REVIEW: Wendy’s Chicken Tenders and Side of S’awesome

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Wait, chicken tenders are a thing again?

When McDonald’s killed its Chicken Selects in 2015, I could have sworn the burger-centric fast foods chains were done with premium, dippable chicken. But the resurrection of McDonald’s Chicken Selects as Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Tenders seems to have started something a trend. Case in point, Wendy’s feels the need to one-up the Golden Arches with brand new Chicken Tenders and a never-before-seen sauce – Side of S’awesome.

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I’ve eaten a couple hundred pounds of chicken tenders and I can tell you these are decent as far as the all-white meat stuff goes. They lack the kind of succulent, peanut oil-infused flavor of Chick-fil-A’s tenders, and you’re not going to mistake them for Raising Cane’s or Zaxby’s. But the breading is crisp and well seasoned, the chicken isn’t dry, and there are no textural abnormalities like slimy meat or hollow crevasses under the breading.

But the flavor is predictable: the ubiquitous garlic, onion powder, salt, and black pepper mix you’ve probably tasted in dozens of chain restaurant and food service tenders. In other words, unless you’re really into the breading, you’re gonna want something to dip these in.

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I’m assuming Wendy’s came up with the name for their S’awesome Sauce because someone thought it was cool; that or “Spread,” “Fry Sauce,” and “Ed’s Sauce” were already taken. In any case, they should have named it “It’s Alright Sauce” because it’s okay.

Advertised as “tangy, sweet, and smoky,” it has elements of the first two flavors but very little smokiness unless you count the whisper of Worcestershire on the backend. Overall, it trends neither distinctly tangy or sweet, instead finding a mild middle ground which tastes like two parts mayo, one part mustard, and one part ketchup. But it doesn’t pop; it doesn’t wow; it doesn’t make me lick my fingers and declare to my coworkers that this shit is s’awesome.

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Put another way, if dipping is your thing, then you’ll probably want to stick with your usual Wendy’s go-to sauce.

When I saw that McDonald’s brought back chicken tenders, and then Wendy’s followed suit, my first instinct was to ask myself why major fast food chains had deserted them in the first place. But now that I’ve tried Wendy’s new Chicken Tenders, I can’t help notice how ordinary they taste when lined up against the Raising Cane’s, Zaxby’s, and Chick-fil-A’s of the world. And, unfortunately, even a name like S’awesome Sauce can’t hide the fact that the entire combo is average.

(Nutrition Facts – 3 pieces – 300 calories, 130 calories from fat, 14 grams of total fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 70 milligrams of cholesterol, 920 milligrams of sodium, 20 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of dietary fiber, 0 grams of sugar, 22 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5 combo ($3.49 for order of 3)
Size: 3-piece combo
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: Meatier alternative to Wendy’s nuggets. Solid crunch and well seasoned breading. Lower in calories than most chicken tenders.
Cons: S’awesome Sauce is pretty average. Tenders aren’t particularly succulent or juicy. Breading flavor is predictable. $5 combo meal isn’t as good as Dairy Queen’s $5 chicken tenders lunch.

REVIEW: Wendy’s Giant Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger

Wendy s Giant Jr Bacon Cheeseburger

Of the many endearing 1990’s family comedies involving sports, I tend to think Little Big League is the most underrated. Freed from the dopey animal plot lines of Air Bud, and thankfully eschewing the preposterous sports medicine that allowed Henry Rowengartner to overtake Chet Stedman in the Cubs’ rotation, Little Big League’s oxymoronic title lends itself to the story of 12-year-old Billy Heywood becoming manager of the Twins, proving he has big league ability despite his junior high stature.

This is more or less the plot line of Wendy’s new Giant Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger.

From its paper wrapping to its basic bun and those adorable little fresh and never frozen hamburger patties you’ll get on any of the other five Wendy’s “Jr.” burgers, the Giant Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger overcomes the eye test and competes at a premium level.

This is a five-tool burger if I ever tasted one. Each bite hits for beefiness, smokiness, cheesy goodness, while also excelling in the value and filling departments.

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Unlike other value menu burgers, the beef flavor isn’t one of several. It dominates each bite, supplemented by the familiar milky and smoky tastes of the melted cheese and bacon. Put another way, it actually tastes like a bacon cheeseburger and not a kid’s burger that piles the minimal amount of beef, bacon, and cheese beneath a bun and calls itself a bacon cheeseburger.

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Granted, this is not a juices-running-down-your-fingers burger, but it doesn’t need to be. In some ways, it reminds me of the Burger King Bacon Double Cheeseburger, except without that dried texture and chargrilled flavor of Burger King’s regular burger patties, and without the distraction of ketchup, mustard, and pickles to obscure the taste of the beef. Not usually a huge fan of mayo, but I found it a perfect match for the Giant Jr., subtly enhancing those meaty and cheesy notes.

