On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself in a strange restaurant, with limited food offerings, and, being the world’s pickiest eater, resort to ordering the chicken tenders/fingers/strips/whatever your preferred nomenclature for a sliced piece of breaded and fried chicken breast is.
For most people, this is the food of five year old children, but for me, it’s a staple meal, as I am a five year old child. And different places have wildly different ways of preparing them, such as Chili’s and their “let’s bread this like a piece of cod at a fish fry!” technique.
Of course, tenders by themselves are nothing to write home about, generally, so you add a dipping sauce, in my case, ranch dressing. Great ranch can save bad tenders, but great tenders cannot save bad ranch. If it tastes cheap and tangy (I’ll be using that phrase a lot), it’s crap. Absolute garbage bottled ranch that has no place anywhere near chicken. I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over chicken tenders, and ran several “top five” lists with various people, only to discover that the ranch can make or break the dining experience.
So, what is the point of this preamble? To thoroughly outline my criteria for a great experience with chicken fingers, so I can rate some restaurants. I will be adding more tender reviews as time goes on, and this is not a ranking, but this should catch you up with a few winners and a few stinkers. (Please note, this list is very Michigan centric, so there may be some restaurants you’re not familiar with. Bear with me on that and give them a shot next time you’re in the area.)
- Fuddruckers –
Fuddruckers tenders are truly something to behold. The perfect amount of tender chicken to crunchy exterior breading, offered with a delicious “heavy but not thick” ranch dressing that serves up a perfectly appropriate amount of spices that is not overwhelming, but not buried in the sauce either, and almost completely devoid of the cheap tanginess of a bottled ranch. One of the few restaurants that just nails the chicken tender experience. This is the standard to which I measure all other chicken tenders. (Steak fries are also a plus)
- Te Roma –
Te Roma is a small dive bar in the Detroit suburb of Center Line, that is relatively well lit, clean, and has a grill that’s open until 2AM. Their tenders are of a wide/flat variety, but they’re absolutely humongous. They’ve got a crunchy outer shell and are a little on the season-heavy side, but the meat itself is tender and juicy. The ranch is, similar to Fuddruckers, perfectly seasoned, lacking in any cheap tanginess, but ever so slightly thinner than the Fuddruckers ranch. Probably my second favorite on the list.
- Chili’s –
Chili’s decided, in their infinite wisdom, that the Chicken Crispers should be breaded like a piece of cod at a fish fry. It’s very soft and doughy, so very, very tender, but the slivers of meat are so scant, that you get roughly two actual tenders worth of meat in a basket of five. But they trick you with the optics, making them look fat and juicy with their puffy, flavorless breading. And their ranch is an abomination, which, while having no cheap tanginess, is also roughly the consistency of skim milk and has barely any seasoning to speak of. Just an all around unpleasant experience. Order a steak instead.
- National Coney Island –
There’s not much to be said about National Coney Island’s chicken tenders. I order them because they’re filling, and not much else. The chicken is dry, the breading is impotent and lifeless, and they’re always served at about 600 degrees for some reason. The worst of the worst. They get half a point because they are filling. The ranch is absolutely abysmal. Cheap, tanginess abounds, the consistency is fine, but the flavor is absolutely repugnant. Just order Bosco sticks with marinara. Two orders because there’s only four in an order.
- Denny’s –
Tenders – 5/5
Ranch – 0.5/5
Overall – 2.25/5
Denny’s is a great example of “great tenders can’t save bad ranch”. It’s the thickness of latex based paint, and tastes like a bowl of cold milk. There is no seasoning, and (graciously) no cheap tanginess either. It was not always this way, however, this is a somewhat recent development (I’d guess late 90s/early 00s). But the chicken tenders ‑ my first love of chicken tenders ‑ so pardon the rose colored glasses, are on par with Fuddruckers. A perfect amount of seasoning and crunch to the breading, juicy, tender chicken, and a delightful experience, hampered only by that godawful ranch dressing. You can have it so much better, sweetheart. For that reason, and that reason alone, I say “pass”.
- Haney’s –
Tenders – 1/5
Ranch – 5/5
Overall – 3/5
Haney’s is a small family restaurant, just north of Detroit. Their tenders are much like National Coney Island’s, but with a bit more seasoning in the breading. They’re dry and uninspiring, but palatable. The ranch, however, saves the tenders from a completely abysmal experience. It is somewhat season-heavy, but a good thickness, and completely devoid of the cheap, tangy flavor of bottled ranch. For being so horrendous, the tenders become perfectly acceptable in this ranch dressing. One of the best on the list. (But order a Belgian waffle with strawberries instead, because they are absolutely fantastic).
So that’s a good start of the Tender Tracker. A nice little swath of the good, the bad, and the ugly of chicken tenders. By no means is this definitive, and I will be adding more tender reviews as time goes by, but this should create a baseline for tender greatness.