Greetings from the Sunshine State! I did another one of my semi-regular 16-hour road trips to visit my wife's family down here. It took less than 48 hours for our puppy, Berkeley, to become a boat dog. Here she is hanging out on my inlaw’s pontoon boat.
One of the things I like doing to keep the drive down I-95 through the Southeast interesting is trying the fast food. Particularly, boneless fried chicken. Everyone needs something to do when doing driving for 16 hours and this is the one I chose.
I find chicken strips/tenders/nuggets to be a good tool for comparison because there are so many ways to make the chicken and so many possible sides that can go with them. For this ranking, I am judging the whole meal: chicken, fried potato product, and other sides (Texas toast, biscuit, etc.). The coleslaw does not count for or against each place's ranking that serves it because slaw is gross. While I am primarily a Diet Coke person, Pepsi is fine; nobody on this list went with RC Cola, so the drink options are not affecting the rank.
This list is only fast-food chicken. With one exception, Buc-ee’s, all of these restaurants have a drive-through. My favorite biscuit of all time, the fast-casual Maple Street Biscuit Company, did not make this list because it is not a fast-food joint.1 Neither did long-drive favorite Cracker Barel because it is a sit-down restaurant.
11. Burger King and McDonald’s
They get the job done, but are nothing special. Upside: available across the country and around the world. Also, the fries are pretty good. Downside: the sauces are nothing special and the chicken is bland. You can do better.
This is going to make the Texans unhappy. The chicken is just okay, the fries are nothing to write home about, the Texas toast is slightly toasted buttered white bread and should be skipped, and the sauce options are ketchup or gravy. I have a feeling that people go to Buc'ees for the pulled pork and brisket, not the chicken. The beaver chips would be better with the meal than the fries.
The ability to have your nuggets in spicy ranks Wendy's higher. Pain is a taste. The fries are do not have the crunch of McDonald’s or Burger King.
Broward County, Flordia’s Char-Hut offers great burgers, but middle-of-the-road chicken tenders. The highlight of the Char-Hut chicken tenders meal is the option to go with frings ( an equal mixture of french fries and onion rings) or onion rings over french fries. I tend to not like thick-cut onion rings, but the shoestring ones offered at Char-Hut are delightful.
Changing out regular fries for curly fries gives Arby's points. The chicken has some spice to it as well. I do not go to Arby’s regularly because they do not have a decent pescetarian option for my wife, but the chicken is good.
Just okay chicken and fries. The ranking is improved by the biscuit. It isn't good, but an okay biscuit is better than no biscuit.
Ignoring their Evangelical Christian outlook on politics, Chick-fil-A is a top-tier option.2 Their breakfast chicken biscuit is my second favorite of the fast-food chicken biscuits. However, after 10:30 AM, the biscuits are nowhere to be found. The CFA lunch and dinner chicken strips and nuggets meals would be greatly improved by the addition of a smaller version of the breakfast biscuit as a side dish.
For two glorious years, my hometown had a Popeyes. I guess it was too ethnic of food for my 99% white part of Westmorland County, Pennsylvania because it disappeared without much fanfare and was replaced by a gas station owned by a local supermarket chain.3
Popeyes was my first introduction to the idea that good chicken should come with a biscuit. When they are good, they are really good. The problem is that I have received strips with pockets of raw batter enough times for it to stick out in my mind. Also, the fries are kinda wimpy. But when I want chicken in DC, Popeyes is where I go.
It is probably sacrilege to rank North Carolina’s take on Cajun food over Louisiana’s, but that is exactly what I am doing. From the chicken to the fries to the biscuit, everything is better. The quality is also much more consistent than Popeyes.
Bojangles also have the best chicken biscuit I have ever had from a fast-food restaurant. This does not count for or against them, but it is worth mentioning.
1. Zaxby's and Raising Cane's
In a blind taste test, I am not sure I could tell Zaxby’s and Cane’s apart. They both offer very similar lightly-breaded chicken, crinkle-cut fries, and texas toast. As far as I can tell, preferring one over the other says more about who you root for when the University of Georgia Bulldogs play the Lousiana State University Tigers in SEC football than the actual food. My suitemate senior year of college was from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Through him, I was first introduced to Cane’s and I was hooked. When I traveled to New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Dallas-Fort Worth, I went out of my way to get Cane’s. Zaxby’s is a good replacement for Cane’s when I drive to Flordia, but, in the end, I am on team Lousiana.
I have not had chicken from any of these recently enough to add to my ranking. At some point, I will update this listing when I get to them:
Jack in the Box
They do not do a chicken meal, so a second strike against them. Sad.
I considered taking places politics into account for this, but I do not know enough about the politics of any other place on this list to pass judgment. Also, the politics of CFL have not prevented my wife and I from getting their breakfasts over the past few years. An economist would say that this is a good example of revealed preference; I would say that they have no real competition outside of the south before 10:30 AM.
The upside of my hometown is the near-glut of ultra high-quality Italian restaurants due to the wave of Italian immigration to the coal mines. Also, the ability to get perogies in the supermarket because of the Eastern European immigrants who also worked the coal mines. The downside is pretty much everything else from a food point of view. I guess I can give another point to the eastern Pittsburgh exurbs due to the Primanti Bros. that replaced the Chi-Chi’s when I was in Jr High, but most of the urbanites I have taken to my hometown are shocked by the lack of food diversity.