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The 6 Best And 6 Worst Fast Food Chicken Tenders

Chicken tenders and fries
Chicken tenders and fries - Mironov Vladimir/Shutterstock

I don't think I can think of a single meal that reminds me of childhood more than chicken tenders. They are strips of deep-fried nostalgia on a plate, often served with french fries, and are a comfort food to trump all others. But that burning passion doesn't blind us to the reality that some places make better chicken tenders (or fingers, or strips — they go by many names) than others. When it comes to fast food, the difference between a good and a bad chicken tender is of great importance. That's why we've put them to the test and determined the six best and six worst fast food chicken tenders.

There are a few factors that take a chicken tender from mediocre to memorable. These include the crispness, spice, flavor, and quality of the chicken meat. There's a big difference between a tender that tastes like it's from a freezer bag and one that was hand-breaded in-house.

I've established these criteria using my own personal fast food dining experience as well as relying on the expertise of other Daily Meal writers. Based on our firsthand experience, we're here to tell you which chicken chains have the best tenders in town and which to avoid altogether.

Read more: The Ultimate Ranking Of The Best Fried Chicken Chains

Best: Popeyes

Popeyes chicken tender combo
Popeyes chicken tender combo - Popeyes/Facebook

Let's start with my go-to when I'm craving tenders: Popeyes. Before Popeyes' legendary chicken sandwich dropped, the chicken tenders were my default order from the New Orleans-based chicken chain. To this day, they are still reliable and satisfying when that craving hits.

The chicken tenders at Popeyes are unbelievably crispy, with crunchy batter flaking off in every direction and in the nooks and crannies of the chicken. The meat itself is always nice, moist, and consistently well seasoned. Typically, I find that if one of my tenders is smaller than average, I'll get an extra one thrown in there to compensate.

Getting spicy at Popeyes, like with many chains, means a little more heat but usually a lot more flavor. We recommend going with the Spicy Chicken Tenders when ordering from Popeyes. When dipped in Popeyes' smoky yet creamy Blackened Ranch sauce, these are utter perfection, with just the right amount of spice.

Worst: Kentucky Fried Chicken

KFC chicken tenders
KFC chicken tenders - KFC/Facebook

The nights my dad came home with KFC were nights I treasured in my childhood. As an adult, though, I've had increasingly tepid experiences dining at Kentucky Fried Chicken. As established, I'm quite a big fan of tenders; I tend to choose them over bone-in fried chicken when I have the choice, especially when eating fast food. At KFC, however, I almost always regret this decision.

The tenders at KFC only come in the Extra Crispy variety. Original Recipe tenders were trialed in some markets in 2023, but at most KFC locations, you're only getting one option. The Extra Crispy tenders have a crispy exterior texture, but due to the lack of the original spice recipe, they taste a bit bland and don't have that special KFC flavor. The ones I've tried from my closest locations most recently have tasted like they've been sitting under a heat lamp for a number of hours instead of being hot out the fryer.

If you go to KFC, I recommend sticking with the Original Recipe fried chicken pieces and a side of mashed potatoes — maybe a biscuit if you're feeling frisky.

Best: Raising Cane's

Raising Cane's chicken finger combo
Raising Cane's chicken finger combo - Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

As a New York City resident, Raising Cane's still has that brand-new sheen to me. In the past year, one successful Midtown location has turned into multiple others throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. We're not complaining, though, because these are some of the best fast-food chicken tenders we've ever tried.

I appreciate the focused, simple menu at Cane's. It shows that the chain is dedicated to doing one thing right. The chicken tenders at Raising Cane's are always shockingly hot and fresh. You can tell from the texture of the chicken that these are hand-breaded in-store. The exterior is crisp and flavorful, but not too heavy on the batter like many chains. Dip it into some Cane's Sauce, and you'll be able to taste why so many people rave about the chain. The creamy, peppery, and Worcestershire-forward Cane's Sauce has a tangy flavor and silky texture, unlike most generic chicken sauces you'll find at many competitors.

The Texas toast is excellent as well, but for my tastes, the fries are way too salty. Making a DIY sandwich out of the Texas toast, sauce, chicken, and fries is the way Cane's experts recommend consuming your meal to get the perfect balance of flavors in each bite, and we're inclined to agree.

Worst: Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen Chicken Strip Basket
Dairy Queen Chicken Strip Basket - Dairy Queen/Facebook

As a rule, we stick to frozen treats at this chain. Dairy Queen's chicken isn't as bad as its burgers; we'll give DQ that, but when you compare the soft-serve chain's tenders to other fast food chicken, they literally and figuratively pale in comparison.

