Fast Food Review: NEW! Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders from Carl’s Jr.

Never have chicken tenders created such an existential crisis for a fast foodie.

That is, until now.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. As some of you may know, Carl’s Jr. has been on a full-court marketing press over the last several weeks, with the launch of their new Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders taking center stage in several new TV ads. Known for their fresh take on burgers, Carl’s Jr. has a reputation as one of the higher-end fast food franchises, but I usually don’t associate them with chicken tenders. Still, the description of this new take on the ubiquitous fast food item sounded too good for me to pass up.

Freshly prepared hand-breaded chicken tenders. Premium, all-white meat chicken hand dipped in buttermilk, lightly breaded a fried to a golden brown. Served with your choice of honey mustard, buttermilk ranch, or sweet and bold BBQ dipping sauces.

Drooling yet? An order of three tenders will set you back $2.99, while an order of five costs $4.49. Both the three and five piece orders are also available in combos. As always, the order is hand-delivered to your table, which in my case was a totally rocking retro-booth.  The first thing I noticed about the tenders was the size. I have no idea why, but I was expecting bigger pieces of meat. More or less, you are getting the “tenderloin” part of the breast, which I would put at maybe 1.5 oz. of meat per piece. When it comes to the breading, the tenders actually have a fairly thick and crunchy coating. “Lightly” breaded wasn’t what I got, although the crunchy pieces of breading weren’t completely unwelcome. One thing I did notice was a bit of inconstancy in the amount of breading and the exposure of the breading on the meat. One side seemed “extra crispy,” while the other was more moist and oily. One tender even had over-cooked breading, and had a slightly burnt taste and color.

The meat within all three strips was everything you’d want it to be, I guess. I hate describing chicken tenders as moist and tender, but that’s what these were. There was very little “slim” factor involved in the interior meat, and little to no connective tissue that sometimes makes chewing a chore. The BBQ sauce was the most interesting part. It’s not like other fast food sauces. It’s more smokey and tomato-based than sweet, and has hints of black and red pepper, as well as an almost ale-infused quality. It’s also quite thick, and something I’d expect to get served at a sit down restaurant with a bolder, red meat cut. In short, it wasn’t your typical Heinz BBQ sauce, and was, as my friend Matt says, “legit.”

I should have been happy. No, I should have been ecstatic. Here we have some high quality chicken tenders with a nice crunchy coating and moist, melt in your mouth white meat chicken accented by a real deal BBQ sauce. Yet for some reason, my three lonely tenders left me feeling hollow.  It wasn’t that they weren’t filling. At 340 calories and 19 grams of fat, they’re a solid “snack” type menu item for fast food. But there is just something about them that failed to move me, despite my great love of all things cheap, chicken, and fried. It was at that moment – 4:34 p.m. MST at the Carl’s Jr. in Logan, Utah, to be exact – that I realized what had happened. I was having an existential crisis in my relationship with chicken fingers, a relationship which conjures up only the greatest memories of TGI Friday’s kids meals and McDonald’s Happy Meals of my youth.

Therine, I believe, lies the problem. While these tenders from Carl’s Jr. are good, they’re not great. They taste overly salty. The breading itself is somewhat muted and dull in terms of flavor. And the meat is, well, white meat chicken. Buttermilk breading? OK, great, but what does that do for me. Hand-dipped? OK, and? Complex BBQ sauce? Um, yes, but does it excite my taste buds and that “X” factor memory?

Suddenly, I realized what was wrong – I like love chicken fingers, but that love stems from two things. 1) The memory of childhood and innocence associated with kids orders at my favorite chains and fast food places and 2) The cheap, unique flavor components evident in the kinds of fast food “nuggets” that “tenders” are supposedly better than. When I really sit down and think about it, I’m a nugget man – whether it be the “Questionable” meat found in a Happy Meal or the crown shaped, soft breaded tenders in a BK Kid’s Meal, I unabashedly like the very things which Carl’s Jr.’s new hand-breaded chicken tenders mock.

That all being said, I can still enjoy some good, higher quality tenders, but I can do so only if the BBQ sauce is spiked with HFCS and the tenders have a heavy flavor dusting of black pepper, dextrose, and garlic and onion powder. These tenders may have had great texture, but their lack of a “wow” flavor on their own just doesn’t put them into elite status in my mind, although the price is certainly very competitive. As for me, you ask? I’m off to go watch my pirated collection of Boy Meets World DVD’s and play some Sonic the Hedgehog on my Sega Genesis, all the while, may I add, enjoying a Happy Meal with plenty of ketchup packets

Pros: Hand breaded. Nice, crunchy exterior. All white meat chicken is moist and tender. Legit, complex BBQ sauce. Hot girls in commercials.

Cons: Attempts to be something too high end for fast food. Inconsistent breeding. Lack of flavor outside of sauces. Too salty. Dark meat fried in tallow would likely taste better.

Taste: 7.00/10
Value: 7.50/10
Grubbing on-the-go: 8.50/10
Price: 2.99 for 3 tenders

Overall GrubGrade: 7.25/10

More Info: CarlsJr.com
Nutrition Facts:
3 tenders
Calories – 340
Fat – 19 grams
Saturated Fat – 3.5 grams
Cholesterol – 70 milligrams
Sodium – 1160 milligrams
Carbs – 14 grams
Dietary Fiber – 1 gram
Sugar – 1 grams
Protein – 28 grams

24 comments on “Fast Food Review: NEW! Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders from Carl’s Jr.

  1. Shannon says:

    Did you really mean inconsistent breeding in your list of cons? What is tallow?

  2. Adam says:

    No, I meant breeding. As in chicken fingers making little fingers. Tallow is a certain form of beef fat from around the kidney.

