Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
One of the dirty open secrets of the fast food racket is that a lot of alleged menu innovation owes more to marketing and packaging than to the introduction of all-new items. When the advertisers sing at us about a new fast food item, the best we can generally hope for is a meaningful reconfiguration of an existing item. This is reasonable when you consider the limitations of the genre. There are only so many meals that can be cost-effectively prepared in 90 seconds or less by an ever-changing minimum-wage staff.
So we don't expect fast food chains to regularly reinvent the wheel, but we can't help but feel a little cheated when they merely slather a different sauce on the same old wheel and call it progress. Taco Bell is the grandmaster of tweaking the same few ingredients into an ever-changing menu of old things with news names; sometimes they advance the cause by sprinkling Doritos dust on a previously Doritos-free surface, but their standard trick is to simply remove a couple stitches from a tortilla, wait for the burrito to flop open, and call it a taco.
KFC (Taco Bell's chickencentric Yum! Brands stablemate) has developed a couple of honest-to-goodness new products in recent years—2010's eXXXtreme food gimmick, the Double Down, and this year's excellent Chunky Chicken Pot Pie—but they've also dipped their beak into the rebranding pool by calling the old Snacker the new Chicken Little. So what's up with the Dip'ems they've been pushing lately? Anything new, protein-wise, or just another name for the same old sauce-delivery system?
The latter. I was hoping that Dip'ems would at least be reshaped chicken chunks, a la Popeye's scoop-molded Dip'n Chick'n, but an order of Dip'Ems is just three Extra Crispy Strips with a couple of new sauce options. The $5 Dip'Em Combo is supposed to get you three pieces of chicken, a biscuit, one side, two tubs of sauce, and a drink. (I got an extra strip for no discernible reason and two extra sauces because I asked if I could try everything they had.)
I've seen reports of Bacon Ranch and Orange Ginger sauces, but my KFC only had Honey BBQ, Creamy Ranch, Creamy Buffalo, and Honey Mustard, with Creamy Ranch serving as the default dip. I wish I could tell you about the Bacon Ranch and Orange Ginger, but per a recurring theme in recent fast food reviews, I can only write about what they're willing to sell me, which isn't always what they promise in the ads.
Though in no way novel, the crunchy, flavorful chicken was better than I've come to expect from KFC chicken, and I tend to like the Colonel's work more than a lot of my peers do. These Dip/Strips were hot and fresh, which is most of the battle in the fried chicken game. The seasoning was a little bit off, though, with too much salt and not enough pepper. Still, good chicken. Now what about the sauce?
From left: Honey BBQ, Creamy Buffalo, Honey Mustard, Creamy Ranch
The Honey BBQ is sweet and boring, attributes that are fine for a second-choice prom date but unfit for a beacon-of-hope sauce in a lineup disconcertingly reliant on the word "creamy." The Honey BBQ let me down by being far too sugary, with no tang and only the slimmest glimmer of smoke.
Next up was the Creamy Buffalo, which lists "red cayenne pepper mash" as the first ingredient; setting aside all the horrors that could be hidden in the word "mash," that's an encouraging start to a fast food dipping sauce. This sauce is very hot for the genre and serves as a reasonable facsimile of the traditional sports bar version. It's got noticeable vinegar bite along with the cayenne, and the mayo element somehow manages to taste like butter.
The Honey Mustard broke my heart by being more like honey mayo. The alleged Dijon is barely detectable, offering cursory sharpness to an otherwise over-sweetened dipwreck. The Creamy Ranch sucks too: It's basically mayonnaise with buttermilk, and the flecks of green did nothing but make me nervous.