent. My fingers were covered in grease afterwards (another round of thanks for the napkins you didn't give me.) As for atmosphere, BK earns strike four (am I piling on?) when you consider I had to eat my nuggets against the backdrop of constant yelling back and forth in Spanish between the staff, behind the counter upstairs. At the rate they're going, Burger King should consider selling themselves to McDonald's: At least this way, they could be copied correctly.

Grade: F (How do you strike out on chicken nuggets?)

Burger King's new chicken nuggets

Ranch1: My friend Rhonda and I used to trek down to International Square's food court during our lunch hour for Ranch1's then-unique take on chicken and fries. Well times have changed: I don't work with Rhonda anymore, and I try to avoid food courts at all costs. What else has changed? Ranch1's food... and in particular, their International Square franchise, which seems to be taking liberties with the menu.

Back in the day, I used to order the RanchClassic chicken sandwich. Tasty chicken breast (grilled not fried) with some of the best fries in the business. They used to offer chicken tenders too (even now, according to their website) but not at International Square. Tenders have been replaced by bite size, deep-fried popcorn chicken pieces. They suck. First of all, they're cooked to sh*t. Second, all you get/taste is batter: There's little to no chicken inside.

The fries look nothing like the ones I "grew up on." Ranch1's spuds are industrial looking, bland tasting and awful. While the operators of this franchise are cheap (one sauce, one napkin) their prices aren't: The #8 Popcorn Chicken combo runs $8.99 (for one of the worst lunches you're likely to have in some time.) Toss in the grossest eating atmosphere in the area (International Square's food court is ├╝ber-depressing, void of light and inhabited by a number of dicey looking characters) and you have a surefire bet for the area's worst chicken nugget option.

Grade: F

Ranch1's #8 Popcorn Chicken combo

McDonald's: What's a chicken nugget rundown without the king himself? The McNugget is the quintessential bite of chicken in America, and with good reason: They're pretty darn good! I bought a 4-piece ($1.19) with a large fries ($1.99) and value drink ($1) for lunch on January 11th. Nobody competes with McD's on price, and $4.60 (including tax) is a steal for lunch. Unfortunately, the service at the 24-hour 4130 Wisconsin Avenue, NW branch put McD's in a hole from the opening bell.

Despite three people waiting patiently in line, I had to ask my eventual cashier if he was even open. He nodded (and without uttering a single word) took my order. As always, food comes out super fast (the McDonald's engine is truly something to behold.) My tray came with plenty of napkins, and I took a seat in the spacious (and clean) dining area. Sadly, my lunch was far from noteworthy. For starters, the fries were ice cold (a BIG no-no.) My nuggets were nice, hot and tasty: I paired mine with McD's classic barbecue sauce, but you have plenty of choices (including my personal favorite, spicy buffalo.)

Cold fries and a surly cashier put a damper on my meal, but the nuggets were solid as ever. It's hard to go wrong with McNuggets.

Grade: B

McDonald's Chicken McNuggets

Popeye's: Love that chicken from Popeye's? Love is a strong word, but Popeye's Wicked chicken meal for $4.99 had me immediately in like at first bite. Service at the 4309 Wisconsin Ave., NW outlet is usually hit or miss; but today was a hit. I ordered one of two sale items advertised on their front window (Give Popeye's an A for marketing) and ended up with plenty of delicious food for just over five bucks (after tax.)

The tenders were chewy (almost like a fried clam.) Much to my surprise, the batter was light-tasting even though my tenders were extra crispy. Best of all, they came with a brand new dipping sauce (blackened ranch) that made the perfect cool compliment to my piping hot tenders. Popeye's cajun mashed potatoes are killer good... best fast-food mash anywhere) and today was no exception. Toss in a biscuit for good measure, and you have a $5 lunch worth getting excited over.

Grade: B+ (The combination of nuggets, mash and blackened ranch dipping sauce made a believer out of me.)

Popeye's Wicked chicken meal

: The only good thing on Wendy's food menu is their chicken nugget. Well-priced ($1.67 for a 6-piece) Wendy's nuggets are available in regular and spicy. Make sure you get a dipping sauce (my cashier/manager didn't bother to give/offer me one... I had to go back and ask.) Nice and crispy, my nuggets were almost over-fried; but they tasted delicious. I'd grade them higher; but eating them requires stepping inside Wendy's in the first place (insult intended.)

Grade: B+

Wendy's 6-piece nuggets