With the "better burger" trend fading out, the emerging glorified fast food is chicken – specifically chicken tenders, aka chicken fingers, aka boneless chicken "wings." With an entire generation weaned on chicken tenders kiddie meals, it's not surprising that a wave of restaurant chains have made the three-piece chicken tender with fries and slaw their centerpiece.
Chick-fil-A is the benchmark, joined by chains such as Raising Cane's, Buffalo Wild Wings and more. The trend has hit the Dallas area hard, with one element that is unique: We're home to the only branch of Super Chix, a new concept from KFC, which is located in a rundown shopping center in Arlington.
Georgia-based chain Zaxby's, whose three-tender dinner with fries and Texas toast is pictured here, is nearly identical to Raising Cane's. Both are of average quality, both have crinkle-cut fries and both boast a moderately light crust on the chicken.
Zaxby's strips were thin; the crust had a peppery paprika flavor. The fries, seasoned with salt and paprika, were unspectacular.
The slaw consisted of diced cabbage and carrots in a sweet dressing whose ingredients included high fructose corn syrup. It was the least appealing part of the meal.
$6.29 for 3-piece with fries & slaw
Louisiana-based Raising Cane's has a big local presence, with 24 stores around DFW and counting. Fingers come in a variety of combo sizes, with fries, slaw, Texas toast and one sauce.
All of these chicken-finger places are weirdly touchy about the number of sauces they'll give out, as if a ramekin of sauce has some tremendous value. Most are just your standard ketchup + mayo.
This chicken was a "real" tender, i.e., the pointed little cut of meat within the breast. It was moist on the verge of watery, and fell apart into strands easily. The crust was crunchy and innocuous.
Fries were crinkle-cut, similar to Zaxby's, but thinner and crisper. The slaw was a blend of chopped cabbage and carrot in a thin milky dressing. It had a generic, sweet, bland taste, as if it came from a food-service company.
$5.99 for 3-piece with fries & slaw
The success of Chick fil-A, even despite its controversies and unwillingness to open on Sundays, has spawned a slew of competitor wannabes.
Its classic item is a chicken tender sandwich. It also offers strips with a choice of sauce. Other trademarks include waffle fries and two beverages: iced tea and lemonade.
The tenders seemed like they'd been pounded flat; they were clearly real tenders but came across like strips. They're cooked in a pressure fryer. The crust was nicely crunchy, with an intriguing seasoning, hinting at notes of thyme and the unmistakable taste of chicken bouillon.
The portion of coleslaw was much larger than anyone else's, with cabbage finely diced in a sweet, creamy white dressing, with a texture reminiscent of rice pudding.
$6.09 for 3-piece with one side
Super Chix, from KFC owner Yum Brands, targets Chick fil-A with its menu of chicken sandwiches, tenders, fries and lemonade. In addition, it has frozen custard and milkshakes.
The chicken was brined and marinated before frying and had the resultant tender texture. The crust was thick enough to offer some crunch but not so thick that it got in the way. It was mildly spicy and peppery, with a contrasting hit of sweetness.
Coleslaw was shredded extra thin, to the point that it was almost wilted by the clear vinegar-based dressing — but in a positive way, like sauerkraut.
Big points for eco-friendly packaging: Everything came in paper containers.
$3.25 for 3 tenders, no sides
Korean-born Bonchon Chicken is included here on a technicality: It has chicken tenders. Otherwise, it differs from the others on the list in that it is more of a sit-down restaurant. It does wings, and big combos of 10 or more pieces. It has beer.
Called strips, the tenders were pounded flat, with a thick, crunchy crust and a soy-garlic dressing with an excellent degree of heat. The chicken was a mere vehicle for the crust. There was also a sweetness. The combination of spicy, chewy and sweet made the strips seem like jerky or like candy.
Slaw came in regular or kimchee, and that's the one to get. Long shreds of cabbage and carrot were coated in a creamy dressing doctored with a dose of fermented red chile paste — sweet, hot and good, just like the chicken.
$10.95 for 10-item combo
PDQ is an up-and-comer from Florida with one branch newly opened in Frisco. Atmosphere and service aim high, with rough-hewn wood fittings and young staffers who patrol the dining room restlessly.
The basic three-piece dinner comes with choice of one side, so if you want fries and slaw, you'll pay extra. They also do tenders in salads and sandwiches. There are milkshakes, including a malt flavor, which is rare.
The tenders were large, in a shaggy, corn-flake-type crust that disintegrated easily. They had a filament that comes with that part of the chicken; while authentic, it was rubbery. The chicken tasted unadorned, with the primary flavor coming from the peppery note in the crust.
The coleslaw had blueberries, an upscale twist, but they seemed previously frozen and didn't combine well with the harsh raw onion.
$7.29 for 3-piece with one side
Zippy's is a rather furtive Plano startup whose owners don't want their identity revealed. Their first branch opened in Frisco in mid-June. In addition to chicken tenders, Zippy's does barbecue ribs, brisket, sausage and pulled pork, plus Louisiana-style seafood such as fried catfish and po'boys.
Tenders come with toast and choice of one side. We got coleslaw, a tiny portion, with cabbage and carrot shaved paper-thin, in a painfully acrid vinegar dressing. Fries were narrow, a la McDonald's.
The tenders had been brined, giving them a tender texture and mellow flavor. The crust adhered tightly to the chicken. It was thinner than most of the others mentioned here, but with a pleasing, slightly sweet note to the seasoning.
Points off for the packaging: Whether dining in or taking out, everything is served in Styrofoam containers and plastic bags.
$6.50 for 3-piece with one side