Let’s get a few things out of the way, with regard to the new “Zinger” spicy fried chicken sandwich from KFC.
First, it’s not exactly new. The sandwich has actually been a bestseller in over 100 countries overseas (most notably in Trinidad and Tobago, who can add the availability of this sandwich to their list of “things that make life worth living,” which also includes “drinking from coconuts” and “calypso music”) for 33 years, where it has enjoyed iconic status. For the first time, however, the masterminds at KFC are ready to unleash their never-frozen fried chicken sandwich on an American audience.
“A freshly breaded chicken sandwich, made by hand every day of the week, will be more juicy and crunchy than one that’s made in a factory and frozen,” says Kevin Hochman, president and chief concept officer for KFC.
Though the chain has tried chicken sandwiches in the past (a no-brainer for a chicken chain trying to exert some influence over the two billion fast food chicken sandwiches that are sold annually by competitors), they’d previously lacked the equipment to allow for efficient in-house breading and frying. $80 million dollars in back-of-the-house equipment upgrades later, and KFC is finally ready to bring its iconic “Zinger” sandwich to our shores.
Which brings us to our second point: In terms of taste and execution, this sandwich is kind of a mixed bag. While we love it, there’s room for improvement. We’ll elaborate, but first, some marketing copy from the website:
“If you’re looking for a spicy, crispy chicken sandwich worthy of the name Zinger, then look no further, because it’s right here on the menu in the good ole US of A. Try one today in a $5 Fill Up with wedges, a cookie, and a drink.”
The first thing you notice about this chicken-focused sandwich is the quality of the chicken itself. KFC does finally deliver “Extra Crispy” hand-battered quality to its chicken sandwich, with a large, moist, crunchy cut of white meat chicken breast, dusted in a proprietary spice blend and served simply with lettuce and mayonnaise. It’s a combination instantly familiar to anyone that enjoys spicy fried chicken sandwiches from other fast food restaurants, but KFC is betting on the quality of its chicken execution, and it’s a gamble that mostly works.
Anything named a “Zinger” should have a certain level of spiciness, and this sandwich delivers a perfect craving-inducing heat that falls somewhere just North of Wendy’s standard-bearing “Spicy Crispy” chicken sandwich. The liberal swipe of mayonnaise tames the fire, and the overall effect is a slow, warming glow, rather than a searing heat.
Of course, there are a few downsides. The first problem is the lettuce; sandwiched underneath the fried chicken and above the mayonnaise, it never stood a chance. The heat and grease turns the lettuce instantly soggy. The sesame bun doesn’t hold up terribly well, either, collapsing and turning quickly into a mushy soft pillowcase of fried chicken. These elements don’t stand up to the high quality of the chicken, and feel like an afterthought.
In fact, if we’re going to be critical of this sandwich, it’s for the overall lack of big, crazy flavor. Recent history at KFC has given us both “Nashville Hot” and “Georgia Gold,” two flavor varieties that bring the palate ruckus in a way this sandwich never really approaches; a creative sauce or a slice of pickle would have worked wonders on the “Zinger.”
The second issue is the size. At $3.99, when purchased as a standalone product, the Zinger’s overall size falls somewhere in between a snack and a meal. We’d feel weird about ordering one of these for no reason at three o’clock in the afternoon (ahem), but also feel like we’d need two of them to make for a truly satisfying, nap-inducing lunch. At around four bucks each, this can add up to an expensive prospect.
These are minor quibbles. If KFC is looking to re-define the basic spicy fried chicken sandwich, to remind competing chains that they dominate the fried chicken sandwich game, these new hand-breaded and fried fillets are definitely the way to do it.
The Zinger may seem “safe,” but we prefer to think of it as an opening chess move: KFC has quietly and tentatively advanced their first pawn, setting fresh fried chicken as the new standard and waiting patiently to see how the big burger chains respond. By the time other chains catch up, KFC will be hitting us with so many crazy flavors and varieties, we’ll scarcely have room in our diets to eat anything else.
That’s the dream, anyway.