Fried chicken is rapidly passing the cheeseburger as the icon of American fast-food culture. The Popeye’s Fried Chicken Sandwich was a full-on phenomenon — leading to the sort of insanity once reserved for celebrity sightings and streetwear drops. Which fast-food chain is growing nationwide the fastest? Love them or hate them, it’s Chick-fil-A, proof that fried chicken, whether in nugget, tender, or sandwich form, is to a new generation of fast-food eaters what the burger and fries were to the Boomers.
For the most part, we know our favorite fast-food chicken. We’ve already crowned a best chicken sandwich, a best chicken tender, and even the best chicken nugget. We felt settled on the matter. Until last week, when McDonald’s launched their Spicy Chicken McNugget along with the Travis Scott Meal. It was a move that practically demanded we put the McD’s entry to a test against our current nugget champ: Wendy’s spicy nugget.
To see which of the two entries into the fast-food chicken game is best, we’ve scored both by taste, texture, and heat on a 5-point scale. Place your bets now and let’s dive into the madness.
Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nugget
A few years back, Wendy’s tried to eliminate its Spicy Chicken Nugget from the menu, much to the dismay of many a chicken nugget fan. After months of pestering from fans spamming the historically snarky Wendy’s Twitter account — including Chance The Rapper, with a tweet that has since received 33.9 thousand retweets, 1.1 thousand quote tweets, and 220.9 thousand likes — Wendy’s finally caved and brought back the spicy nuggets, aka, the best 99¢ you can spend at the restaurant.
Positive Affirmations for today: I WILL have a good day, I Will succeed today, Wendy’s WILL bring back spicy nuggets at some point please please Lord let it be today.
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) May 4, 2019
The spicy batter Wendy’s uses is phenomenal. It’s a mix of cayenne pepper, paprika, and big flaky pieces of black pepper — giving you a very legit opportunity to use the word “zesty.” The flavor of a single nugget can linger through a whole meal, which would be frustrating if Wendy’s nuggets didn’t taste so damn good.
This is Wendy’s weak point. The batter on the spicy nuggets is thick and coarse — like if someone dipped the chicken in a mix of flour and egg, and then proceeded to roll each nugget up and down the driveway. It’s a texture so notable (and such a departure from other brands) that a person might be tempted to peel the batter from the chicken, just to investigate. Don’t do this. Underneath the batter is a piece of spongey processed chicken that looks like a naked, shivering creature of some sort.
Though the taste clearly makes up for this weakness in my rankings, I do think that if you threw a Wendy’s Spicy Nugget at somebody hard enough you could draw blood.
Wendy’s real saving grace is the heat packed in each nugget. Once the flavor of cayenne and the pepper subsides, you’re left with a lingering burn that activates your tastebuds. Spice has layers and levels and certain spices linger while others seem to pass quickly — Wendy’s hits all these notes nicely.
Overall Score: 12
Mcdonald’s Spicy McNugget
Sometimes fast food brands make weird choices. Taco Bell will chop out fan favorites, In-N-Out still refuses to add bacon to their menu, and, for whatever reason, McDonald’s hasn’t brought a new flavor of McNugget to the United States since 1983, even though it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a spicy McNugget would slap.
C’est la vie. The Spicy McNugget is here now, so let’s see how it stacks up.
Hmm. Well, it’s not better than the traditional non-spiced McNugget, and from a pure flavor perspective, the mix of cayenne, and chili peppers don’t have anything over Wendy’s cayenne, paprika, and pepper-based seasoning. While McDonald’s subtle flavor makes a great pairing with sauce, the nugg eaten alone doesn’t linger in a pleasing way like the black pepper of Wendy’s nugget does.
This is the Spicy McNugget’s strength. Part of what makes the Chicken McNugget so beloved is its tempura-like batter. The crispy-flaky crunch that each Spicy McNugget offers is so audibly pleasing that we’re finally starting to understand the appeal of Mukbang and ASMR.
McDonald’s could’ve really had something if they’d just trusted their customers a little bit more. The truth about spicy food is that it’s not for everybody. Some people can handle the heat and some can’t. Wendy’s respects that the audience for their Spicy Nugget comes in wanting spice. McDonald’s played it safe and tried to have it both ways with a McNugget that’s only slightly spicy.
In short: it’s not spicy enough to turn any beginners off, but it leaves nothing for spice-heads to really appreciate.
Overall Score: 11
The Final Verdict
It’s going to take a little bit more than cayenne, chili pepper, and good texture to snatch the title of “Best Chicken Nugget” from Wendy’s. While the overall scores are close, Wendy’s eeks out a win thanks to their emphasis on flavor and, most importantly, heat.
In its defense, McDonald’s seems to know that their nuggets could be spicier. Along with the new McNuggets comes the release of “Mighty Hot Sauce” — a buffalo-style sauce consisting of crushed red peppers, spicy chilies, and garlic. This sauce, which is McDonald’s first new dipping sauce in three years, greatly enhances the experience of eating their Spicy McNuggets (but still not to the point that they taste better than what Wendy’s offers for a lower price).
Until McD’s spices up their actual nugget, Wendy’s keeps the championship belt.