No food is perfect, but the masterpiece of molecular gastronomy known as chicken nugget is aggressively imperfect. This is by design. Say what you will about the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder; the hamburger patty is made of nothing but USDA-inspected beef. The McNugget, by contrast, is an amalgamation of over 20 discrete ingredients — rib meat, breast meat, botanicals, chicken skin, sodium phosphates, autolyzed yeast extract, sodium acid pyrophosphate, safflower oil, dextrose, and other oddities — that are mixed, cut, molded, and fried in vegetable oil laced with the ominous-sounding (but innocuous) anti-foaming agent known as dimethylpolysiloxane.
And yet, the McNugget is the more delicious creation. Biting into a Quarter Pounder mimics the sensation of chomping down on an oil-soaked sponge. But dipping the engineered and salted protein disc that is the McNugget into a peel-away plastic-container filled with pure honey (and nothing else) is nearly a peerless fast-food experience. Until you try a better version at Wendy’s.
I’ll take a chicken nugget any day over a chicken tender. If the tender is more pure product, more Jonathan Waxman, the nugget is more food science, more Wylie Dufresne, more manipulation — a polite way of saying more processed. It is cooking as transformation. It is more charcuterie than steak (albeit more mystery meat than artisanal sausage). The nugget is a dish that most high-minded establishments (or weeknight cooks) shy away from. The nugget, with its multisyllabic emulsifiers and stabilizers, is almost exclusively the domain of fast food.
The nugget is a gateway drug, a young child’s unwitting indoctrination into the corporate culinary industrial complex. I knew what a nugget was long before I was introduced to kale or capon. In fact, it is one of the first two dishes I remember eating on this earth (the other dish was baked Peconic Bay scallops, a dish that fits my lifetime narrative more elegantly).
The nugget is a mysterious MRE-style foodstuff that restaurants can serve, with minimal outrage, in the shape of a disc, star, fry, doughnut, and, in the case of a Taco Bell item that’s being test-marketed in areas of the country with a lower density of full-time food writers, a nacho chip. That’s right, a nacho chip made from chicken. I can’t wait to try it.
This is my fifth fast-food review for Eater — or sixth, if you count David Chang’s quick-service NYC spot Fuku. I cover these venues for a simple reason: People eat at them. Show up at a Wendy’s in New York at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight and you’ll wait in line. Having spent a bit of time at various outposts of Popeyes, Burger King, and elsewhere, I can say without equivocation that you’ll encounter a more diverse crowd there than you would at most of the restaurants we critics cover.
(And since there’s sometimes talk about culinary establishments as community gathering places, it’s worth noting one of the most reliable places for free wi-fi and a hot meal under $10 after midnight, when Shake Shack is closed, is most any late night McDonald’s in New York.)
None of this is to gloss over the machinations of fast food, an industry that has historically paid its workers so poorly that New York felt compelled to create a separate, higher minimum wage for staffers at White Castle, Wendy’s and elsewhere, currently set at $12/hour. (Nationwide, the average wage of a fast-food cook is about $9.50/hour, less than $20,000/year.) It’s also an industry known for dumping fat and sugar–laden fare, on the cheap, in communities that lack a variety of healthier options.
But a high-minded film reviewer can keep his soul while finding humanity in Furious 7 (or vacuity in The Avengers); a food critic is surely capable of the same balancing act while assessing the Hollywood of the culinary world. If my profession hopes to stay relevant to diners for whom $20 represents dinner for two (rather than a single cocktail), it would be well served to offer advice on not just ambitious local venues or jet-set destination spots, but also the ubiquitous and accessible chains, places where millions of Americans go for dinner, leave happy, and return for breakfast the next day.
So on the subject of chicken nuggets:
The definitive list, ranked from worst to best
9. White Castle Chicken Pretzel Donut Shaped Rings: A hybrid of three completely unrelated foodstuffs — or four, if you count the nacho sauce that it’s paired with. They taste like neither chicken nor pretzels, and while each ring is shaped like a doughnut, it’s not clear why flattening chicken parts into a circular shape is more conducive to deliciousness than a nugget. The ring is predictably crunchy, but it’s also the only pretzel product I know of that lacks most maltiness and saltiness. It is uniquely awful. What’s worse: While smaller sizes are available, the default order is 20 rings ($5), which explains the heart-stopping nutritional information you’re about to see: Calories: 1,760. Fat: 158g. Sodium: 2,020mg.
8. Burger King Classic Nuggets: No good. This is a disappointment, since some of my fondest fast-food chicken memories come from digging into a juicy Burger King chicken sandwich while wearing a golden paper crown. These aren’t nuggets you’d describe as having any type of compelling crunch, moisture, or texture; the flavor evokes a watered-down version of the KFC spice mix. The nuggets smell like a mix of fries and wood chips; when you eat them, they leave behind a dusty residue, as if you just dredged your fingers through a carpenter’s workshop. Calories (six nuggets): 260. Fat: 16g. Sodium: 470mg.
