Feb 25, 2010

Chicken about Chicken

A few months back, I wrote an absolutely amazing review of the different fast food Angus burgers.  The overwhelming popularity of that post (over 10 people read it) led to some very helpful comments.  One person told me that I should be a comedic food critic.  Another person said I had found my niche.  And another person helpfully suggested I should crawl back into whatever brain-dead hole I crawled out of.  I really had intended on continuing that series of reviews.  I had plans to evaluate the different spicy chicken sandwiches.  And then, come February, I was going to look at the inevitable string of fast food fish sandwiches that are trotted out for Lent.  (Seriously, everyone has one now.  McDonalds, BK, Wendy's, Arby's, Checkers)

Well, something strange happened along the way to those events.  I started really looking at my weight and food choices.  And in January, I began a process of completely changing how I eat and approach food.  [All of this is being documented on my other blog "Darth Fatso Must Die" - which gets tons more visitors than this blog, even though it is newer and untagged.]  So, I cannot offer you my pithy comments regarding the fish sandwiches out there.  Why?  Well, I don't eat sandwiches any more.  I haven't had any bread since January 18.  So I wouldn't be much help.

However, I am not quite ready to give up my "idiotic food critiques" just yet.  My new food path actually has brought me into a new group of evaluations.  So, I look forward to offering up some inane comments on things like chili, pulled pork, soup, and salads soon.  Today, I will begin with one of the most basic things out there.  Chicken.

Chicken is cheap.  It is easy.  You can buy an entire chicken at your local grocery store for just a couple of bucks.  It isn't hard to cook chicken.  Put it in a pan, stick it in the oven, cook it until it won't make you sick.  Sure, there are cool things you can do with chicken.  You can marinate it, which infuses it with flavors and keeps it juicy as you stave off the dreaded salmonella.  You can grill it, giving it that carcinogen tinged flavor on the outside as it struggles to finish on the inside.  You can cram a can of beer up its butt and cook it standing up - which has always seemed like a cruel way to treat the poor bird.  But, in the end, it is chicken.

How cheap and versatile is chicken?  There is an entire industry of restaurants that uses one of the most useless part of the bird - the wing - and sells them in giant bowls, swimming with butter and hot sauce.  We eat just about everything on a chicken.  I watch Food Network - and I've seen them use the feet, the gizzards, liver, heart, comb, eggs, and meat.  Shoot, we'll even cook the chicken bones to make soup.  Chicken is good for you.  It tastes great.  It is cheap.  On the whole, the chicken is super food resource.

So, why in the wide wide world of sports is it so hard to find chicken in a restaurant?

This is a serious question.  It is no wonder that people make just abysmally bad eating choices.  There just are not many good chicken options out there.  And, more often than not, when you happen to see "grilled chicken" on a menu, it is some industrial food service prepared chicken breast that gets cooked into dryness.  It is pumped full of salt and "broth" to give it flavor and juice.  It is coated with weird seasoning facial cream.  It is usually a small piece of meat.  And, to add insult to injury, it costs way more than it should.  I just don't understand.

How hard would it be for a restaurant to make sure they had a couple of chicken options on their menu? If they have a grill to do their burgers or whatever, they could just toss the chicken on there.  If they have an oven to bake things, they can toss the chicken in there.  But it just becomes too much effort.  Modern restaurants have this things where everything they order has to be multi-tasked into multiple menu items. They follow the Alton Brown approach to the kitchen - no single use food items.  This is best highlighted by a conversation I had with a waiter at Chili's a few years ago.  I was shocked to see they had dropped fried cheese sticks off their menu.  Chili's always had one of the best cheese sticks you could get.  They were in my Top Five - a place I always ordered them.  I asked why they dropped them. The guy answered that Chili's had made a corporate decision to only stock items in the kitchen that could be used in multiple menu items - so they got rid of them.  (Although they kept Southwestern Egg Rolls.  Kind of weird.)

So, a lot of these restaurants are not going to stock chicken to offer as a meal item.  It isn't exciting.  And it can't be used multiple ways.  I always think, "Well, you can use it as the meat in an entree, as a topping on a salad, and as a sandwich.  That's THREE menu items."  But, they don't really care what I think.  Do an experiment.  Check your local Italian places.  How many of them have anything that involves chicken?  I would wager that 75% of the time, they won't have anything.  They will have wings.  Sometimes they will have a salad with chicken (usually precooked and dumped on).  But they won't have chicken dishes.  Really odd.  I mean, the Olive Garden - which we know is THE authority on authentic Italian food - has a ton of chicken dishes.  So does Carrabba's - the other genuine Italian place. (I am being completely sarcastic about both of those - just to clarify.)

