From USA Today - By Larry Olmstead
The scene: Officially launched in Georgia in 1967, founder Truett Cathy's boneless fried chicken sandwich actually dates back to his Dwarf Grill, also in Georgia, in 1946 – predating McDonalds. Today Chick-fil-A locations are found in 40 states, and this is undoubtedly fast food, with drive-through windows, headphone-wearing counter staff and lots of paper bags and cups. But what makes it so odd in a sea of fast food options is the uniquely limited menu – there is really nothing else of scale like it. Chick-fil-A has not only survived changing times, but thrived, while completely ignoring hamburgers, hot dogs and most other styles of fast food (though they recently added shakes). It's in the fried chicken camp, but unlike Popeye's or KFC, doesn't really serve fried chicken either. The menu is impossibly simple, built almost entirely around boneless chicken sandwiches, yet the company has had 45 straight years of positive growth, with sales last year exceeding $4.5 billion.
Chick-fil-A is a Southern institution that has quietly become part of the dining fabric of the entire country. It has locations in mall food courts, airports, even drive through-only outlets, but the majority are standalone roadside stores similar in scope to McDonalds or Burger King, where you can eat in, drive through or take out. The interiors are simple, classic fast food – synthetic tables and chairs in muted colors, easy-to-clean tile floors and counters where food is ordered and dispensed by uniformed staff with an open cooking area behind it. Privately and family owned, all Chick-fil-A locations are famously closed on Sundays due to the owners' religious beliefs. The chain has periodically been in the media spotlight over its owners' views, but I'm just here to judge the food.
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Reason to visit: Chicken sandwich, Chick-n-Mini breakfast sandwiches
The food: In an increasingly complicated world, the reason for Chick-fil-A's success is shockingly simple – they make a tasty fried chicken sandwich. This is especially true and obvious when compared to their main competition, the even-bigger national fast food chains that serve up processed patties of chopped something that tastes vaguely like chicken. Chick-fil-A's sandwiches look better, as they are breast-shaped rather than unnaturally round, and they definitely taste better, with the breast consistently thick, juicy and served quite hot. It may not be gourmet, but it is as good as a fast food fried chicken sandwich gets.
The main menu category here is "Classics," and nearly half of those entries are variants on the standard fried chicken breast standard served with pickle slices. It also comes "Spicy," with spicy breading; "Deluxe," adding lettuce, tomato and American cheese; and "Spicy Deluxe," with lettuce, tomato and jalapeño Jack cheese. What makes all these options taste better than competitors is the fact that they use a piece of actual breast, fry it in pure peanut oil (the longtime Southern standard for fried chicken but considerably more expensive than alternatives), and serve it on a bun that is not only quite tasty relative to most fast food hamburger rolls, but is buttered, packing in extra flavor (and calories -- a wheat bun is available on request).
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There are a couple of chargrilled chicken breast sandwich options, which, while undoubtedly healthier, sort of defeats the point of visiting Chick-fil-A, which is for the tasty flavor of its fried chicken, also available in strips and nuggets. To me, the fried chicken sandwich, in whichever of the four variants suits your taste, is the main reason to choose Chick-fil-A over other fast food, and the spicy is my favorite, with just a bit of heat that makes it the most flavorful option, more zesty than truly spicy. The one odd option worth considering is the chicken salad sandwich, something you are unlikely to see at any other fast food joint, made with chunks of chopped breast, eggs, celery, lettuce, pickle, relish and mayo on wheat bread. It's surprisingly good, fresh, and not mayonnaisey at all, on flavorful wheat bread. It is a solid non-fried alternative.
Side dishes are equally streamlined, with four choices: the chicken salad, fruit or pretty bland cole slaw in a small cup, and waffle fries. Easily the best choice is the fries; something about their bigger size, almost crispy exterior and denser texture goes well with the chicken sandwiches, just as skinny frites go with steak.
Breakfast is also notable, and also built around, you guessed, it fried chicken sandwiches. There is a chicken biscuit, a smaller portion of the same fried breast, served simply on a decent Southern-style biscuit. In general, a biscuit is a better breakfast sandwich bread choice than the ultra-bland English muffins chains tend to use, but few fast food places serve a passable biscuit like Chick-fil-A does. There is also a spicy version and chicken, egg and cheese biscuit, but my favorite is the unique Chick-n-Minis, an order of 3-4 micro nuggets served on tiny light rolls (not biscuits) that are spread with honey butter and strangely addictive. They also stray further from their comfort zone for breakfast with several non-chicken options, mainly biscuit sandwiches and burritos. The newish "hand-spun" milkshakes are quite thick but not especially flavorful, pretty much a typical fast food shake and not worth the calories.
At the end of the day, Chick-fil-A is fast food and not something I am ever going to be craving, but it's better at its fast food, chicken sandwiches, than most of its peers are at their fast food, hamburgers. They also serve a better breakfast, so if I am traveling and have to get something along the road or in an airport, I'm likely to choose Chick-fil-A before most other big chain options. It's pretty tasty.
Rating: Mmmm (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: In 40 U.S. states coast to coast; chick-fil-a.com
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