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While the flavor is definitively big league, the burger misses hitting it out of the park. Stacking the toppings maximizes the flavor of each bite but it doesn’t lead to more bites; at the end of the day, it’s still a 5-bite burger, which means you’ll be chomping on the nuggets in your combo meal wishing you had more burger. Additionally, the bun has a tendency to fall apart, while the single tomato slice and iceberg lettuce get in the way.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this movie before. In Little Big League, Billy Heywood retires soon after his meteoric rise as manager. And the Giant Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger will only be available for a limited time. Here’s hoping it becomes a trailblazer for future little big burgers everywhere.

(Nutrition Facts – 540 calories, 38 grams of fat, 15 grams of saturated fat, 1.5 grams of trans fat, 125 milligrams of cholesterol, 1080 milligrams of sodium, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 6 grams of sugar, and 33 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5.00 combo with drink, fries, and nuggets
Size: N/A
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Unprecedented beefy flavor for a value menu burger. Double portions of crisp and smoky bacon and gooey, melted cheese. Great deal as a $5 meal with fries, nuggets, and a drink.
Cons: Too much good stuff for a small and lackluster bun. Still “eats” like a value menu burger. Non-premium toppings. Excessive use of baseball metaphors.

REVIEW: Wendy’s Bacon Queso Burger

Wendy s Spicy Queso Burger

Historically, fast food “spicy burgers” have been pretty underwhelming.

Try as they may, neither Burger King’s Angry Whopper nor Carl’s Jr.’s El Diablo Thickburger lived up to the hype, and let’s not even get into the deluge of disappointing spicy-in-name-only chicken sandwiches that we’ve seen over the last couple of years.

Wendy’s themselves are no stranger to so-so spicy sammiches, such as the okay-but-that’s-about-it Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich from 2015. And while their latest and greatest tongue-torching burger makes a few noticeable improvements over their last foray into hot-ass hamburgers, the Bacon Queso Burger still feels more than a few degrees shy of being a truly top-notch, perspiration-inspiring product.

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The quarter-pounder burger comes topped with a creamy poblano queso sauce, a heaping helping of fire-roasted salsa, three strips of Applewood smoked bacon, some chopped up red onions (an aside, but is it just me or do those things look more purple than red?), and a smattering of shredded cheddar cheese. And all of it is wedged between two roasted red jalapeno buns, which I didn’t even notice until I Googled the product after I already ate it, which, yeah, should tell you just how potent the jalapeno taste is here.

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First, the good. Wendy’s has long had some of the best bacon in fast food, and this limited-time-only offering is no exception. Secondly, the beef is flavorful and doesn’t get lost amid the goulash of other ingredients. And thirdly, the poblano queso sauce has a unique taste and texture (thicker than aioli sauce but still not thick enough to be a traditional fondue) that doesn’t have an analogue at any other mainstream burger chain.

Unfortunately, there are more negatives than positives here. The salsa is way too pulpy and has virtually no spiciness, and it doesn’t blend that well with the queso at all (at first, I thought they just dumped a bunch of chili on the burger and called it good.)

Additionally, the onions feel (and taste) way out of place – that is, if you can even taste them at all after rubbing up against so many different sauces. And I was not a fan of the shredded cheese adornments – the icy cold taste and texture clashes with the rest of the burger AND every time you go for another bite it seems like half of the cheddar falls out.

Speaking of which, this might be the messiest non-Sloppy Joe sandwich I’ve ever eaten – forget tying on a bib; you’ll probably have to eat this one with a beach towel wrapped around your shoulders.

But the ultimate transgression of Wendy’s new burger, of course, is that it isn’t spicy enough. It’s unique and fairly flavorful and pretty filling, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to making good on that particular advertising point. And when you can’t deliver the primary thing your L-T-O marketing promises, can we really consider the offering as a whole anything less than a substantial disappointment?

(Nutrition Facts – 550 calories, 290 calories from fat, 29 grams of total fat, 14 grams of saturated fat, 1.5 grams of trans fat, 110 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,140 milligrams of sodium, 36 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, and 33 grams of protein..)

Purchased Price: $4.49
Size: Single patty (also available in double and triple versions)
Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: The bacon is juicy, plump, and delicious. The hamburger patty is flavorful and filling. The queso tastes unlike anything else you’ve probably had at a big name burger joint.
Cons: The product isn’t spicy – at all. The salsa is too clumpy. The shredded cheese adds nothing to the experience (and in fact, detracts from it). Realizing beard + queso burger = shame the hard way.

REVIEW: Wendy’s Bacon Queso Fries

Wendy s Bacon Queso Fries

Bacon. Cheese. Potatoes.

As far as I’m concerned those are three of the major food groups. Toss some nuggets and a Chocolate Frosty in there and you’ve covered them all –- the Wendy’s Food Pyramid.

Make no mistake; Wendy’s ever evolving innovative menu makes her The Queen of Fast Food. I’m never disappointed in their releases. So when I heard about this new queso line of products, I was all in.

The ad claims queso “makes everything better.” Far be it from me to call out the validity of Wendy’s crack marketing team, but I’m not sure it’s true.

Case in point – Wendy’s Bacon Queso Fries.

I love Wendy’s fries. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I eat them monthly, but let’s just say it’s quite often. Too often.

The large order of Bacon Queso Fries come drenched in “spicy” poblano queso, with generous helpings of shredded cheddar and strips of Applewood smoked bacon.

