Chow Town

Zaxby’s taste test: Fried chicken sauce options are overwhelming but worth trying

A tradition chicken wings plate, a sauced chicken tender plate and fried white cheddar cheese appetizer with marinara.
A tradition chicken wings plate, a sauced chicken tender plate and fried white cheddar cheese appetizer with marinara.

Go Chicken Go may be the current reigning champ after The Star’s recent March fried chicken bracket, but to keep the title they’re going to have to keep their eye on a flock of out-of-state competitors.

The Memphis-based Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken landed in Westwood in February. Meanwhile Zaxby’s, the popular Southern-based fried chicken chain, is set to open its first Kansas City location in August, then blanket the area with more than 20 restaurants over the next several years.

Zaxby’s opened its first location in Georgia in 1990. They now have more than 700 locations in 16 states. As I drove to Florida for spring break recently, I noticed Zaxby’s advertising heavily on Interstate billboards.

We pulled off in Ashburn, Ga., for lunch. The interior of Zaxby’s had a familiar fast-food footprint, with a counter up front to order and an adjacent dining room offering deep booths and table seating. The walls were sparsely decorated with rooster and chicken motifs in primary yellow and red.

One of the things that distinguishes Zaxby’s is the nine “tossing” sauces it offers: Original, Wimpy, Nuclear, Teriyaki, Hot Honey Mustard, Tongue Torch, Insane, BBQ and Sweet and Spicy. Plus, there are five dipping sauces, including Zax, Ranch, Honey Mustard, Zestable dip (with a creamy horseradish kick) and Marinara.

Dip-able Zappetizers include fried white cheddar bites, onion rings, spicy fried mushrooms or tater chips, although I’m not really sure what differentiates a toss sauce from a dip. There is a 25-cent charge for extra sauce.

The sauce options alone can make first-time ordering confusing, although the cashier was patient and helpful so I relied on her coaching as I instructed everyone in my party to order something different to try.

The chain’s most popular item, the cashier told us, is a Chicken Fingerz plate (5 pieces for $7.29). I ordered the plate tossed with the Tongue Torch sauce, again the chain’s most popular sauce. The chicken was hot, tender and moist, although the breading was less crunchy than many of the entries favored in our recent bracket.

The tossing sauce was addictive, but the heat was enough to leave a bead on my brow. Call me a wimp, but doubtless there are enough chileheads out there who will find the fiery sauces deliciously daring. If you’re unsure, order it as a side, at least to start out.

We also ordered the 10-piece boneless buffalo wings ($7.99) tossed in Original and served with a side of ranch for dipping celery sticks. The orange-hued sauced chicken had a mellow flavor and would rank favorably alongside classic bar versions.

The traditional Wings and Things added bone-in wings to the mix, which were fine, if not remarkable in my book.

Plates come with Texas toast and crinkle-cut fries plus a choice of side: coleslaw, chicken salad, a basket of celery or a basket of toast.

Chicken sandwiches (club, chicken salad, grilled chicken and sliders) and Zalads (with or without chicken) round out the menu.

Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and Chow Town blog curator. Follow her on Twitter at @chowtownkc and @kcstarfood.