This kind of lays out our chicken dilemma.  Each class of restaurants has a different approach to chicken.  And it seems like none of them benefit us.  Fast food places, the cheapest and most accessible restaurants, seem to have grilled chicken dishes.  But, as a rule of thumb, they are horrible.  Their fried chicken patties are vastly superior - but their grilled chicken items are lousy.  I would hate to see the chickens these things came from.  McDonalds, which has two different fried chicken offerings, has a pathetic grilled chicken patty.  It is better than BK.  The King has a huge tendercrisp fried chicken.  But their Tendergrill is coated with weirdness.  (A disturbing trend among these places that is usually missed because the coating soaks into the bread.  It only stands out on the salad.)  Wendy's - who has nuggets, boneless wings, a great fried chicken patty, and tons of salads - has a measly grilled chicken that, again, has that weird salty bouillon coating on it.  Arby's doesn't even have grilled chicken.  It has amazing fried chicken sandwiches, but if you don't want that you are stuck with sliced roasted chicken deli meat.  Checkers doesn't even bother with the masquerade of caring.  I don't believe Hardee's does either.

What's really disappointing is the chicken places out there.  KFC has this highly touted grilled chicken now.  It supposedly is amazing.  Uh, no.  It is horrible.  It is dry and salty  - like a chicken jerky.  Seriously, it takes like it was dehydrated.  The breast pieces are so small - I think they actually came off of a pigeon.  Popeye's, my favorite chicken place, doesn't even have grilled chicken.  That's really too bad, because they would probably do a great job.  Chick Fil A - the king of chicken places - has grilled chicken.  And, admittedly, it is far superior to most places.  But you need one and half servings of it to make a legitimate meal.  Subway's roasted chicken, when taken off the bun and eaten independent of cheese and other goodies, is absolutely horrible.  It is bland and full of water.  I ordered double meat one day and was starving within an hour.

The next class of restaurant - the "family dining establishment" - has a very checkered list of options.  Most of these places have at least one chicken dish, but it usually is smothered with bbq sauce or cheese or bacon or some glorious combination of all of that.  That is one thing I have learned.  If you make inadequate chicken, drown it with accessories.  These places sometimes will have a more simple chicken meal - like Applebee's on their Weight Watchers menu or Chili's on their Guiltless Gutless lineup.  But, as memory serves, those offerings are some combination of dry or salty or bland or tiny.  Sometimes you manage to actually get a piece that is dry, bland, and salty.  How is that possible?  Italian places usually fall into this category, and as we discussed, many of them have absolutely nothing to offer.  Now, there is also the plentiful offerings of wings at these places.  They all seem to have some variation of buffalo wings.  But, as I discussed the other day on Darth Fatso, wings are almost always fried and smothered in some sort of sauce.  So that isn't real chicken, it is just a conduit for fat.

[One exception to this class is the meat place - BBQ, Boston Market, stuff like that.  They have chicken. It is often good.  But it is almost always on the bone.  I hate eating chicken off the bone.  But, when I have to, I make do.]

You have to jump into the more expensive restaurants before you find a more consistent approach to chicken.  Olive Garden, which is the most overpriced restaurant on the planet, actually had tremendous chicken.  It is always flavorful and well cooked.  Carrabba's has even better chicken.  I wish I knew how to make my chicken taste like theirs.  It doesn't matter what sauce or pasta comes with it - their chicken is just phenomenal.  Steakhouses usually have amazing chicken.  In fact, as a rule of thumb, I have always preferred ordering chicken or fish at a steak place.  Long Horn has the usual "chicken covered with stuff I can't eat" dish.  But they also have Sierra Chicken, which is grilled with bruschetta style tomatoes on top.  It is amazing.  Ted's Montana Grill has multiple chicken options that are wonderful - but I never order them because I can't pass up bison.  Outback's chicken is just their steaks - good, overpriced, and nowhere near deserving the hype.  If you want to go big time, I remember ordering chicken at Morton's Steakhouse before.  (Don't ask.  It wasn't my finest moment.)  It was unbelievable - although it cost like twenty bucks.

I still don't understand why it is so hard for places to do chicken well.  There are very few places that I would say make really good non-fried chicken.  In Tallahassee, the Red Elephant Grill makes some delicious bird.  You can pick one of four different sauces for it - which they don't drown the meat in.  It is succulent and well cooked.  I remember that Grady's American Grill had the consistently best chicken I ever ordered.  We used to eat there in Tampa (Brandon, actually) all the time.  It didn't matter which variation of chicken, either.  Their secret was the marinade.  I wish I had been able to score that marinade before the chain died.  Mimi's Cafe does some great stuff with chicken also.  And they give you huge portions of it.  But, for the most part, if you want good chicken at a restaurant, you have to pay a premium for it.  That just seems backwards.  If this is such a cheap and versatile commodity, I would think places would easily master it.  You know, how so many places have good burgers?  Why couldn't they also have good chicken, instead of relying on Sysco brand bird meat?

Over the last year, I have become a master of chicken.  I can make it several different ways, with several different tastes, using several different techniques.  Usually, I pan sear it and then cover the lid to steam it as well.  It keep it very juicy, but allows for a lot of flexibility with the spices.  I recently learned how to use a grill pan with it.  I put it on there to give it grilled flavors, and then throw the whole pan in the oven to finish it.  Sometimes, I'll marinate it first.  Sometimes I'll dry season it.  Sometimes we'll use the crock pot or even oven cook it.  (How quaint.)  I guess that actually kind of best communicates the lesson I've learned about food through my recent experiences.  You can usually make the stuff better, cheaper, and easier than a restaurant.  So, do it yourself.

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