7. KFC Popcorn Nuggets: When I first tried this novelty in the 1990s, I literally ended up with a box of fried chicken “crust.” There was almost no discernible meat. I now cherish that memory, because I like to think of it as an early encounter with the currently-in-vogue practice of selling repurposed food waste. Two decades later, there’s more fowl in this perennial novelty, but the main draw of popcorn chicken isn’t the chicken, but the popcorn — the spiced crust. It’s an easy way to obliterate your palate with the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices — monochromatic onion powder, garlic powder, and enough salt to send a racehorse into AFib. After each bite, an eerie metallic tang lingers in my mouth. And true to form, some nuggets don’t appear to contain a modicum of fowl. My kidneys hurt afterward. Calories: 620. Fat: 39g. Sodium: 1,820mg.
6. White Castle Chicken Donut Rings: The second-best nugget for dipping after the McDonald’s version, thanks to its marked lack of spices, or quite frankly, flavor. This creation isn’t nearly as crispy as the fast-food chain’s pretzel donut rings, but are distinctly meatier and plumper. The right move here is to pair the rings with White Castle’s recommended side: warm nacho cheese sauce ($0.65), which adds a gorgeous wallop of, well, warm nacho cheesiness. Note that White Castle’s most prominent beverage offering at the moment is two cans of Monster Energy for $4, which is a great deal if you enjoy knocking back a NyQuil-flavored beverage to overdose of caffeine. Calories: 530. Fat: 47g. Sodium: 610mg.
5. Burger King Chicken Fries: Like a mini Slim Jim made of chicken, this is really a gorgeous way to serve a nugget — even if it’s not a nugget, as it maximizes the ratio of crispy coating to MSG-laced meat. The bronzed exterior is spiked with onion, paprika, turmeric (!!!), and a separate application of monosodium glutamate (why not). The heat is gentle but persistent, like a marked dose of white pepper. They’re paired with a concoction known only as “chicken fry sauce,” which I suppose is a helpful name if you’re blackout drunk while piloting a Medevac helicopter and you need to figure out which of the eight sauces in your bag REALLY goes with the chicken fries. No matter, chicken fries are best enjoyed like regular fries, with nothing on them, as they’re fast-food perfection in their own right. Calories (nine fries): 280. Fat: 17g. Sodium: 850mg.
4. Popeyes Chicken Nuggets: A true popcorn nugget by texture; this is by far the crunchiest and juiciest specimen, with a gentle but noticeable cayenne kick on the finish. Just one issue: When I place my nose over the nuggets, the sensation that follows is akin to inhaling year-old potato chips that’ve been microwaved in plastic wrap. I thought about penalizing Popeyes for this, but a well-respected food writer tells me it “smells like home,” citing it as the chain’s signature scent. Alas, I grew more accustomed to the bespoke odor during a second visit. These aren’t as seasoned as Popeyes’s traditional cajun blend, unfortch, but that can be corrected with the intensely spicy sweet heat dipping sauce. Calories: 230. Fat: 14g. Sodium: 350mg.
3. Chick-Fil-A Nuggets: What you’d expect at a high school in a high-income zip code whose cafeteria adopted the simulacrum of healthiness. These aren’t so much nuggets as they are knobs of irregularly cut breast meat with a light coating of nearly crispy breadcrumbs — a true sheep in wolf’s clothing. They sport a nutty sweetness from the peanut oil fry and an aggressive salinity from over-seasoning. It’s all very Shake ‘n Bake, which is to say all very average, though average is a compliment in the overall junk food spectrum. Calories (standard size): 260. Fat: 12g. Sodium: 990mg.
2. McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets: So handsomely blonde, it’s as if you’re eating a golden lab. I’m tempted to say the delicate crunch evokes good tempura, but one of the four nuggets in my order was gnarled, almost as if it was partially chewed before frying. The texture is pure Goldilocks, not quite firm but not entirely squishy, and the flavor is distinctly neutral; without any overtones of pepper, garlic, or spice. There is no aftertaste. This is without a doubt the vodka of the nugget world, a plain, sometimes too plain conduit for other flavors. Pros know that the best of those conduits is pure honey; the musky mead is fine counterpoint to saltiness of the chicken. Calories (six nuggets): 280. Fat: 18g. Sodium: 540mg.
1. (tie): Wendy’s Spicy and Non-Spicy Chicken Nuggets: These are America’s best chicken nuggets. (I should disclose this is the first and only fast-food venue where I ever got a full comp. My father and I were driving back from a wedding in Scranton about six years ago when we swung by Wendy’s for some hot grub. The outlet was closed, but the drive-thru worker was sympathetic, so he tossed us about six nuggets, which were hot and juicy and delicious.)
The morsels weren’t any less compelling when I ordered them in Midtown Manhattan last week: exceedingly crunchy (like eating cereal) and almost too warm to eat. The interior texture of both varieties are as soft as weisswurst, with a pleasantly salty exterior (and juicier interior) on the classic nugget. The spicy nugget assaults the diner with a level of heat that builds and stings like no other dish in the modern fast-food industry, even at Taco Bell. The cayenne sucker punch lasts for a solid 30 seconds. It calls for a good Riesling or an ice-cold beer. Calories (regular, six nuggets): 270. Fat: 19g. Sodium: 580mg. Calories (spicy, six nuggets): 280. Fat: 17g. Sodium: 720mg.