Kentucky Fried Chicken has been on a bit of a roll lately, introducing national versions of hyper-regional flavors that previously required an extended road trip to get the opportunity to try for yourself. KFC’s take on Nashville Hot Chicken is particularly impressive, with an oil-and-cayenne based sauce that doesn’t “dumb down” the Tennessee special with reduced levels of homogenized spice (though it certainly doesn’t create the same eyeball-weeping endorphin-punching joy of its namesake). It’s easily the best item on KFC’s menu.
Not content to sit on its laurels, however, the chain followed up with “Georgia Gold,” described by the head chef at KFC as “the most exciting sauce” that he had seen in his 16 years cooking for the chain. With bright, vinegar-and-mustard flavors common to the region, Georgia Gold offers an exciting new take on fried chicken, featuring flavors simply not found at any competing fast food restaurants.
After getting cozy with the success of these two new sauce options, KFC recently rolled out a third option to its limited-time offerings, called “Smoky Mountain BBQ.” But can the Colonel possibly go three-for-three, in terms of deliciousness? From the website:
“A mountain of eatin’ awaits! Our new Smoky Mountain BBQ brings the sweet, smoky flavors of Southern BBQ to Kentucky! It’s crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and delicious on every side. Try it in a new Smoky Mountain BBQ basket today with your choice of chicken breast, drumstick & thigh, three tenders, or five hot wings, with mashed potatoes and a biscuit, all for just $4.99!”
I’ll confess that I was dubious from the beginning. While Nashville Hot and Georgia Gold offer delicious mass-market interpretations of regional styles, even the description of Smoky Mountain BBQ seemed a little…phoned-in. From the press release:
“KFC’s take on the Southern mainstay boasts a touch of vinegar to please North Carolinians, a little bit of sweetness for the Kansas City-style faithful and a crispiness that even Memphis dry rub fans will appreciate.”
Call me crazy, but doesn’t this “I dunno, it tastes like a little bit of everything” approach sound an awful lot like a description of every bad bottled barbecue sauce you’ve ever tasted? It seems like rather than base this new sauce on a beloved flavor from the real world, they’re trying to come up with an “all things to all people” approach to barbecue sauce that’s hard to get excited about unless you’re someone that’s really, really passionate about K.C. Masterpiece, and in that case, you’re already living your life on some whole other level that I don’t understand.
To its credit, the two-piece extra crispy drumstick and thigh combo I ordered looked amazing. Nobody can touch KFC, when it comes to fried chicken; it transcends food itself and becomes some otherworldly thing that’s completely impossible to recreate in your home kitchen. It’s flavorful and juicy, thanks to a trip through the pressure fryer, with a shatteringly crispy skin and crust that explodes little shards of crispy goodness all over the room with every bite. This might also be the first time I can remember placing an “eat in” order that resulted in my getting to eat my fried chicken off of an actual plate, but that’s really neither here nor there.
Like its predecessors Nashville Hot and Georgia Gold, the Smoky Mountain BBQ sauce is oil-based, which allows the sauce to cling to the craggy surface of the chicken without sacrificing crispiness. Unfortunately, it also leads to a bit of grittiness, which you don’t tend to notice when you’re eating Nashville Hot, since with that variety, eating pounds of raw ground cayenne is kind of the point. It’s a little strange on the Smoky Mountain BBQ, however. Not unpleasant, but definitely something you notice.
In terms of flavor, the best thing I can say about the Smoky Mountain BBQ sauce is that it tastes EXACTLY like a barbecue-flavored Lay’s potato chip. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; fried chicken is delicious, and barbecue potato chips are delicious, and so eating a hot, crispy, chicken-flavored, juicy barbecue potato chip is satisfying in this kind of endlessly looping self-referential way, where the barbecue flavored chicken wraps all the way around barbecue flavored potato chips and back into barbecue flavored chicken, where it kisses its own Inception-loving ass.
Ultimately though, it’s hard to imagine choosing this new flavor over either Nashville Hot OR Georgia Gold. It’s got broader appeal, probably, in the same way that a bag of BBQ flavored Lay’s will always get completely decimated at a family cookout. It’s not great, by any means, but there is a certain reliability that feels safe and cozy. Smoky Mountain BBQ isn’t breaking new culinary ground for KFC, but I still ended up feeling kind of relieved that it exists.