Okay, so, as you can see, this isn’t exactly the prettiest dish. Obnoxious people like to tell us that “we eat with our eyes first,” so these fries were already off to a rough start.

The queso was warm and immediately made me feel like I was trying Wendy’s take on nachos.

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The little green poblano peppers added a nice heat kick, but you won’t be running for a large Frosty to offset the burn. These are probably right on par with Wendy’s Spicy Chicken products at the very bottom of the Scoville Scale.

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The shredded cheese wasn’t necessary, but I guess it added a mild flavor balance and another textural element. Speaking of, the bacon was firm and stayed a bit crispy, so that was good. Wendy’s usually comes through with the bacon.

The first few bites were satisfying, but after a while the spice mixed with the fry and bacon saltiness got overbearing. I can’t believe I’m whining that something was too salty, but, man, were these salty. The queso spice dried out my mouth, so it intensified the salt tenfold. I definitely recommend having a drink nearby when you’re eating these, if only to re-moisten your mouth.

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Another knock is these got unappetizing as they lost temperature. By the time I was halfway done, they were cold and clumpy, so I lost interest in shoving the rest down. I hate wasting food, but I couldn’t finish.

I appreciate Wendy’s continuing to put out fry variations, but these didn’t hold up to the previous few concoctions I tried. I’d definitely prefer a smaller portion. Maybe if I had a friend to share with, I would have given these a higher score. Plus, I’d have a friend, and I desperately need those.

(Nutrition Facts – 1 Serving – 510 calories, 30 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat, 45 milligrams of cholesterol, 630 milligrams of sodium, 47 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fiber, 2 grams of sugar, and less than 15 grams of protein..)

Purchased Price: $2.99
Size: N/A
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: Wendy’s has great fries. Bacon was on point. Queso was tasty when hot. Not too spicy. The Wendy’s Food Pyramid. The price was right for the size.
Cons: Way too salty. Got cold quickly. Clumps of plasticky cheese after a couple minutes. Pretty huge serving size. Forever alone 🙁

REVIEW: Wendy’s Strawberry Mango Chicken Salad

Wendy s Strawberry Mango Chicken Salad

Remember when putting an apple slice in a salad was considered avant-garde for fast food? We’ve come a long way since the Caesar and House salads of a decade ago, with chains like Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s giving us all kinds of fruit, nuts, and cheese combinations to serve over something green and, presumably, healthy. That said, most of these salads have been established flavor combos —- berries and blue cheese, apples and almonds, stuff like that.

But strawberries and mango? Can’t say that’s something I’ve ever heard of before.

I’m not sure how Wendy’s came up with their new Strawberry Mango Chicken Salad other than to suggest someone spilled their smoothie on top of their Greek chicken salad, and decided it was the best thing in the world. Spoiler alert: It’s not.

That’s not to say this salad isn’t close to being really, really good. But being close to really, really good doesn’t count, otherwise we’d be comparing the current Patriots dynasty to the early 1990s Buffalo Bills dynasty.

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Surprisingly, the mango is a hit. It’s one of those fruits that absolutely sucks when it’s overripe, but thankfully the mango in the salad is slime and sinew free. Its firm bite and tropical flavor match nicely with the familiar taste of the strawberries, with each providing a nice contrast to the greens.

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Wendy’s grilled chicken, which got a facelift last year, is solid, with a juicy texture and robust flavor that outmatches anything I can do on the backyard Weber. Meanwhile, the mild and salty feta cheese is not that bad until you add the honey citrus vinaigrette and the honey roasted sunflower seeds.

How do I explain this?

Imagine taking a bite of something and tasting nothing but pineapple. Now, imagine adding a crunchy, slightly burnt honey-glazed sweetness to the end of that taste. Yeah, that’s what happens once the salad dressing and roasted seeds go on.

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Overall, the tastes just don’t play nicely together. Think a kazoo and a saxophone dueling for time in a pop song. What’s more, they overpower every other taste with the exception of the chicken, which suddenly finds itself the reluctant centerpiece of a tropical salsa.

I love Wendy’s commitment to salad — their Mediterranean Power Salad might just be the best fast food salad around -— but the Strawberry Mango Chicken Salad is less than the sum of its parts. That said, if you prefer your smoothies in salad form, and don’t mind overly tart citrus notes, you’ve got a total winner.

(Nutrition Facts – Full size – 470 calories, 170 calories from fat, 19 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 0.0 grams of trans fat, 105 milligrams of cholesterol, 1140 milligrams of sodium, 38 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fiber, 31 grams of sugar, 39 grams of protein, 100% vitamin A, 80% vitamin C, 20% calcium, and 15% iron..)

Purchased Price: $6.59
Size: Full size
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: xcellent grilled chicken breast. Fruits are firm, fresh, and full of flavor. Feta cheese works surprisingly well with the mango and strawberry. The evolution of fast food salads.
Cons: Dressing puts the citrus notes way off the chart and makes the whole salad taste like pineapple. Deep flavor the honey roasted sunflower seeds is too strong a contrast for the light flavors of the fruit. The salad equivalent of a kazoo and saxophone duet.