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: Arby’s Chicken Pepperoni Parm Sandwich

Arby s Chicken Pepperoni Parm Sandwich

On a confidence scale of 1-10, with 1 being the Browns winning the Super Bowl and 10 being the chances we get too many pumpkin spice-flavored products every fall, my confidence in Arby’s making a good chicken parmesan sandwich is about a 5.

On one hand, it’s Arby’s, which means A) It’s not Taco Bell, and B) The meat should be good. On the other hand, it’s Arby’s, which means the marinara is probably sitting in a box in the back and not simmering in a pot with fresh herbs and minced garlic while being stirred by someone’s nonna.

But then again, Arby’s new chicken parm sandwich is no ordinary one —- it’s a chicken parm sandwich with meat. Now I commend Arby’s for taking the Ron Swanson approach of eating several different animals in one bite with its Chicken Pepperoni Parm Sandwich, but the pepperoni ruins this sandwich.

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It’s not the pepperoni’s fault, per se. I mean, we’re above Hormel quality here and under other conditions the pepperoni’s salty, unctuous flavor would be optimal. But it’s so loud and salty that it dominates each bite.

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This is an issue because the rest of the sandwich’s components fail to stand out. The buttermilk chicken is bland, tasting mostly of soggy breading and onion powder. I expected the marinara to pick it up, but even though the much-feared saccharine tomato taste wasn’t there, the sauce was flat and (again) too salty, lacking any memorable tomato flavor.

Even the bun, which Arby’s has paired so wonderfully with various brisket and brown sugar bacon sandwiches, is just sort of there, like the mindless carbs of a forgettable bread basket at a dying chain restaurant.

The one exception is the mozzarella, which is beautifully melted to that stretchable texture and has a nuanced flavor you’d expect from a panini. But here again the pepperoni dominates, canceling out what should be a premium ingredient.

I tend to give Arby’s the benefit of the doubt, and I’m a huge fan of the quality they’ve committed themselves to. But considering the run of successful brisket, brown sugar bacon, and pork belly sandwiches they’ve strung together, the Chicken Pepperoni Parm Sandwich is a letdown.

It feels weird typing this, but this may be one case where we have the meats might be we have too many meats for our own good.

(Nutrition Facts – 610 calories, 28 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 100 milligrams of cholesterol, 1900 milligrams of sodium, 54 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of sugar, and 37 grams of protein..)

Purchased Price: $4.99
Size: N/A
Rating: 4 out of 10
Pros: Not want for meat. Really good melting action on the mozzarella. Moist and plump chicken breast. Marinara wasn’t horrible for fast food. Great if you love pepperoni.
Cons: Forgettable chicken. Overpowering pepperoni. Marinara sauce lacks balance. Virtually impossible to eat and not spill sauce on yourself.

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: Chick-fil-A Hash Brown Scramble Bowl

Chick fil A Hash Brown Scramble Bowl

The pancake platter. The breakfast sandwich. Burritos of all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of sodium. Let’s face it: None of them are anywhere near as primal as the breakfast skillet, which, thanks to the ever-increasing demand to diversify menus, has finally made it to Chick-fil-A in the form of the new Hash Brown Scramble.

This is pretty groundbreaking stuff, if you ask me. Okay, so it’s not a taco with a shell made out of a freaking egg, but considering every diner in America has some variation of layered meat, potatoes, eggs, and cheese, you might say it’s long overdue for the drive-thru. And while Taco Bell has a version of the skillet on the breakfast value menu, let’s be real: It’s a dollar and it’s from Taco Bell.

If the classic breakfast skillet inspires images of loosening your belt, then the Chick-fil-A Hash Brown Scramble will elicit a sigh of relief from cardiologists everywhere. I’m not saying it’s good for you, but considering it comes in a side salad container, it left me wondering if I should have ordered a biscuit on the side.

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I decided against it, because I thought it would defeat the purpose of building the skillet around the hash browns. And man, those hash browns are good. Even though the counter person forgot my jalapeño salsa, I thought the earthy, crispy tater tot-like rounds delivered tremendous potato flavor. It played beautifully with the saltier nuggets and buttery eggs. I had seven of them in my scramble, which contributed enough crunch and potato flavor without making me feel like I was eating a bowl of French fries.

