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Chain Food Showdown: The Best & Worst Chicken Strips At America's Casual Dining Restaurants

HuffPost Food recently went on a tour de force of some of America's major casual dining chains. Regardless of your taste in cuisine, chances are you've found yourself at a casual dining restaurant before, whether one is your go-to Friday night spot or a road trip-only meal. These national chains pride themselves on creating a menu that can appeal to a wide variety of eaters. But are these calorie-heavy appetizers worth it? We pitted eight appetizers from eight casual dining chains against each other to find out. Week 8: Chicken Strips.

What originally turned us on to evaluating the most common fare at the biggest restaurant chains was a surface level understanding of how many major casual dining restaurants work. In some of these chains, food is often pre-prepared in a central kitchen, and then frozen to be shipped and re-heated across the country. We read fascinating tales of this process, such as the section on Applebee's in Tracie McMillan's "The American Way Of Eating" or the discussion of Chili's in David Kessler's "The End Of Overeating."

Perhaps the viral review of an Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota proved just how much casual dining can resonate with the American audience.

In our evaluation of American casual dining food, we chose eight prominent chains that serve similar American fare across the country: Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's. Although locations and number of outlets vary, we felt that all eight epitomized the casual dining experience, perhaps best evidenced by the amount of dish overlap on all menus. In choosing which dishes to evaluate, we stuck to what we deemed the most sought-after appetizers.

As we kept eating our way through the various menus, we were surprised by the huge range across the food categories. While certain chains overall performed better than others, the more appropriate comparison was really about single dishes, rather than a restaurant as a whole.

For our eighth installment, we examined chicken strips. It was no surprise that all eight chains served chicken strips, but it was surprising how bad some of them were. From the strangely sweet to dry meat, it's apparently hard to get chicken strips right. But when they're good, they're some of the best comfort food out there.

Previous showdowns
Week 1: Buffalo Wings

Week 2: Nachos

Week 3: Mozzarella Sticks

Week 4: Potato Skins

Week 5: French Fries

Week 6: Onion Rings

Week 7: Spinach Dip

Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1).

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  • LAST PLACE: Planet Hollywood, 1.43

    "Way too sweet. What's on these?" "Tastes like sugar." "Weird, but not bad when you expect it. The mustard helps." "Oddly sweet. Really off-putting." "Inedible." "Some sort of sweet glue layer. Worst piece of chicken ever encountered." "Awful, slimy, sweet."

  • 6th Place: Red Lobster, 2.67

    "Standard approach but bad flavor from the frying." "Plump, moist chicken strips with the desired crispy and thick breading." "Tender meat, crunchy coating, but forgettable." "Good thick batter but awful honey mustard sauce." "Strangely reminiscent of Matzo, but not in a good way."

  • 5th Place, Ruby Tuesday's, 2.75

    "Good batter." "Limp, anemic." "Good taste but crust was a little too pale and doughy." "Sandy. Blech."

  • 4th Place: Hard Rock Cafe, 3

    "Fairly crunchy, with natural-tasting chicken." "No taste! But chicken moist and tender." "Tender white meat." "Needs sauce. Good texture." "Too crisp."

  • 3rd Place: Cheesecake Factory, 3.8

    "Good crunch. A little spicy. I'd get it again." "On the dry side, but very crunchy coating." "Good breading, tender chicken." "Good meat but pretty standard." "Really crispy but a little underseasoned."

  • 2nd Place Tie: Applebee's, 4

    "A little dry on the inside, but delicious crust." "Good, crispy breading. Served piping hot." "Tender, moist meat, great brown crunchy crust." "Crunchy outside, tender inside, but lacking salt."

  • 2nd Place Tie: TGI Friday's, 4

    "Just what I want. Pleasant ratio between breading and chicken." "A category leader." "Chicken almost juicy enough." "Very flavorful, tender, moist and nice coating -- maybe too bready." "Nice freshly-fried texture."

  • WINNER: Chili's, 4.8

    "Nicely crispy, great especially with honey mustard sauce." "Could be crunchier, but the meat couldn't be much better." "The best chicken strips I've ever had. Hands down, no question about it." "Great batter, real chicken taste."

Editor's Note: We dined at all chains anonymously -- no restaurant knew that we were evaluating the cuisine. The chains we visited were all located in the New York metro area.

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Filed by Carey Polis  |