The Chicken Strips (as they are called at Dairy Queen) are served in a basket, which comes with fries, toast, and your choice of sauce. This was a go-to meal for me from childhood until the time I graduated high school, and I can tell you from experience that these tenders are middling at best. I'll even stand by Dairy Queen's barely toasted toast or the perfectly okay fries, but when it comes to the strips themselves, I can't recommend them.

DQ's chicken has decent crisp, but not a lot of flavor, and leaves you desperately in need of a dipping sauce. The salt levels are pretty intense, too, which is perhaps a reason to recommend the chain's BBQ or Honey Mustard sauce over the salty Country Gravy that I always used to choose.

Best: Dave's Hot Chicken

Dave's Hot Chicken tenders and sliders
Dave's Hot Chicken tenders and sliders - Dave's Hot Chicken/Facebook

Dave's is another chain that has recently taken my city by storm. This Nashville-style hot chicken joint is one of the best chicken chains in the game. Originally opening in a Los Angeles parking lot in 2017, Dave's Hot Chicken has swiftly expanded eastward and now has several NYC locations. You'll hear no complaints from us as we stuff ourselves with the thickest, spiciest fast food tenders around.

The thing about a tender from Dave's Hot Chicken is that it's bigger than many other fast food chicken filets. The chain's slider features only a single tender, but it's still basically a full sandwich. The price speaks to this, too, and Dave's aren't the cheapest tenders in town, with most two-item combos at our nearby location costing around $15.

Ultimately, we find we get our money's worth at Dave's because of the quality. These tenders are tossed in your choice of spice rub, from Lite Mild to Reaper, and yes, the highest end of that scale brings the heat properly. Personally, we prefer the sliders, which are topped with Dave's sauce, pickles, and slaw and served on a potato roll. The combination of Dave's Nashville hot rub, pickles, and the chain's sauce hits a spot no other fast food chicken chain can at the moment.

Worst: Whataburger

Whataburger chicken strips
Whataburger chicken strips - Whataburger/Facebook

You'll sometimes be surprised at the quality of the chicken at a burger place. Take Shake Shack, for instance, which I think makes an excellent chicken sandwich. At Whataburger, however, this is not the case. Despite having a unique branding, the Whatachick'n Strips taste generic, like they came right out of a freezer bag.

The time I tried Whataburger's chicken strips, they were dry, moderately crisp, and seasoned only with salt. There wasn't any one element that made them stand out, and ultimately, I ended up wishing I'd ordered a burger instead.

Since sauces are both moist and have flavor, the chicken is improved upon quite a bit by Whataburger's Spicy Ketchup or its barbecue sauce. And, being from Texas, the chain's Texas toast is pretty good and comes in a combo with the Whatachick'n Strips or if you specifically ask for it on the side. Unfortunately, that's the best thing I can say about the chicken tender basket at Whataburger, and it's not even about the chicken.

Best: Chick-Fil-A

Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Strips
Chick-fil-A Chick-n-Strips - Chick-fil-A/Facebook

It's easy to get caught up in debates about the chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A and whether it won the war with Popeyes, but not as many people talk about the tenders. It's a shame because the chain's Chick-n-Strips are excellent, even better than Popeyes' in my estimation.

For my money, Chick-fil-A's fried chicken is some of the most flavorful and well seasoned in the fast food game. It doesn't have the thickest layer of breading, but this light touch allows the perfectly seasoned meat to shine. In tender form, the ratio of chicken to breading is the best it gets, accentuating both the quality of the chicken and the spices of the breading.

Not only are they perfectly dippable, but Chick-fil-A's Chick-n-Strips are meatier and more satisfying than their nugget counterparts. Compared to the other menu options, we find these to be the best value if you want the most chicken for your money.

Worst: Wingstop

Wingstop tenders and boneless wings
Wingstop tenders and boneless wings - Wingstop/X, formerly known as Twitter

Bone-in wings are the move at this chain; you don't go to Wingstop for boneless chicken, or at least I don't. Not even Wingstop's famous ranch dipping sauce can save the chicken tenders from being bottom-tier, right next to the boneless wings. Wingstop's inherent advantage is that every order of tenders comes dipped in a wing sauce of your choice. However, this turns out to be a double-edged sword that obfuscates the quality of the chicken and instead highlights the chain's most basic failures.

For starters, the tenders themselves are pretty salty. The addition of Wingstop sauces like Spicy Korean Q or Mango Habanero doesn't improve that factor but worsens it. In fact, the sodium levels of the chicken are elevated to an unappetizing degree by most of the sauces and rubs. If you get the plain tenders, though, you are likely going to get bored by the run-of-the-mill breading and dry chicken.

