What defines a chicken tender?

It dawned on me recently that on several occasions in this space I have waxed flavorful about chicken tenders. This tells me that either I am an 8-year-old child, or there really are defining levels of chicken tender quality. The latter possibility intrigued me.

If you think about it, a chicken tender is a beautiful thing — if done correctly with fresh chicken, a plump cut, hand-made and hand-applied breading and a good value as well. As such, I have previously written about the excellent chicken tenders available at Spring Street Bar & Grill, which I still eat frequently as a great fallback staple that is among the closest I’ve found to tasting like actual homemade fried chicken.

I’ve also written about the tasty tenders at Neal and Patty’s Fireside Bar and Grill in Sellersburg, Indiana. And in the meantime, I’ve found quality chicken tenders at Clucker’s in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and have often found solace in the very solid battered and fried strips of chicken at Hilltop Tavern in Clifton. In addition, I am a frequent lunch customer at Bluegrass Brewing Company in St. Matthews, where five bucks gets you a pair of plump, hand-breaded and delicious tenders plus chips.

But it wasn’t until I was recently at the chain restaurant Roosters, the chicken-oriented restaurant which actually bears a striking resemblance to Clucker’s (although with a more expansive menu), that I had a revelation that there truly is a fairly wide divide between very good chicken tenders and also very bad ones. In other words, my inner 8-year-old had clearly reached a point that he had become a chicken-tenders snob on some level.

But my first experience with these tenders, which on the menu are called “fingers” (keep that in mind) came a couple of years ago during my first visit to a Roosters. I decided to try these chicken fingers at the time, and the menu informed me I could get two for $4.59 or four for $6.99.

No way on earth two chicken fingers could fill me up, I thought. So I ordered four. A few minutes later, my server brought a plastic basket with these four chicken “fingers,” and I could barely believe my eyes. They were huge. I recall having to take at least one home with me. And they were fresh and delicious, a wonderful nod to the Southern-style fried chicken my grandma made when I was a kid.

My recent visit to Roosters was for a fantasy football draft. I decided to stick around after the draft for a bite to eat and again ordered the four-piece chicken fingers, figuring that there was no way they could still sell these delicious hunks of fowl so cheaply. But when my order came, I was yet again taken aback — these four were actually bigger than that original batch I’d enjoyed. It was like I’d been presented with four whole fried chicken breasts. No, they weren’t really whole breasts, as they were medium cut in terms of thickness, but I’d have to say there was enough white meat in each “finger” to at least be nearly half a breast.

How can this be? Obviously, this wasn’t the 8-year-old’s standard of skinny, nearly flavorless frozen specimens that get poured into the fryer from a brown bag. This was fresh chicken coated in lightly peppery breading that fell off when you picked it up (just like my Mammaw’s fried chicken, mind you), and soaked up the spicy sauce I’d ordered on the side like an edible and delicious sponge.

So it got me thinking: If I’ve stumbled upon such tasty chicken tenders by accident around Louisville, what have I missed? It’s like when you find a band you never knew about that makes exactly the kind of awesome music you love, or an author whose voice just nails it, and you realize they’ve been around for several years. How did you miss all these years of loving this band or author, and how many other bands are there making music that would excite you so? And, similarly, how much awesome chicken is passing me by?

So this is my way of saying that if you read these words and you know of a place that has chicken tenders such as what I’ve described, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected] I want to try it out. Heck, I might even have to write about it, assuming my editor doesn’t put the kibosh on my writing about chicken tenders all the time.

I mean, I get that we aren’t talking about fine cuisine here, but then again, that’s why we have Robin Garr around, right?