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Review: You Probably Shouldn’t Eat at Chick-fil-A

Review: You Probably Shouldn’t Eat at Chick-fil-A:

The fast-food giant serves up some solid food, but with a side of unpalatable baggage

People love Chick-fil-A, the poultry-centric fast-food chain whose corporate purpose is to “glorify God,” and whose strict Sunday closure means that every employee gets at least one day of rest.

People love the carnival-like waffle fries, the neonatal ward-like hospitality, the cleanliness on par with a Silicon Valley chip manufacturer, the fresh-squeezed lemonade spiked with soft-serve ice cream, the aromatic peach shakes, the admirably bare-bones fried-chicken sandwich, the viral fan song set to the tune of the Beatles’s “Yesterday,” and the famous Polynesian sauce, an agrodolce condiment that looks like what would happen if a stop sign were melted down in a magical volcano made of pineapple, ginger, and corn syrup.

People don’t love Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based, family-owned chain that’s heavily rooted in the South but that’s expanding aggressively into new markets like New York and Washington, fueling long lines and, occasionally, opposition. Millions of dollars of the chain’s past profits funded groups that opposed same-sex marriage during an era when millions of Americans were fighting for their civil rights; smaller donations went to a group that practiced conversion therapy, a practice that stems from the discredited belief that homosexuality is a mental illness.

About a year before the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, chief executive Dan Cathy said that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.” Following an uproar over those comments, Chick-fil-A pledged, on Facebook, to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena, and “to treat everyone “with honor, dignity and respect,” regardless of sexual orientation.


This is all to say, reckoning with Chick-fil-A is complicated. There’s the social question, which is how a Biblically grounded institution — whose $8 billion in sales dwarf KFC’s domestic operations — will fare as it expands outside of regions where it’s perceived as a beloved community cornerstone, rather than a venue whose mere presence evokes the type of anger normally directed at unqualified politicians.

And there’s the culinary question, which is whether you should brave the (fast-moving) lines at the home of the “original” pressure-fried chicken sandwich, or whether you should patronize more ambitious (and progressive) poultry-purveying peers like Fuku (only in New York) or Shake Shack.

I used to visit the Chick-fil-A during my D.C. college days, circa 2000, as a cheap and reasonably tasty source of protein after a workout. Nearly two decades later, in my capacity as a restaurant critic, I’m here to report that the increasingly ubiquitous chain serves a pretty good fast-food breakfast, a pretty great frozen coffee, and a pretty average chicken sandwich.

I’m also here to report that it’s the only top 10 quick-service restaurant that doesn’t mention sexual orientation in its online equal opportunity statement, and that it holds a zero rating on LGBT benefits and worker protections from a prominent advocacy group. McDonald’s scored 100. (When I asked Chick-fil-A about this, a rep responded with a general statement reaffirming its commitment to equal opportunity and said that it’s up to local franchisees to determine benefits.)

New York City's first standalone location of Chick-fil-A opened nearly two years ago to small protests and heavy lines. The chain plans on opening about a dozen restaurants across the five boroughs in the next three years, and it’s hard to blame it; the three locations I visited for this review continue to attract the type of fervent lunchtime crowds one might’ve expected during the early days at Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Chick-fil-A’s draw is simplicity: It’s all about the chicken. There are no burgers, hot dogs, tacos, cakes, hand pies, or lunchtime burritos — unless you count the 1990s-style wrap sandwich. There isn’t any beef, and the only pork is relegated to a bit of breakfast sausage or bacon.

That simplicity extends to the chicken sandwich, which is largely free from adulterants. The larger fast-food industry, which has no problem selling Froot Loop shakes and other things that will turn our livers into foie gras, generally abides by the false assumption that America wants a crummy house salad — watery lettuce, out-of-season tomatoes, and a chokehold of mayo — on its chicken sandwiches. Chick-fil-A knows better: The classic sandwich is nothing more than chicken, pickles (always on the bottom, so your tongue is instantly zapped with acidity), a white bun that that gets out of the way of the chicken, butter, sugar, and enough salt — 1,350 milligrams — to turn your duodenum into charcuterie.

