Little kids can be cool, but there are a lot of obvious arguments against parenthood. Children are demonstrably shouty, snotty, and wobbly, and they are rumored to be very expensive to maintain. It has also been widely reported that children have poor taste in television. These are among the reasons I am not currently in possession of a child.
That could change one day, though, which is why I’m getting an early start on talking myself into the positive aspects of parenthood. One good thing about the toddling classes is that it’s funny to watch them play soccer. And they give you a non-creepy reason to browse the picture-book aisle. And although the wee tend to have generally deplorable taste in food—Fruit Roll-Ups and tubed yogurt, canned pasta and so forth—they are spot-on when it comes to chicken appreciation. From the age of three or so, most kids realize that chicken nuggets represent one of the finest outcomes of the human-bird relationship.
I’ve got nothing bad to say about all the delightful winged, parmed, curried, burritoed, and even souped chickens out there, but I suspect many adult diners tend to overlook the simple beauty of the nugget. That is likely why the major fast-food outlets are currently engaged in something of a low-key Nugget War, with Burger King and McDonald’s each offering 4-piece servings for $1.49 while Wendy’s is threatening to upend the entire fried-chicken-paste industry by selling four for 99-cents! They’re practically begging us to reconsider the chicken nugget. And so we shall: I spent Tuesday afternoon bouncing around town from one nugget-monger to the next so as to determine which of fast-food’s Big Three deserves your immediate and undivided lunch attention.
I started at what I presumed to be the top. McDonald’s introduced McNuggets on a small scale in 1979; by 1983 they were nationwide, and the quick-chicken game hasn’t been the same since. I don’t eat much recreational fast food these days, on account of the pesky little nutritional issues you may have heard about, but my occasional indulgences most often take the McNugget shape. I’ve never ordered a measly four-nug serving, but that’s how I started my recent quest, what with it being broad, sober daylight and all.
So I asked the counter kid for a McNugget quartet and then inquired as to which sauces were available. I haven’t bothered with anything but Hot Mustard in at least 15 years, because why would you? But it turns out they also offer Hot Habanero, Creamy Ranch, Honey Mustard, Spicy Buffalo, Sweet and Sour, and Tangy Barbecue; I wanted this survey to be as comprehensive as possible, so I asked if I could get a shot of each. The McNugget gatekeeper looked me up and down, sighed, and cocked his head to the left. I explained that I was doing important research for which I would gladly pay a sauce-hoarding surcharge. He smiled and nodded, hit a bunch of buttons, charged me $1.49 plus tax, and then a couple minutes later he handed me a bag with 4 chicken chunks and a little tub of Tangy Barbecue sauce. Fair enough.
The sauce is too thick and too sweet; it tastes like generic cola was dumped in a vat of sugary tomato paste, with trace amounts of garlic and paprika dusts added solely to qualify it as Definitely Not Just Shitty Old Ketchup. Anyhow, we came here for the nuggets. What about the nuggets?
They’re not good, either! This was a life-reordering disappointment on the level of my recent discovery that I don’t like Tanqueray. These taste tests are starting to make me question my entire childhood, especially the part that transpired between the ages of 19 and 31. Anyhow, McNuggets blow, and here’s why: The chicken doesn’t taste like chicken, or anything else. The tempura shell, which is admirably light and crunchy, tastes like Chicken in a Biskit crackers, but the actual guts of the thing are nearly devoid of flavor other than salt. The texture’s wonky, too. It’s disconcertingly foamy, as meat goes.
Next stop was the self-proclaimed king of burgers. I’ve had good luck with a few of BK’s chicken sandwiches, and I once gave a positive review to their Chicken Fries, but I headed to the food court unable to remember the last time I’d eaten their nuggets. I got four and some barbecue sauce, and I was pretty impressed with how things went down. They’re a half a shade darker than the too-yellow McNuggets, with a few stray flecks of black pepper on the crust to let you know they mean at least a tiny bit of business. And whereas the McNugget is more of a puff pastry with a bit of reconstituted poultry stuffed inside, the BK version is of a more traditional design, with a unibody construction that permits no gaps between breading and meat.
Burger King chicken nuggets taste a good deal better, too. The breading is reminiscent of a frozen mozzarella stick, with spices that seem to go beyond mere salt and pepper. This is a bold touch that could distract from the chicken were the meat not so (relatively) assertive. The chicken was brighter, whiter, and denser than its McNuggeted counterpart, perhaps a bit moister than ideal, but full of honest chicken flavor that elevated the nugget far ahead of my erstwhile favorite. (Skip the sauce here, too, though. It’s a slightly sour version of what you’d expect. Kinda chalky, too.)
Wendy’s slings the best-looking nuggets, nicely orange-tinted numbers with irregularly sized and shaped flecks of stuff on the exoskeleton. Flecks of what? Who’s to say? They’re going for sort of a whole-grain effect, maybe. Or cornflake shards? I hear sometimes people put cornflakes on fried chicken. Whatever the case, bravo. And as with the BK nugget, the batter is welded on pretty tight, with no gaps between bread and meat; in fact, I wasn’t able to peel off a clean piece that didn’t have at least a little bit of chicken pith attached. To the extent that I was able to isolate the wrapping from the filling, however, I noticed that the exterior is very well-seasoned, more peppery than salty in a way that evokes KFC’s best work.
The seasoning overshadows the chicken meat , but a reassuringly fibrous texture helps enhance the overall experience. Yes, we’re dealing with a class of chicken in which “stringy” is a compliment, as it’s preferable to “gluey.” Oh and I got whatever their version of barbecue sauce is called, too. It’s dark-red sugar sludge. Fast-food sauces kinda suck.
This was a close call. McDonald’s is clearly the worst in show, performing so poorly that we may need the Department of Chicken Services to force them to forfeit custody of their Hot Mustard sauce, so that the one redeemable fast-food condiment can go thrive in a better home. But let us now contemplate happier matters. After much consideration, I’ve decided to declare Wendy’s the winner of this nugget-off based on the texture of the chicken, the flavor of the casing, and the 33 percent lower price. Burger King chicken nuggets are good food at a good price, and there’s no shame in losing out to even better food at an even better price.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.