It’s been over two years since we launched our definitive ranking of The Best Chicken Tenders and a lot has changed since then. No, we’re not just talking about an economic downfall, the beginnings of a second civil rights movement, or the global pandemic, we just mean a lot has changed in the fast-food fried chicken space.
Our original ranking consisted of just eight entries, this list has twelve! Two of those original eight have since been discontinued, so we’d like to take this time to pay our last respects to both the ill-advised and quietly discontinued Wendy’s Chicken Tenders and McDonald’s Buttermilk Crispy Tenders, which were, oddly enough, canceled by COVID-19. Will McDonald’s bring back the chicken tenders once COVID-19 is over? We’d be lying if we said we cared.
Our original chicken tender ranking was judged on a scale of Jon Cryer’s as Duckie from Pretty in Pink thanks to his character’s passionate lip-syncing performance of Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness — that Duckie would’ve killed it on Tik Tok — and our almost romantic obsession with the chicken finger, which we think is a near-perfect food.
Who amongst us hasn’t broken out into our own rendition of Try a Little Tenderness after biting into a perfectly fried golden brown chicken tender? Oh, just us?
Moving on — as I said, times have changed. So to signify that we too have changed, we’ve switched our ranking system from Duckies to current-day Jon Cryers. We’re a little older, a little wiser, a little less smooth, but our love for chicken is still true. Now let’s get to ranking!
Del Taco’s Crispy Chicken Strips
This list had to have a bottom and unfortunately for Del Taco, the new Crispy Chicken Strips take that place. A new entry on our list, Del Taco’s Crispy Chicken Strips look good. They just taste so incredibly processed that this is practically just a chicken nugget stretched out into the finger form factor. Does that sound disgusting? Good, it should! The Crispy Chicken Strips have a fine texture and a zesty flavor that lends itself well to the dipping sauce, so well in fact that we don’t suggest you attempt to eat these things without any, which is the sign of a bad strip.
SCORE: NO CRYERS!
Who knew it was possible to get a zero on this list? We don’t want to tell Del Taco what to do but … stick with tacos … and burgers, and burritos, and mini churros, and salads. Look, Del Taco is pretty good, they just can’t make chicken strips. They have a Crispy Chicken Taco and a Crispy Chicken Epic Burrito, both of which are delicious and use the same chicken. We say, order those instead.
Sonic Crispy Chicken Tenders
Another new entry on our list, Sonic’s Crispy Chicken Tenders are billed as being “lightly breaded.” I’m sorry, but in what world? These things are mostly batter with a thin sliver of white meat chicken breast inside. Don’t get us wrong, the batter is definitely the star of the show, but if you’re looking for a chicken tender that is a little more, well, tender, this isn’t the place for you. If you want something cheap, dippable, and ultimately forgettable, this chicken will make a great midnight stoner snack run. Aside from that, skip these.
SCORE: ONE CURRENT-DAY CRYER
No one is going to sing Try A Little Tenderness while eating these babies. At best, you’ll get a Sitting at the Dock of the Bay, maybe.
Arby’s Chicken Fingers
We promise you we’re almost in FlavorTown. Please don’t sue, Mr. Fieri. Arby’s Chicken Fingers, like every chicken tender on this list, aren’t bad, they’re just nothing special. They’re essentially interchangeable with Sonic’s Crispy Chicken Tenders. But the thing is, if you’re rolling up to Arby’s, you’re probably getting the roast beef. Who orders chicken from here?
SCORE: ONE CURRENT-DAY CRYER
A boring attempt at making an American fast food staple.
Dairy Queen Chicken Strips
Dairy Queen, Arby’s, and Sonic’s Chicken Strips might be practically interchangeable, but DQ provides us with just a little more chicken and the opportunity to dip these babies in white gravy which puts it over the edge. Word to you other chicken pushers — white gravy is the superior dipping sauce. It’s better than BBQ sauce, better than Ranch, better than Thousand Island. If Dairy Queen put as much effort into its chicken as it does its ice cream, we’d have a real contender here.
