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.
Grubbing on-the-go: 8.50/10
Price: 2.99 for 3 tenders
Overall GrubGrade: 7.25/10
More Info: CarlsJr.com
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