Structurally, it’s tempting to call it the platonic ideal of the chicken sandwich. It doesn’t exist to highlight infinite trendy toppings or revel in assembly-line customization, a la Chipotle. It exists to show off chicken. Until you start eating it. And you realize it’s not showing off much at all.

The only chicken at Chick-fil-A is boneless, skinless breast meat. While some parts of the culinary world explore how to extract more nose-to-tail goodness from poultry, or at least find a way to make sure your white meat doesn’t taste like seitan, the country’s most prominent chicken chain is focusing on the part of the chicken that bores, and that, in the hands of the corporate chefs here, really doesn’t taste like a whole lot.

To be fair, not a lot of folks turn to fast-food chicken expecting an epicurean inquiry into poultry funk or arcane breeding. People eat fast-food chicken for salt, fat, and perhaps most importantly, crunch. Problem is, Chick-fil-A’s chicken has too much salt, not enough fat, and very little crunch. The chief flavors of the sandwich are industrial neon pickle, sugar, and peanut oil.

If we lived in a post-apocalyptic world where Chick-fil-A was the only restaurant chain and all the remaining medical centers still had world-class dialysis machines, maybe this would suffice. But walk into any Shake Shack and your chicken sandwich will shatter with eons more crunch. It’s enough to make you want to forgive the mayo. Swing by a Fuku, whose lean butter- and pickle-topped sandwich is heavily influenced by Chick-fil-A, and you’ll experience an incendiary thigh meat with tons more flavor and texture. Heck, even drop by McDonald’s, order the buttermilk crispy chicken sandwich, hold the tomato, and you’ll still have a chicken sandwich with more texture and less sodium shock. The state of fast-food chicken sandwiches is strong, and The Chick just isn’t at the top of the list anymore.

Chick-fil-A, alas, doesn’t have much to worry about financially; it’s currently America’s favorite fast-food restaurant, according to one consumer satisfaction index. Sales actually soared the year Cathy made his controversial remarks. That means we can all expect more mayo-free chicken sandwiches across our fruited plain. So when you find yourself at Chick-fil-A, by choice or by chance, here’s a rundown of what’s great, what’s good, and what other prominent chains do better.


First, the two best dishes

Chick-n-Minis (aka mini chicken sandwiches, breakfast only): These nuggets stuffed into mini yeast rolls aren’t a pretty dish; the craggy bits of breaded chicken are halfway falling out of the undersized rolls, some of which are nearly broken by the time you pick them up. If you saw these at a hot buffet you’d hop into your car and find another hot buffet. So be it; the rolls, brushed with honey butter, are chain’s best foil for its salt-lick chicken. This is a dish that doesn’t try to be something better than it is; it basks in the baseness of its own junk-food turpitude. Rating: 9/10. Calories: 350. Fat: 14g. Sodium: 880mg.

Hash browns (breakfast only): Outside of a diner, hash browns normally come in two shapes: cylindrical, in the form of a tater tot, or rectangular, like a small deck of cards. Chick-fil-A chooses to ignore convention and form their morning potatoes into tiny round discs. They are hash browns pretending to be chicken nuggets, and they back masterful levels of salt, crunch, and earthiness. They need no ketchup. Rating: 9/10. Calories: 240. Fat:16g. Sodium: 390mg.


Breakfast

Chicken biscuit: This is a dish that describes itself and tastes like it sounds, except for the fact it’s entirely more salty, less crispy, and less delicious than you might imagine. But add a packet of honey, a spot of hot sauce, and a wicked hangover, and you’re in pretty good shape until the next highway rest stop. Rating: 8/10. Calories: 450. Fat: 21g. Sodium: 1310mg.

Sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit: It’s just like the McDonald’s version, but with fluffier eggs, a more crumbly biscuit, and a sausage that doesn’t reek of pine oil. Or put more simply, it’s like the McDonald’s version, except it tastes good. Rating: 8.5/10. Calories: 600. Fat: 40g. Sodium: 1520mg.