  3. Adam Bomb says:

    Good review! I tried these at Hardee’s back in June, and I wasn’t impressed. I had the same problem with the breading being crispy in some spots and soggy in others. And believe it or not, they were out of the BBQ sauce! I was disappointed with that whole experience :-/

  4. David says:

    Try a place called Raising Canes if you get a chance. Most of the franchise is located in the South but a few places are in the North. If you like chicken fingers, and haven’t had Canes…you need to.

  5. Shannon says:

    Sorry that you did not enjoy your experience at Hardees. I just got a job as a hostess at a sit down restaurant. I wish that you guys could review it, and possibly give me some tips as to what I could do as a hostess to ensure that patrons have a positive experience.

  6. Crusader says:

    Too bad the nearest Carl’s Jr is 50 miles away from me.

  7. Natalie says:

    My boyfriend ordered these this weekend and I took a few bites. He did remark they’re smaller than the old ones, but they taste a lot better. The bites I had were really good. I’ll probably order my own box next time I find myself at Carl’s Jr.

  8. Raiders757 says:

    I’ve tried them, and I think the missing X factor is the lack of spices in the breading. If you don’t dip them in anything, they have a very dull flavor. They got everything else right, but failed in making the tenders amaze when they stand alone. A good tender shouldn’t need any dipping sauce to help them taste great. The dipping sauce should be an added bonus. In this case, it is a needed component.

  9. Sunshine says:

    I think you’re walking a thin line when you start asking for spices in breading – there is a light peppery taste and it looks like paprika; some people like really spicy and some people find that a turn off – if the x factor is the way you choose your dipping sauce, then you get to choose what you like. My experience with the tenders was very positive, I was surprised to find that they were hot hot hot (temperature-wise), and juicy enough that I needed fast napkin deployment! Three tenders is a fulfilling snack; five tenders plus some criss cut fries (the best!), and a small drink is a nice meal. If you want to watch calories, three tenders, as noted, are 350 calories, those and a side salad, plus a diet drink, that’s a great lunch, quick, and for not a lot of $$$.
    I tried these at the test restaurants in Anaheim for weeks before they came out all over and now I’m glad I can get them anywhere. I like the Honey Mustard, which has a nice, light tangy flavor, and I’m looking forward to the tangy Asian sauce I’ve heard is coming out soon. Yum!

    • Raiders757 says:

      I wasn’t meaning spicy spices. I’m talking more along the lines of adding a little more flavor. All good fried chicken has a great combination of just enough spice in the breading to flavor things up(KFC, Popeyes, Chick-Fil-A, and the sweet soul mama carrying a can of lard and a cast iron skillet to name a few). A truly good chicken strip should be able to stand on it’s own, without any sort of dipping sauce. Obviously we all love to dip them in some sort of condiment or another, but it’s not a good thing when we HAVE to use them to cover up a “lack of flavor” as Adam so well put it.

  10. somesteve says:

    looks really good

  11. Mattitude says:

    Too bad you don;t have a Raising Cane’s where you live! They have the BEST chicken fingers anywhere! Although Carl’s Jr comes close,the don’t have the FANTASTIC Cane’s Sauce!

  12. tom h says:

    for me, nuggets at chickfila > all

    a coworker kicked me down a tender (from hardees, on a couple of occasions)… and my experience mirrors yours— I thought it was pretty darn good – superior to, say, arbys. but the breading had sort of a fowl separation from the meat. I’m not fond of that mushy, oily layer between crisp breading and meat. he always had the honey mustard – while good, it was a little to mayo-ish and I see that I’d far prefer the bbq sauce.

    cheers
    -tom

  13. larry says:

    I’ve had the Hardee’s version and found them to be ok. My current favorite chicken stick is Chik-fil-a strips but I find most strips these days to be lacking in flavor. If I HAVE to dip them in a sauce just to get any flavor out of the strip I probably won’t order them a second time.

    I really miss the KFC Blazin’ Strips and the old Applebees strips from around the late 80’s or early 90’s.

  14. ChrisLad says:

    They look good. Other than Chick Fil A all chicken strips need a sauce to be enjoyed. That is all part of the experience. Basically you gotta like honey mustard, ranch, or BBQ to enjoy chicken strips.

  15. i had the hardee’s version too, and i was blown away! i mean, i suppose they weren’t the best chicken tenders ever, but i would never have guessed it came from a fast food place.

    i want more, NOW.

  16. Cali B says:

    Raising Canes is AMAZING! I had my first taste in Ohio and been in love since and I mean I LOVE LOVE LOVE chicken fingers. The closet one to me now is Vegas and my friends and I have taken trips to for the Canes.

  17. Matt says:

    I just finished some from a Carl’s Jr in central California. They were the worst tasting breaded chicken I have ever had. The batter had absolutely no flavor and tasted bitter. At just under $7.00 for a combo for 3, it felt like a rip.

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  19. Elliot says:

    I just had a box of the 5 piece and the first thing I noticed was the size… For $4.49 +tax I was expecting much more food and was left feeling unsatisfied. They did taste very fresh like the chicken tenders you get at a resturaunt. They gave me all three sauces so that was pretty cool. Overall I give my chicken tender experience a B.

  20. Anon says:

    Just tried the 3-piece for $2.00 using a $1.00 off coupon at Carl’s Jr., Ca. Verdict is in… and these are very good! The batter is very similar to Chick-Fil-A batter (likely attempt by Carl’s to recreate it’s own version of CFA batter), but the tenders surprisingly taste better than CFA’s tenders and more akin to CFA’s chicken nuggets, in that the batter is more flavorful. CFA’s tenders just didn’t have that zing like the fillet in the sandwich or the nuggets. The Carl’s Jr ones do though. They can even be eaten without sauce; they are that good. Best tenders by a fast food chain at the moment.

    The batter could be a little bit more thick.

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