McDonald's Mighty Wings
Our Atlanta-based fast food correspondent Todd Brock was pleasantly surprised by the regionally available McDonald's Mighty Wings. In what is certainly a first, the wings he got looked much better than the official McDonald's publicity photo, and he added "Thankfully, the beauty here is more than just skin-deep. Prying into one of the almost-absurdly huge drumettes revealed juicy, tender meat. And lots of it. None of that pressed-and-processed extruded-chicken-goo. These are, true to the McDonald's literature, 'big and meaty... high-quality' bone-in wings."
Cosi's Steak and Cranberry Chili
I really liked Cosi's Steak and Cranberry Chili, which had firm beans, tender beef, and whole cranberries that retained their natural tartness. I wish there had been a few more berries, but by keeping it real they prevented this unusual stew from turning into a candied cosmo-chili mess.
Jamba Juice's Oatmeal
National Managing Editor Erin Zimmer is a serious oatmeal weirdo (I've heard rumors of a tattoo), so I take her word for it when she says, "Jamba Juice's oatmeal is exciting for oatmeal fiends: it's tasty, filling, excellently prepared steel-cut oatmeal--which would take at least 30 minutes to prepare on the stovetop--from a chain. What you usually find with chain-oatmeal is the instant stuff, all runny with lackluster toppings. This is not that."
Whataburger's Breakfast Menu
Itinerant fast food guru John Edwards found himself in Texas for some meaty, seedy reasons he never fully explained, but between acts of barbecue and nefariousness, he found time to try the breakfast menu at Whataburger. He praised the Breakfast on a Bun sandwich and reserved his highest praise for the Hash Brown Sticks, which he called "amazing, in that they're basically rectangular tater tots: crispy, crunchy fried outside; warm, moist potato bits inside. Higher potato-to-fry ratio than McDonald's, but without lame, underseasoned potato insides, like some can be (cough, cough, Wendy's)."
Wendy's Spicy Guacamole Chicken Club
I hereby anoint Wendy's Spicy Guacamole Chicken Club the best fast food chicken sandwich I tried in 2012. It's essentially a deluxed up version of Wendy's very good spicy chicken sandwich, and it is excellent. The bacon adds a ton, the guacamole certainly doesn't detract, and the end result is one of the rare fast food sandwiches worth $4.99.
Doritos Loco Taco
Taco Bell rolled out the Doritos Loco Taco in the spring, and this mishmashed stoner's delight was much more than the marketing gimmick it at first seemed. The shell bore the nacho-flavored corn chip's iconic taste, but in a relatively subtle dosage that uplifted rather than overwhelmed the humble tacos innards.
I've never been to Chik-Fil-A, and now I don't need to go, because Kenji rolled out his own version of their signature chicken sandwich. Here he is on the original: "The classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich is a thing of simple beauty. A juicy, salty, crisply fried chicken breast. A soft, sweet, buttered and toasted bun. Two dill pickle chips. That's all there is to it." Here's everybody else on the Food Lab knock-off: It's better.
Del Taco's new Caramel Apple and Mac 'N Cheese Crunch Bites
West Coast fast food inspector Erin Jackson was quite taken by Del Taco's new Caramel Apple and Mac 'N Cheese Crunch Bites. The caramel apple surprised her by containing not "molten goo" but rather "chunks of apple both soft and still firm enough to have a pleasant crunch." The accompanying caramel sauce also passed muster by being "glossy, with a balanced sweetness." And the mac and cheese nuggets were even better, "covered with a flaky batter that tastes like crisp, griddled cheese. Inside, al dente noodles are coated in a thick, gooey sauce that's creamy, with sharp cheesy notes." Sounds like some good Biting.
KFC's Chunky Chicken Pot Pie
My pick for the year's overall most exciting fast food debut is KFC's Chunky Chicken Pot Pie. The flaky, buttery crust protects a filling that runs high on the chicken side of the poultry-to-potato ration. The chicken is tender and flavorful, the carrots are better than you'd think, and the gravy is perfect. Gravy is the lifeblood of any savory pie, and the KFC Chunky Chicken Pot Pie's vital fluid holds the guts together with much aplomb and butter. It's lighter in color and heavier in texture and flavor than the stuff they pour on the mashed potatoes, with sweetness and tang to enhance the pepper and cream.
Wendy's Berry Almond Chicken Salad
Regardless of whatever else ends up on my journalistic obituary, it will surely note that in 2012 I called a fast-food salad "spectacular" in a headline. And I'll stick by that assessment, because five months after the fact I can still recall specific highlights of the Wendy's Berry Almond Chicken Salad, namely the large portion of firm, moist chicken and the farmers-market quality strawberries.