Bacon, egg, and cheese on a muffin: Another attempt at taking on McD’s breakfast supremacy, but with less success, thanks to a dry muffin. What this sandwich needs is butter. Rating: 5/10. Calories: 300. Fat: 12g.

Chicken, egg, and cheese bagel: The sandwich features fluffier scrambled eggs than at McDonald’s and a passable crispy chicken breast. But here’s the thing: This isn’t a bagel, the baked and boiled masterpiece that’s a triumph of the New York culinary world; this tastes more like what would happen if a contestant on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen used a cookie cutter to form a bagel out of a day-old loaf of bread. F-bombs ensue. Rating: 4/10. Calories: 480. Fat: 18g. Sodium: 1310mg.


Lunch and dinner

Spicy chicken sandwich: This rust-colored patty infused with spicy peppers has enough sodium (1,650 milligrams) to turn your bathtub into the Dead Sea. Expect the same soft texture as the regular sandwich but with a level of heat that rises briefly to a midlevel intensity and then vanishes, the spice equivalent of a summertime PG-13 thriller. So, more Twister than Alien: Covenant. I kind of like it. Rating: 7/10. Calories: 450. Fat: 19g. Sodium: 1620mg.

Waffle potato fries: Introducing one of the few french fries to ever trigger my gag reflex: The color here is more wan than golden; these are frites in need of a Caribbean vacation. The texture is crispy when hot but quickly becomes chewy and almost rubbery. The flavor is off, too, because the fries are consistently undersalted. And the worst part happens when you chew: The exterior yields to a gritty, mealy interior, evoking a poorly cooked steak fry. Eating one of these pommes gaufrettes imparts a distinct sense of nostalgia for better, more expertly seasoned waffle fries at bowling alleys across the country. Rating: 3/10. Calories: 360. Fat: 24g. Sodium: 170mg.

Chicken sandwich: Nothing fancy here, just a plain pressure-fried chicken sandwich. Sometimes, on a good day, it smells like chicken. The flimsy white bun, tenderized meat, soft crust (with a few gently crispy edges), and floppy cukes combine forces to create about as much textural contrast as a peanut-butter sandwich. An Atlanta friend tells me the fried chicken isn’t really supposed to be crunchy, which might be true, but that makes as much sense as saying a cup of Jell-O shouldn’t jiggle. Rating: 6/10. Calories: 440. Fat: 19g. Sodium: 1350mg.

Chicken nuggets: I almost disqualified these from my chicken nugget roundup because they are closer to a small tender than a true chopped and formed patty. But my taxonomical chop-busting notwithstanding, the Chick-fil-A nugs exhibit a clean, sweet savoriness with a more impressive crunch and chew than the traditional sandwich. If only Chick-fil-A were willing to make a fattier, more sausage-like creation. Rating: 7/10. Calories: 260. Fat: 12g. Sodium: 980mg.

 

Chicken strips: Chick-fil-A brazenly seasons its strips differently than its nuggets. A reading of the online ingredients shows that the strip batter includes tomato powder, garlic powder, chicken fat, molasses, and sugarcane syrup. This results in a slightly more complex flavor than the nuggets, though the tenders are less juicy. To each her own. Rating: 7/10. Calories: 350. Fat: 17g. Sodium: 940mg.

Spicy Southwest salad: With crisp lettuce, sweet corn, and spicy chicken chilled to such a degree that it is nearly unidentifiable as animal protein, this salad comes with more tableside flourishes than a three Michelin-starred restaurant. You rip open a plastic bag of chipotle dressing to drench the lettuce in tart buttermilk. Then you rip open another plastic bag to season the salad with cumin-laced pepitas. Then you open up a third plastic sachet to shower the affair with lime-spiked tortilla chips (as sour as Warheads candies). And finally you open up a fourth plastic bag to retrieve the fork and start eating it out of the two-part plastic container in which everything is contained. It’s all a startling balance of flavor for a fast-food salad, but really, it’s a ton of waste. Rating: 6/10. Calories: 290 Fat: 8g. Sodium: 970mg.

