Chicken Nuggets Bring the Heat

Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets

Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets

I Paid: 99 cents for five small nuggets (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 3 stars

Marketing: 4 stars

What’s the biggest problem with fast-food chicken? What’s that? Oh, you said the health and welfare of the animals. Not what I was going for, but a very valid point all the same.

I was driving at its beyond-bland flavor that necessitates adding mediocre sauces and condiments to stimulate the taste buds. The grind-and-reconstitute process that creates chicken nuggets doesn’t yield a whole heck of a lot in terms of texture or flavor, so there is much riding on the crispy exterior to make the dish edible. With its new Spicy Chicken Nuggets, Wendy’s is on to something. It has rolled the dice on a truly spicy breading that, without being overwhelming, provides a bit of sincere, rolling heat.

An actual hit of spice doesn’t magically make these nuggets objectively delicious or sustainably raised or anything like that, but it does help them stand out from the pack of other similarly marketed but deceptively underpowered “spicy” fast-food-menu options. For the sake of contrast, look at Taco Bell’s four completely nonhot hot sauces (culminating in the slightly-spicier-than-white-bread-toast Fire sauce). They’re indicative of the typical approach: Use red packaging, spicy nouns and verbs, and just about every tool available to signal heat without actually providing any.

Wendy’s deserves recognition for latching onto an industry trend—the spicyfication of nearly everything short of soda pop—but doing it right. What’s ironic is that folk cuisines all around the world have known for centuries that if you don’t have much to talk about in the cooking pot, spice it up and let the flavor shout down the food.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.