2010 February: Perenial Powerhouse

Call them chicken tenders, chicken fingers or chicken nuggets — they all sound good to diners. According to Technomic’s Appetizer Consumer Trend report (March 2009), two-thirds of consumers polled say that they order chicken strips “sometimes” or “more often” when they eat out at restaurants. That same report illustrates how operators are responding to that perennial demand: Chicken tenders are one of the leading appetizers menued at the top 250 full-service restaurants.

If it’s a given that chicken tenders should be a part of a restaurant’s menu mix, the questions to address are: fresh or frozen chicken, breadcrumbs or fl our, deep fry or bake? The answers, of course, depends on the operation, so we rounded up insight from folks who boast fabulous chicken tenders (evidenced through their sales), but employ different methods in achieving them.

At Junior’s Pizza Grille in Worcester, Massachusetts, the homemade chicken tenders fall in the top three — and the eatery has a whopping 12 appetizers on the menu. The tenders are cut from fresh chicken breasts and battered in house. They are coated in fl our and seasoning, then dipped in a mixture of egg and whole milk before being tossed in more fl our. After being deep-fried, they’re dressed in Buffalo sauce, Thai peanut sauce or barbecue sauce. “I use fl our for the batter because it gives a smoother coating,” says Joel Stockdale, chef at the 68-seat shop. “The smooth texture lets the sauce grab on a bit better.” Diners get five tenders for $8.99, and he runs a food cost of 17 percent. The Buffalo sauce is the most popular, and tenders coated with it are served with a dipping side of bleu-cheese dressing.

At Vista Grille Restaurant in Sparks, Nevada, chef/co-owner David Powell opts for a crispy coating, using panko breadcrumbs on his chicken tenders. Served as an appetizer or entrée, he starts with frozen chicken tenders and then breads them in-house. He rolls the tenders in seasoned fl our then coats them in an egg-buttermilk mixture. He then rolls them in panko and holds them fresh, cooking them to order. After deep-frying in canola oil, he serves the chicken tenders with a dipping sauce of house made ranch, chipotle barbecue sauce or honey mustard. Ranch is the most popular dipping sauce, made with buttermilk, mayonnaise, chives, bacon bits and proprietary seasoning.

“The buttermilk thins out the egg, giving it a lighter, crispier crust,” says Powell. “We use panko breadcrumbs because they have more body to them. They’re not ground into a fine product.” The chicken tenders are among the top-five best selling appetizers at Vista Grille, where the menu includes wood-fired pizzas. They sell for $7.99 as an appetizer, $9.99 as a lunch entrée and $12.99 as a dinner entrée.

Lovers of chicken tenders can find them in a few different ways at 46-unit Nancy’s Pizza, based in Tinley Park, Illinois. From an entrée of Chicken Parmesan, featuring breaded chicken tenders, rigatoni, marinara sauce and baked mozzarella to the Breaded Chicken Salad, with chicken tenders topping a mixture of greens, tomatoes, green pepper, black olives, red onion and mozzarella, the restaurant offers what it calls “Chicken Tender Nirvana.” There’s also an appetizer available that pairs spicy chicken tenders with a proprietary barbecue dipping sauce.

Nancy’s, a subsidiary of Chicago Franchise Systems (which also operates Al’s Beef), sources frozen, fully baked, breaded all-white chicken tenders from its supplier. Prep is minimal, with the tenders going from freezer to the oven, then to the customer. Why a frozen, breaded product? “There’s no cost savings. It’s more of a safety issue,” says Dave Howey, president of Chicago Franchise Systems. “We don’t want to handle raw chicken, frankly. We obviously have to be very aware of safety issues, so we went this way. You have to choose your battles.” ?

Parmesan Chicken Tenders

1 cup buttermilk
1½ boneless, skinless chicken tenders
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pesto mayonnaise for dipping *

Place the buttermilk in a large bowl. Add the chicken tenders, turning to coat; let stand for 20 minutes. Mix the Parmesan, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a dish. Dredge the chicken tenders in the breadcrumb mixture; coat completely. Arrange the coated chicken tenders in hotel pan, spacing evenly. Bake in 500 F oven. Bake until cooked through and golden brown, about 13 minutes. Turn once at the half-way mark. Serve with a dipping sauce.

* Pesto Mayonnaise Dipping Sauce
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup prepared pesto
Stir ingredients to combine.

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.