Grilled nuggets: Even juicier than the proper breast; they actually sit in a pool of the delicious seasoning juice. With all the preservative sodium, I suppose these would make great MREs for soldiers around the world, and maybe I’d order them myself as a substitute for a whey protein shake after the gym. Rating: 6/10. Calories: 140. Fat: 3.5g. Sodium: 440mg.

Grilled chicken sandwich: This ranks with the grilled nuggets as the juiciest items at Chick-fil-A. The secret is the seasoning, which includes apple cider vinegar, sea salt, chicken fat, smoke flavor, lemon peel, red bell pepper, and — bet you wouldn’t guess this — orange juice and grape juice. So far, so good. But the bad news is that this masterpiece of moistness comes with a multigrain bun, lettuce, and tomato. Grilled food shouldn’t mean spa food. Rating: 5.5/10. Calories: 310. Fat: 6g. Sodium: 820mg.

Spicy deluxe sandwich: It’s similar to the regular crispy chicken sandwich, but you’re paying more for the watery tomato you don’t want, the lettuce you don’t need, and the slice of pepper jack cheese you really can’t taste. Rating: 5/10. Calories: 540. Fat: 25g. Sodium: 1760mg.

Chicken salad sandwich: It’s just like any other version of this mayonnaise-y lunch staple, except with a combination of spices and pickle relish that make it taste like cake frosting. Rating: 3/10. Calories: 500. Fat: 21g. Sodium: 1090mg.

Chicken noodle soup: Basically a bowl of mushy vegetables floating in hot, saline cornstarch broth, this makes a bag of Lipton dehydrated chicken soup seem gourmet by comparison. Rating: 2/10. Calories: 130. Fat: 2.5g. Sodium: 1040mg.

Superfood side salad: Basically chopped broccolini and kale blended with maple vinaigrette and dried cherries, this salad tastes like cellophane marinated in Sweet’N Low syrup. Rating: 1/10. Calories: 190. Fat: 9g. Sodium: 250mg.


... and finally, a quick, unrated look at drinks and dessert

Icedream cone: A cool, milky, low-fat dairy product laced with so much carrageenan and guar gum that you can order one, let it sit, eat your entire lunch, and it still won’t have dripped 10 minutes later. Calories: 260. Fat: 6g. Sugar: 38g.

Frosted coffee: Chick-fil-A’s answer to the Dunkin’ Donuts frozen iced coffee or the Starbucks Frappuccino. With respect to both of those chains, Chick-fil-A’s version is smoother, with less leftover slush at the end, thanks to a shot of Icedream blended in. This is the correct pairing for the chicken mini breakfast sandwiches. Calories: 240. Fat: 6g. Sugar: 38g.

Lemonade: Freshly squeezed on premises and laced with more sugar than a soda pop. The scent is intoxicating; the flavor, cloying. Mix it with iced tea, Arnold Palmer-style, for a more balanced beverage. Calories: 220. Fat: 0g. Sugar: 55g.

Frosted lemonade: A misnomer of sorts. Sounds like a cold slushie, but turns out to be too much Icedream blended with too little lemonade. It tastes nothing like citrus and everything like the beverage’s sugar content, which is 63 grams. Calories: 330. Fat: 6g. Sugar: 63g.

Iced tea: Sweetened to that sweet spot where it’s palate-achingly undrinkable. Threw it out after two sips. Calories: 120. Fat: 0g. Sugars: 30g.

Strawberry milkshake: Drinkable through a straw without inducing a stroke, which will automatically disqualify it for those who prefer to consume milkshakes with a spoon. Also, it tastes like actual strawberries. Not bad! Calories: 570. Fat: 21g. Sugar: 77g.

Peach milkshake: Like sucking a can of over-sweetened Dole canned peaches through a straw. Nasty stuff. Calories: 630. Fat: 0g. Sugar: 0g

 

Ryan Sutton is Eater NY’s chief critic and data lead. Jenny Zhang is Eater’s newsletter editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Special thanks to Sonia Chopra and Matt Buchanan

 

(Via Eater - All)

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