Chick-Fil-A's Grilled Chicken: The Emilio Estevez Of Chicken Sandwiches

Eating at Chick-fil-A is always a personal conflict. How do you decide between its super-friendly employees and quality food on the one hand, and the antiquated social views at the top of the company on the other? For the sake of loyal Foodspinners, I put that conflict aside to to help mediate another one: Should you ever order grilled chicken from a fast-food chicken joint?

Our fast-food grilled-chicken memories are mixed, to say the least. For years, McDonald's, Wendy's, and the like have offered grilled varieties on many of their chicken sandwiches and salads. The results haven't been inspiring. Usually, you end up with some suspiciously cooked piece of chicken that doesn't feel wholly like meat, adorned with fake grill lines. Those options are also typically slathered in sauce or mayo to mask the resulting blandness.

Of course, KFC tried to change the game with its huge Kentucky Grilled Chicken campaign a few years ago. But that stuff was frightening—eating grilled chicken off the bone at a local KFC was eye-opening. Without the layer of crispy, life-shortening-but-goddammit-you-feel-alive breading on the chicken, grilled chicken at KFC unmasked the weird shapes and sizes of meat the restaurant used. It was kind of like seeing your mom naked.

Chick-fil-A, too, has offered grilled chicken for a while. Grilled nuggets were an option on the kids' menu starting in 2012, and the grilled-chicken sandwich was a solid alternative for your pretentious friend who insisted on eating healthy while you scarfed down a 12-piece nuggets, a spicy chicken sandwich, and a chocolate shake.

In April, however, Chick-fil-A changed its chicken game when it introduced a new grilled recipe, resulting in the introduction of grilled nuggets to the main menu, plus an upgrade for all existing sandwiches, salads, and wraps. The change was a long process for the chain, which invested $50 million dollars in the scheme. Existing restaurants had to be upgraded to a new proprietary grill that could cook the chicken fast enough, and with the right consistency. After focus-grouping customers, they settled on a recipe for chicken accented with sea salt, lemon, and other herbs to produce a backyard-barbecue taste.

So is the result a worthy foil to the original, fried variety? The answer is a pretty emphatic yes. Aside from the nutritional benefits of the grilled chicken, the taste is unlike what we've been used to in fast food.

First thing's first, the chicken actually tastes grilled. The marks on the breast actually make an impression and give the meat a smokey flavor. The lemon is definitely apparent, and the recipe gives the chicken a taste that is almost sour, yet still savory. The meat is also very juicy, and the regimented process of all fast food at least gives the chicken an even cook every time.

The sandwich is served on a toasty, whole-grain bun that easily services the sandwich. The vegetation adds a fresh touch, but Chick-fil-A really does need to do something about its gargantuan lettuce leaves.

The only issue may be the texture of the chicken, especially on the nuggets, which are essentially cut-up pieces of chicken breast, a stark departure from the uniform fried nugget we're used to. This can make for some odd-looking nuggets. The juiciness also creates a very slick coating on the meat, which is why they're served in a little bowl and meant to be eaten with a fork.

It's still hard to rank the new recipe, a clear success, over its fried brother. Think of Chick-fil-A's new grilled chicken like a fast-food Emilio Estevez: never as famous, enjoyable, or destructive as its sibling, but respectable in its own right.


Image by Sam Woolley, via Getty and Shutterstock