Being from Chicago, I had never heard of Chick-fil-A until I went to college and made some Southern friends who swore by the poultry-intensive fast-food joint. Several years ago, while on a trip to Atlanta, I finally tried it for myself and was distinctly unimpressed. I found the chicken sandwich indistinguishable from any other sort of fast-food or even frozen chicken sandwich I had had before and just chalked up people’s adoration of CFA to local pride.
This summer, a Chick-fil-A opened up in downtown Chicago and people lost their damn minds. The day it opened, the line curled around the block and it was a rowdy line at that. I walked by the restaurant on the way to the "L" that night and while I was obliging enough to try one of the free cookie samples that were being handed out, I didn’t want to stop inside for dinner: I had real food (IE a frozen Amy’s entree) at home.
“Have you eaten here before?” a guy waiting in line outside asked me.
“I did once,” I said. “I didn’t think it was that great. I blogged about it.”
“You don’t blog about it,” he said. “You eat it.”
“Okay.” I said.
“I’m from Birmingham,” he said.
“Oooh,” I said, suddenly understanding.
My friend Erica is also from the south: Vicksburg Mississippi, to be exact, and she was also thrilled about the new Chick-fil-A. When I told her I wasn’t too impressed with the restaurant she made this sad straight-line mouth face that I hate to see, so I proposed an idea to her. Maybe my first time at Chick-fil-A was a fluke. Maybe I needed to give it a second shot. We would go and she would order and I’d try it again.
“You promise you’ll keep an open mind?” she asked. I promised.
So yesterday we met outside Chick-fil-A at 12:30, which I figured would be when the lunch rush was waning, but a line still stretched around the corner. Fortunately it was a beautiful sunny day and the line moved quickly, although I had time to observe how lovely and clean, airy and futuristic (video menu screens!) the Chick-fil-A was.
When we got to the counter Erica ordered the following:
1 8-count chicken nugget meal
1 4-count chicken strips meal
2 lemonades (not diet)
2 orders of fries
1 small ice dream (which was huge)
Erica also got us all the sauces to try plus lots of ketchup. She gave my name when we placed the order, and I heard “Claire!” being called before I was through putting my credit card away. So at least we received our food fast.
It took a few moments of scanning the restaurant before we found two seats at a communal high table. We opened up all the packets of sauce and got to work.
I definitely liked the chicken strips a lot more than the chicken sandwich I had tried a few years ago. The strips were plump and juicy and generously breaded, the spicing reminding me of KFC a bit, but in a way that didn’t make me want to die. The chicken nuggets are simply smaller, bite-sized versions of the strips but I think I preferred the strips because you get more breading for your buck (or “bok.” Get it? Get it?!?) I’d say the strips are on the better side of the chicken fingers I’ve eaten in my life, and I’ve eaten a few truly regrettable chicken fingers.
In terms of the sauces, I liked the Chick-fil-A sauce the most, which was sort of a smokey mustard flavor. Honey-mustard came next, which was pretty standard. I then liked the Polynesian sauce (sweet but not too syrupy) and barbecue sauce (I don’t typically like barbecue sauce that much when I’m eating it outside of actual barbecue food) equally. The buffalo sauce and the ranch sauce I liked least, since both just kind of made me feel gross and guilty. Ranch dressing on fried chicken strips? Come on people. There have to be limits.
Thirsty (I’m kinda still thirsty, even now) from this repast I sampled the lemonade, which Erica was adamant needed to be full-sugar and not diet. I don’t usually drink lemonade so it was a a treat, and tasty enough that I didn’t feel too guilty about having a sugary beverage on top of my indulgent lunch.
The fries though I’m afraid I’m going to have to say I still don't think are that special. They’re waffle cut and soft and chewy but I wished they’d had more salt. I told Erica that I tend to organize fries in terms of “great” (McDonald’s, or the fries you usually get with steak at a nice French restaurant), “bad” (flabby steak fries that taste of freezer) or “okay” and I’d stick Chick-fil-A fries in the “okay” category.
Here I should mention that a server came up to our table and asked if she could get us anything or clear anything away for us. She noticed Erica’s unique tattoos and complimented them and then they had a brief but enthusiastic conversation about their favorite tattoo artist in common. I’ve definitely never had an experience like that in a McDonald’s or even a Culver’s, which I had heretofore considered the friendliest of the fast food restaurants.
Erica and I dove into the ice dream which is basically a tasty soft serve ice cream. It’s not so uniquely different that I could tell you how it’s better than soft serve from McDonald’s, but it was also not so terrible that I didn’t have a hard time forcing myself to throw it away even though I was already full and had obviously “tasted” it quite enough.
It was at this point that a Chick-fil-A manager came by and asked us how our experience was and offered us refills on our lemonade. Sorry Culver’s, but you have been faced when it comes to customer service.
“So how was it?” Erica asked. I should mention that by this time it was 1:00 PM. This whole emotional journey only lasted a half-hour.
Well, first and foremost, it’s hard to hate your meal when you’re having a good time, which I did, thanks to my company and the incredibly good service at the Chick-fil-A. I definitely had much better food this time around than on my first visit. I don’t eat a lot of fast food though, so it’s hard to consider a future wherein I eat at Chick-fil-A very often, although maybe it will start factoring into my road trip rotation. Plus, I felt a certain amount of guilt eating such an indulgent meal (plus some liberal guilt as well, which I decided to mitigate this way). My meal cost me about a tasty 950 calories.
But I enjoyed it, and I have at least changed my tune when it comes to pooh-pooh-ing Chick-fil-A.
Chick Fil-A Challenge Accepted, Met and Devoured.