The new Chicken Waffle Tenders from Popeyes are not chicken and waffles. They are tender pretenders, culinary link bait that reflect, perhaps, fried chicken's attempt to rebut the bacon arms race that had
plagued awesome-ized every hamburger joint in America. They are an opening salvo in a war for fast food diners' heart and arteries, and it is my honor, nay my duty, to give them their fair shake.
Popeyes' Chicken Waffle Tenders hit on quite a few levels. Surprisingly, the tenders retained their exterior crunch despite the 20 minutes traveled in-box from restaurant to dining room table. The aroma of maple syrup was present without being overpowering, and the chicken was succulent. An excellent chicken-to-coating ratio on all three pieces meant that I didn't have to ask the most hated question in fried chicken: "Does this count as one of the pieces?"
However, the Chicken Waffle Tenders aren't what I'd call a fast food breakthrough. I ordered traditional chicken tenders and nuggets as benchmarks, and both retained their crunchy texture as well as the Chicken Waffle Tenders. There was little noticeable difference in taste between all three when tried without sauce. Yes, the Chicken Waffle Tenders were somewhat 'richer' (whatever that means when we're talking about deep fried chicken), but the strong maple smell did not carry over to the taste at all. I don't know about you, but as I rule I prefer eating fried chicken to smelling it.
Luckily, we had sauce.
Popeyes' introduction of the Chicken Waffle Tenders also signaled the debut of a signature sauce to accompany them. The Honey Maple Dipping Sauce joins six other sauces—Bayou Buffalo, Bold BQ, Sweet Heat, Garlic Pepper Parmesan, Blackened Ranch, and Mardi Gras Mustard—but rises above them all. While ours was a pretty unscientific sauce taste test, all four diners agreed the Honey Maple Dipping Sauce was the standout winner. Combining that sauce with the Chicken Waffle Tenders bridged the gap between aroma and taste. I am generally a fan of sauce experimentation, but in this instance you can skip it. They found the right pairing at the lab. Bravo, Popeye's. Bravo.
There is more to be written about "The Meal" holistically. About how I don't understand sweet tea, or, for that matter, chicken and waffles. About how the Honey Maple Dipping Sauce combined with the Mardi Gras Mustard was a pleasant discovery (though not one that I can claim). But I'm sure you'll explain it all to me in the comments. I welcome it all!
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.