Chicken fingers were once only a mainstay of sports bars and kids' menus. Now, restaurants dedicated solely to them are popping up around town. A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the Valley. Will a chain that's new to town fry the competition, or will the local mom-and-pop prevail?
In One Corner: Raising Cane's
4325 E Thomas Rd (at 44th St), Phoenix. Also at 2715 W Peoria Ave (at I-17), Phoenix.
The Set Up:
Raising Cane's is a fast food chain that's new to town with two Phoenix locations, and a Tempe outpost on the way near the ASU main campus. The entire menu consists of chicken finger plates with sides of french fries, cole slaw, Texas toast, and a secret recipe dipping sauce. Beverages include the standard Coca-Cola selection, plus iced tea in sweet or unsweetened varieties, and fresh-squeezed lemonade. The atmosphere is spacious, with movie posters and Raising Cane's propaganda on the walls, with peppy dance pop like Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" and assorted Lady Gaga tunes resonating in the space.
Unlike almost all other fast food fried chicken, Raising Cane's prepares all of the hot items to order, and the chicken is never frozen. Your chicken comes out piping hot and juicy, and the breading is well-prepared. Their special sauce (mayonnaise-based, purportedly spiked with ketchup, Worcestershire, garlic salt, and black pepper) provides a good umami boost. It's worth noting that the staff at Cane's are some of the best we've seen in the industry. They're very friendly and eager to please (and they keep the dining room sparkling clean), but still act like real people. It's a welcome change from the Stepford-Wives-in-training at Chick-fil-A.
While the attention to detail in preparation improves the final product, there isn't a whole lot separating Raising Cane's food from the competition. There's no real "wow" coming from the chicken itself. The crinkle-cut fries are obviously from a freezer bag, and the coleslaw is just like every other quick-service coleslaw from here to Timbuktu. The Texas toast is nondescript at best. True Southerners will complain that the sweet tea isn't nearly sweet enough; Cane's is closer to a half-sweet tea.
And in the Other Corner: Rock-N-Roll Fingers
937 E Broadway Rd, Suite 2 (at Rural Rd), Tempe
Amy and Adrian Moghina opened Rock-N-Roll in 2005 after they noticed practically every college town in the Southeast had a chicken finger restaurant near campus, but in Arizona one was nowhere to be found. So, they debuted a place that offers never-frozen, fresh-fried chicken fingers, fries, Texas toast, and a special dipping sauce. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
As far as we could tell, Adrian runs the place solo -- taking your order, disappearing into the kitchen, and reappearing with your meal. The place looks more down-home than Raising Cane's polished franchise look; rock band posters framed with old 45s festoon the walls, and KSLX provides the obligatory (for a restaurant with this name) rock-n-roll music.
The chicken at Rock-n-Roll rocks. It's full-flavored and well-seasoned to the point I'm wondering if the Moghinas broke into a Chick-fil-A in the dead of night and stole the recipe. The fries are still from a freezer bag, but are thick and crispy, a definite cut above your average fast food spud. Their sauce is nearly identical to Cane's, possibly with a couple extra dashes of Worcestershire and pepper.
The Texas toast is a nearly inedible salt lick of supermarket-style French bread with way too much garlic butter. We were dismayed that the only iced tea available was the raspberry Nestea from the fountain. Since Rock-N-Roll is a solo operation, you're at the mercy of short operating hours (we found out the hard way that they close at 7), and a potential long wait (more than 20 minutes) for your food.
And the winner is....
Cane's food was only a hair above average across the board. While there were misses on the plate at Rock-n-Roll, the chicken fingers and fries more than made up for it. Rock-N-Roll Fingers wins the battle.
Raising Cane's does deserve an honorable mention for putting up a good fight. Indeed, if we were comparing the entire restaurants, Cane's would have squeaked out a narrow victory. Even though Cane's food isn't particularly memorable, something about the combination of a halfway decent meal and the upbeat atmosphere and staff leave us smiling a good bit more than when we came in; isn't that what a restaurant is all about?
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