In our experience at Wingstop, consistency isn't really a thing. That means you might get some tenders with way more sauce than others, even in a small order. For all these reasons, it's hard to recommend the tenders over the wings at Wingstop. C'mon, it's right in the name.

Best: Bojangles

Bojangles Chicken Supremes and biscuit
Bojangles Chicken Supremes and biscuit - Bojangles/Facebook

Chicken and biscuit chain Bojangles calls its tenders Chicken Supremes, and thankfully, they live up to that name. If you are looking for the platonic ideal of a fast food chicken tender, you can find it right here, and what else would you expect from one of the best fried chicken chains out there? The tenders aren't exemplary in their flavor or freshness, but for their execution and consistency, they earn the highest possible marks.

My colleagues at Daily Meal have spoken about how much the chicken from this Southern chain knocks its competitors out of the park. Bojangles' chicken seasoning isn't going for excess but refinement, and it will surprise you with just how good it tastes. These tenders have the perfect ratio of crunchy, craggy exterior to moist, juicy chicken on the inside. You are getting equal parts juicy chicken and crunch in every satisfying bite.

Worst: Checkers

Checkers chicken tenders and sauce
Checkers chicken tenders and sauce - Checkers

On paper, Checkers should have some of the best tenders in fast food. The chain (also known as Rally's in some regions) offers its Fry-Seasoned Tenders tossed in the same mix of spices as its french fries. The fries in question are amazing and bursting with savory delight, so what's the problem? Well, a chicken is not a potato, for one. The best ratios of seasoning for the two foods are very different, and the quality of what's inside that batter matters a lot more when you are working with chicken.

In my experience with the chain, Checkers isn't knocking it out of the park in terms of ingredient quality. The chicken in both its tenders and Chicken Bites isn't especially juicy and has something of an artificial bounce to it. The tenders themselves are also pretty inconsistent in terms of size, which can be an issue when you are going to a chain for its value and not the quality of the product, like we do at Checkers. If it's the only thing open at 1 a.m., maybe stop by. Otherwise, pass right on by.

Best: Zaxby's

Zaxby's Chicken Fingerz and Zax Sauce
Zaxby's Chicken Fingerz and Zax Sauce - Zaxby's/Facebook

When a chain focuses so much of its effort on its chicken tenders, you know they're going to be good. No, we aren't going to praise Cane's again (although it deserves it) but rather the next best thing: Zaxby's tenders are so good that the chain's beloved Kickin Chicken Sandwich is basically a couple of them on bread -- and it works.

Zaxby's Chicken Fingerz (as the chain stylizes them) are next-level. Not only are they quite massive, but the breading is thin, crispy, and honestly more flavorful than Raising Cane's. In terms of flavor, these are up there with Chick-Fil-A, and you get more chicken for a lower price. On top of that, Zaxby's mysterious Zax Sauce has its own sweet, creamy, and smoky profile that goes perfectly with the hand-breaded Chicken Fingerz.

If you are on the go, the chain's Niblerz are low-cost sliders that consist of just a tender and sauce on a bun. If you want all the best Zaxby's has to offer in a quick bite, you can't do better than that.

Worst: Sonic

Sonic chicken tenders
Sonic chicken tenders - Sonic Drive-In/Facebook

Last, and quite possibly least, we have Sonic. As a kid, I used to love the corn dogs and tater tots from the drive-in chain, but I haven't eaten at Sonic too much in recent years. When I have, the results have been disappointing to my nostalgia. When I've been traveling and curious enough to stop at a Sonic, I've figured the chicken tenders were a safe bet. Boy howdy, was I wrong.

The tenders at Sonic are subpar and, to be honest, pretty wimpy. These strips of breaded white meat chicken are at least using decent-quality meat. However, you wouldn't be able to tell with all that breading. Even though they're thin tenders, the exterior makes up half of each tender, which makes it seem like Sonic is skimping on the chicken. While they are nice and golden brown and crisp, there isn't much flavor aside from the basic salt and chicken. There's not much else to remark upon -- if I were you, I would stick to a chili dog, tots, and a limeade and call it a day.

Methodology

two people enjoying chicken tenders
two people enjoying chicken tenders - Mark Makela/Getty Images

The selections for this article were based on my own dining experiences as well as the firsthand experiences of other Daily Meal staff members I've spoken to. We selected a dozen chains where we've tried the chicken tenders ourselves and have strong feelings them one way or the other.

Read the original article on Daily Meal