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Even though the hash browns and chicken are good, there was something off about the whole thing. At first, I was tempted to chalk it all up to my missing salsa, but even after I added hot sauce and ketchup for sweetness and heat, I realized the culprit had less to do with an absence of flavor and more to do with a contrasting flavor.

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While cheese makes pizza, hamburgers, and basically everything else in life good, its uneasy relationship with the succulent and slightly sweet pressure-cooked nuggets is, at best, contentious. Both flavors contribute salt to the potato flavor, but the milky flavors of the slightly melted cheese dissipate the otherwise excellent taste of the chicken. What emerges are two distinct flavor profiles in the scramble, which, while good, never comes together in its entirety.

Overall, I’m glad Chick-fil-A decided to retool its breakfast options by giving the humble hash browns a place at the table. And while I’m not a fan of mixing Chick-fil-A’s chicken with cheese, the flavors of the hash browns, chicken, and eggs are enough for me to overlook the extraneous contribution from those annoying Chick-fil-A cows.

(Nutrition Facts – Full nutrition facts not available, but according to the menu board it has 450 calories.)

Purchased Price: $3.59
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Bringing the diner skillet to fast food menu boards. Hash browns have excellent potato flavor and a crispy, tater-tot like texture. Chicken is on point as always. Surprisingly filling for size.
Cons: Milky flavors of the cheese don’t play nicely with the chicken. Lacks a bit of “umph” without salsa. Hash browns have a tendency to get soggy if you wait too long to eat.

REVIEW: Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion

Doritos Mix Blazin Buffalo Explosion

A good snack mix is like a finely tuned NFL offense. You’ve got a leading taste (quarterback), a solid foundation (that’s your offensive line), and a couple of dynamic flavors that actually make it worth eating (your wideouts and running backs).

Mess up those components and you’ll find yourself with a paper bag over your head in Cleveland. But nail them and you’ve got yourself a snack that has staying power for years to come.

At the very least, Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion nails the eye test of a really good team. Aside from hitting us with some common football clichés in explosive and blazin’, there’s a lot going on beyond just Buffalo sauce flavor. Sure, you’ve got reliable veterans like Cool Ranch, but you’ve also got some intriguing flavors, like blue cheese and chipotle.

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And, for the most part, the flavors work really well together. Maybe it was because of the blue packaging, but I was expecting a pretty conservative playbook that added some cayenne spice to the ubiquitous Cool Ranch flavor. Instead, there’s a winning combination of textual and flavor variety that’s unique for even the over-saturated Doritos brand.

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The Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch chips are definitely the quarterback here. Each chip has strong Buffalo sauce flavor and tingling back heat, followed by a buttermilk tang that gets some run after the catch action from the Cool Ranch triangles. Putting extra crunchy blue cheese and ranch pieces on the same team works surprisingly well.

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I like to think of the chipotle-flavored rolls as the offensive line in this metaphor. The unmistakable rising heat plays a role in every bite, and, even though the smoky aftertaste of a chipotle pepper never really comes through, the flavor hits you like a 300-pound offensive guard.

While the flavors and textures are very good — let’s call it Wild Card caliber good — there are some weak points. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion can’t quite seal the deal, much like their namesake city’s team from the early 1990s. The explosive heat is more three yards and a cloud of dust than big-play catch and run, meaning you’re going to want to put some of Cole Beasley’s sauce on the chips to actually make them really spicy.

Also, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the overly buttery aftertaste that certain brands of Buffalo sauce have, you probably won’t like the Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch chips too much.

Flaws aside, Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion is a serious cupboard space contender, and one I hope sticks around until the offseason.

(Nutrition Facts – 28 grams – 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 180 milligrams of sodium, 29 grams of carbohydrates, less than 1 gram of dietary fiber, 0 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $1.98
Size: 9.5 oz. bag
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Good variety of flavors, with distinguishable notes of ranch, blue cheese, and chipotle. Genuine Buffalo sauce flavor. Chipotle pieces have a solid crunch.
Cons: Heat is mostly just back heat, with cayenne and chipotle blending into a single mild spiciness. Too much butter in the Buffalo sauce flavor. Aggressive use of football clichés not seen since the days of John Madden’s broadcasting career.