SCORE: TWO CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
You can tell that for Dairy Queen, chicken strips are just a fun side item. For us? It’s a way of life.
Jack In The Box Spicy Chicken Strips
Jack in the Box has finally thrown its cone-shaped hat into the spicy chicken space and the results are pretty solid. While they aren’t quite as good as Jack in the Box’s original Crispy Chicken Strips, they still pack a lot of meat and a lot of heat. Big, greasy pieces of succulent chicken breast are nicely cased in a thick and zesty batter that pairs amazingly with Jack’s Buttermilk Ranch or BBQ sauce.
It seems easy enough to make these a menu mainstay, so we’re hoping Jack in the Box keeps this spicy offering.
SCORE: TWO CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
A solid effort from JiB but a pale comparison to the original, which somehow packed more flavor despite being less spiced!
Burger King Chicken Fries
I’ve debated even putting these on this list. Are Chicken Fries chicken strips or are they nuggets formed into a finger? Hard to say, but regardless, these are damn good. BK’s Chicken Fries are always perfectly crispy on the outside, with a unique batter seasoning that is full of pepper and we want to say … paprika? As you’re trying to figure out what the hell is in these things — and whether or not they’re actually just nuggets — you’ll find yourself out of Chicken Fries before you ever come to an answer.
Yes, they’re so good, you can get lost in them.
SCORE: THREE CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
These are mid-tier strips, and they’re pretty damn good. Fast-food chicken strips may have their lows — ahem, Del Taco — but if Chicken Fries and Jack in the Box’s Spicy Chicken Strips are considered average with a flavor this good? It’s truly great to be a chicken tender fan in fast-food country.
Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Strips
Really flat, mostly batter, the Jack in the Box Crispy Chicken Strips have the most accurate name of all chicken tenders on this list. They are very crispy, arguably chicken, and definitely strips! They’re also leagues better than Jack in the Box’s new Spicy Chicken Strips. How did you manage that Jack in the Box? Everybody knows spicy trumps non-spicy, but you wouldn’t know it if you’ve only had spicy chicken at the ‘ol JiB.
These strips have a great flavor thanks to the well-seasoned batter that lends itself well to the inclusion of a buttermilk or bbq sauce. Our only major gripe is that they offer so little chicken. We’d love a chicken tender deluxe or something that could remedy this situation by giving us a thicker cut of juicy white meat.
SCORE: THREE CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
This is a well-textured chicken tender with a tasty batter. It’d have a higher rating if there weren’t much better tenders to come.
Chick-fil-A’s Chick-n-Strips are simply good. Are they the most boring thing on the Chick-fil-A menu? No, that would be the Grilled Tenders, but the Chick-n-Strips are a close second! If you already like the chicken at Chick-fil-A, it’s likely that these rank highly on your own personal list. But the Chick-fil-A nugget is far superior because its bite-sized shape delivers the perfect balance of batter and chicken. Plus, the nuggets are juicier than the tenders, which look a little too much like battered severed fingers.
Chick-fil-A has the most varied amount of sauces next to McDonald’s, but unlike McDonald’s, there are no strict sauce limit laws here. Take as many as you can carry or get a sampling of each flavor to see which pairs best with your chicken tenders. It’s a sauce utopia.
SCORE: FOUR CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
You can tell the chicken at Chick-fil-A is pre-marinated and the use of peanut oil leaves the chicken juicy yet crispy. Still, there’s something lacking about these chicken tenders. They almost feel like Chick-fil-A’s quick riff on the chicken tender, rather than an item that received proper attention.
Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Extra Crispy Tenders
Originally, we rated KFC higher than Popeye’s. That’s one of the major mistakes we’d like to remedy this time around. But that isn’t to say KFC’s Extra Crispy Tenders aren’t good. They are! The batter is crispy, but not overly flaky, offering large chunks of tender white chicken breast with every bite. What more could you ask for? How about adding in the fact that the chicken is well marinated, and the bits of black pepper in the batter is, get this, actually pepper! Unlike whatever the hell was in those McDonald’s chicken tenders before COVID-19 discontinued them.
