If fried chicken is proof of God's Love, the chicken tender is communion. Though maybe not the superior form of golden bird, The Tender™ is one of the most convenient. Like its cousin, the nugget, the tender only requires one hand for eating and dipping—a major perk that allows people to concentrate on more important things like holding a beer. (And let's be honest, you can't walk around at a respectable tailgate with a mound of nuggets in your palm and not be roasted on someone's Snapchat feed with the caption: "😂😂😂😂 NUGS BABY😂😂😂😂 .") Tenders strike a middle-ground—not bite-sized, but not requiring a fork or knife either. They're a snack that sustains you, delivering the perfect combo of crispy breading, grease, and moisture.
Because of their convenience, tenders have become a staple at fast-food chains across the nation, breeding a deep sense of nostalgia. And no surprise—everyone is a self-proclaimed tenders expert. This cockiness was on full display last week when a tender bracket surfaced on Twitter, setting the Internet aflame. Though it was absolutely blasphemous (Buffalo Wild Wings? Tyson isn't even a restaurant; it's a slaughterhouse! Zaxby's ranked lower than Dairy Queen?!), it proves that everyone buys into the myth that their favorite chicken spot is the best chicken spot. We've seen family members fist-fight each other at reunions over the "wrong" chicken. That type of unwavering loyalty can blind people to the reality of what a great tender should be.
We are interested in the truth. And in the pursuit of that chicken tender truth, we want to compare apples to apples. So we are evaluating larger fast-food chains because it would be silly to compare regional heavyweights like Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles or Publix with KFC. We're also excluding any restaurant whose menu is not a majority of fried items, because lumping in McDonald's and Dairy Queen just to fill some space for a bracket is disingenuous. Restaurants hanging their hats on wings are also excluded.
Without further ado, here is the definitive ranking of fast-food chicken tenders.
While KFC's invention of the Mashed Potato Bowl changed the entire concept of what fast food could be, and their innovations in the field of poultry buns should be lauded, their tenders are typically dry. Due largely to their lack of consistency, the non-uniform sizing causes irregular cook times among skinny and thick tenders. The Ol' Colonel's secret eleven herbs (ft. spices) recipe never translated well over to tenders. But, for background, KFC used to have the Extra Crispy™ Strips, then replaced them with the Original Recipe® Strips. The difference, other than the texture, is that the Extra Crispy™ Strips are only seasoned with salt and pepper, and are intended to be paired with a dipping sauce. They never had a chance. KFC? More like Kentucky Fail Chicken. (And with that, please be sure to like and share this article.)
It's amazing how phenomenal Chick-fil-A's nuggets are, but how poor their tenders are. It's like when they decided to expand their menu, S. Truett Cathy, in his genius senility, suggested "What if we took what we did best and then did the opposite?" They have revamped the recipe a few times since they first introduced them, with the most recent version actually making them a viable option if you were starving to death, and that particular Chick-fil-A restaurant you were at happened to be sold out of everything else. That signature CFA crunchiness is nowhere to be found, resulting in a scalene mush-clump that is—technically—a chicken tender. No amount of 100% peanut oil can save it.
One day, we'll need to have a discussion about how Long John Silver's is one of the most underrated fast-food restaurants to ever exist. We know what you're thinking: "LJS is seafood." Except they aren't. Two words: Chicken Plank. The reason they belong on this list is that tempura batter, designed for seafood but adapts to poultry with grace and finesse. There are no less than 500 imitation recipes for it on the World Wide Web. Airy, crispy, the batter insulates their Chicken Plank like a culinary FUPA. Its flaw, however, is that it requires a sauce accoutrement and cannot stand on its own. We might have been able to rank them higher on the list if they hadn't started charging for extra loose crispies a few years back.
Bojangles' suffers from the same flaw as KFC—the delicious breading recipe for their bone-in and cajun filet doesn't translate to their tenders. Both versions—the seasoned Supremes and the mild Homestyle—come out too dry. Combine that with a heavy batter, and it'll have you reaching for the honey mustard. There is a reason their sauces are 2 oz. whereas other fast-food restaurant sauces offer 1 oz. It's because they know you'll need it to get through your meal. It hurts our clogged heart to put Bojangles' here because they produce the superior chicken biscuit, but their tenders bring shame to an otherwise stellar franchise.
Raising Cane's tenders are supposed to be dunked in their Cane's Sauce—of which the ingredients are so secret only store managers know it and make it. Because of this, they are largely, and intentionally, under-seasoned. They take the fourth spot here because while the breading is lackluster, the tenders themselves are actually tender due to their marinade. A tendie should stand on its own because sometimes you'll run out of a dipping sauce, and that scenario shouldn't have you contemplating throwing the un-sauced portions in the garbage.
P.S.—Cane's charges $0.35 for extra sauce, which I have to imagine is a 600% markup of their actual costs. The chicken is a loss leader. The real money is in the additional sauce add-ons. Make chicken that requires a sauce, ration out that sauce sparingly, profit big time. That's just genius capitalism.
The oft-overlooked franchise, Church's Chicken, is a wildcard. They had, objectively, the best fast-food chicken nuggets, but only offered them for six months before discontinuing them. They also have, objectively, the best fast-food dipping sauce thanks to their Purple Pepper Sauce, but only offer it as a limited time item every three to five years. It's almost like they don't want to prosper. Consistent sizing makes for an always-juicy tender. The skinnier strips also create an incredible crunch that does not require a sauce to enjoy, especially if you order the spicy variant—which, if you didn't, congratulations on being police. While we have never received a 100% correct order, nor had to wait less than 20 minutes to receive it, Church's Chicken tenders are always hot and delicious.
For the sake of analysis, we have to review their standard tenders and not its evolved waffle form or its naked, healthy brethren, the Blackened Tender. Popeyes is what Church's Chicken could be if Church's moved out of its parents' basement. Popeye's Handcrafted Tenders are twice as crispy as KFC's Extra Crispy Strips, and more flavorful than Church's. Their marinade keeps the poultry moist so you don't need to keep a drink or sauce nearby. Popeyes' tenders can be enjoyed solo, and we would argue dipping them actually mars it.
Popeye's marinade and its patented Louisiana spices work in tandem to bring actual taste to its mild offering, though the spicy version is really the de facto choice. Now that Burger King has purchased Popeyes, we may have to update this thread in a few months. Some fear the quality may decrease, but we are more optimistic. Perhaps Burger King can share some of its patented poultry technology, and actually improve the quality. Here's to hoping we see Waffle Chicken Fries as a permanent menu staple.
Zaxby's Chicken Fingerz™ are the only ones on this list that are slightly greasy, which should, you know, be a staple of fried food. Whereas Popeyes and Church's opt for a skinnier strip, Zaxby's Fingerz are hefty, with a generous meat-to-breading ratio. They're crispy but not overtly crunchy. Some people believe Zaxby's tenders to be too salty, and we would say that those people need to grow up. It's just the right amount. And, when you add the hints of garlic and onion, it's all subtle enough to bolster the tender as a solo star, but not be overpowering if you did decide to dip it in a sauce. The meat itself is juicy and tender. They are the embodiment of what a tender should be. Strap a damn feedbag to our eager maw, and load it up with Fingerz™. Now, if they would only expand breakfast beyond their Athens, GA store so we can really kick this premature heart disease up a notch and get to dying fat and happy.