I’m sure I’ve probably railed on this before, but I have never understood why chicken tenders don’t taste more like old fashioned fried chicken. What is it about bones that make fried chicken taste like fried chicken? Is it a freshness thing? Or is it just the batter? And if it’s the batter, why on earth would we not use the exact same batter for tenders that people use for traditional fried chicken?
Don’t get me wrong, even not-great chicken tenders are still good (hey, it’s chicken), and what would a nation of 8-year-olds eat if not for their existence? We don’t need 8-year-olds starving in America because they don’t like broccoli. That’s just not right.
But even my go-to chicken tenders just got a little bit better, and it took me years – and for a smart bartender to figuratively smack me in the face and snap me out of my funk of stupidity – to figure out how to do it.
I live just blocks away from Spring Street Bar & Grill, see, and I stop there sometimes when I need a cheap, delicious snack. Enter the chicken tenders. Why do I like them so much? Because they taste like old-fashioned fried chicken, that’s why.
Anyway, I recently stopped in after a day of writing and editing for close to 12 hours, and I was famished. I ordered the chicken tenders basket, which is an agreeable $6.75, with no fries. (You can get it with fries for the same price, but you get less chicken. Just the meat, please.) With either basket, you get the house horseradish sauce or barbecue sauce. I usually ask for both, because I like to keep my options open.
Out of the blue, the bartender, April, says, “You should try those with our wing sauce.”
I stopped for a moment and thought, “Wait. That’s an option? A side of wing sauce? Duh. Of course it is.” And I am ashamed I never made the connection on my own. I didn’t know whether to hug her or curse out loud at my daftness.
Interestingly, April was adamant that I needed to try this. So I asked for the horseradish sauce as well as a cup of the hot version of the house wing sauce (variety).
Let me say this about the chicken tenders – they are among the few I’ve found that actually remind me a bit of my late Mammaw’s fried chicken. Of course they aren’t as good, but they conjure the memory, and that’s why I go back. They’re good without any sauce, and that says something – the chicken always tastes fresh, the breading is always crisp and just a tad peppery, and they make for a satisfying small meal. Maybe I like them so much because they make me feel 8 again. Who knows?
The latest batch did not disappoint. They came out piping hot and delicious as always. And guess what? April was right. They were frigging delicious with the wing sauce. Part of it, I think, is that you can control the sauce-to-chicken ratio. I like that kind of control when it comes to my chicken.
I decided to really savor the experience of this homestyle treat, and what I found is that when I got to the last two tenders, I began to take smaller, more measured bites. I became even more aware of how much chicken I wanted versus how much sauce. Some bites I ate sauce-less. For a while, I alternated between horseradish and wing sauce, but when I got down to the last tender, I was dipping wing sauce over horseradish at a two-to-one rate.
Down to just a chicken nub, I decided to end it with the holy trinity: one bite plain, one bite horseradish, and the final bite with wing sauce. I wrote down in my notes that my careful measurement down the homestretch was “rather sad, really, but nevertheless indicative of my enjoyment.” I couldn’t have written it better myself. Wait, scratch that.
Anyway, as a result of my visit, I will never order the barbecue sauce with my tenders again. It isn’t that the barbecue sauce isn’t good, it’s just not as pleasing to my taste buds as the wing sauce. I owe a great big thank you to April – she has changed my chicken tender experience for the better forever, at least at Spring Street.
Also, I have a theory that if Jimi Hendrix had named his band the Chicken Finger Experience instead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he would not be in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame today.