Every once in a while, KFC will bring back Original Recipe Tenders, which we think are superior in flavor. But the Crispy Chicken Tenders are less oily which is likely why they are the permanent menu fixture.
SCORE: FOUR CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
These tenders don’t need sauce and that’s the best thing about them. The chicken is always juicy and the batter and marinade are flavorful and have a complexity that is more than just…grease.
Carl’s Jr. Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders
When you bite into a chicken tender you’re going in with a few expectations. Oddly enough, we’ve grown accustomed to chicken tenders that don’t really taste like chicken as much as they don’t NOT taste like chicken. So it’s strangely surprising to taste a chicken tender that is both undeniably chicken and thankfully tender.
Carl’s Jr. went a little overboard with the batter but these have a slight edge over KFC because they taste freshly prepared, where the strips that proceed this entry can sometimes taste generically consistent. Carl’s Jr. has a rough-around-the-edges homemade quality that is hinted at but never fully realized.
SCORE: FOUR CURRENT-DAY CRYERS (PLUS A SMIDGE MORE)
Very delicious, but just shy of greatness and proof that maybe we should’ve implemented a HALF-CRYER rating system. Carl’s Jr.’s Hand-breaded Chicken Tenders are heavily breaded and, unfortunately, that breading is prone to absorbing lots of oil. It holds them back from being truly great because sometimes they can be a soggy mess, batter slipping off the meat and straight into your sauce, splashing all over your shirt, pretty much ruining your day and making you look foolish.
Popeyes Handcrafted Tenders
The best thing about Popeye’s chicken tenders is being able to choose between spicy and mild. But why are Popeyes’ strips lumped together while Jack in the Box gets its own entry for each strip type? Because unlike Jack in the Box, Popeyes keeps their chicken consistent, and they’re better for that! The batter is incredibly crispy and full of texture, our only gripe is that the amount of chicken inside is thinner than we’d like. It’s a shame because these tenders have a great flavor and the flakiness of the batter gives them a homemade texture that works great for capturing the dipping sauce. The added kick of the spicy tenders adds complexity to the dipping sauce and leaves your taste buds longing for more.
Occasionally Popeye’s will do a spin on the chicken tender for special promotions. Our favorite was the Wicked Chicken, a fried breast filet that is chopped in semi-disconnected strips. It leaves you with a juicier bite of chicken and we wish this was a permanent fixture on the menu.
SCORE: FIVE CURRENT-DAY CRYERS
Simply delicious. We think all tenders should come in spicy or mild. So extra points to Popeyes for not skimping out where so many have.
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
Raising Cane’s is a considerable cut above the rest of the chicken tenders on this list. With its menu of only chicken tenders, it’s really no surprise. They’ve made a successful business on selling just one thing. They’re like the In-N-Out of fried chicken. The chicken at Raising Cane’s is fresh and never frozen, marinaded for 24-hours, and battered in a delicious blend of seasoning with the perfect amount of crunch in every bite. Paired with Cane’s Sauce — a thousand island variation that has a deep savory finish (we think it’s Worcestershire sauce, giving a bit of an umami quality) — you really taste the difference here.
SCORE: FIVE CURRENT-DAY CRYERS AND A DUCKIE FOR GOOD MEASURE.
Full Cryer! This is the type of chicken tender you fling yourself around a record store for. When Otis Redding sang Try a Little Tenderness, the stuttering chorus was most definitely a reference to the sound you make between bites of this chicken. Was Raising Cane’s around when Try a Little Tenderness was in the zeitgeist? Probably not, but Otis Redding was a great singer. There’s no reason to believe he wasn’t also a time traveler who could look into the fast-food future.