We ate 10 of the best chicken tenders in Des Moines to tell you the best bang for your buck
The Register tries the best recommended chicken tenders in the Des Moines metro. Des Moines Register
In an age when exceptional culinary experiences are increasingly defined by hard-to-afford ingredients and the Instagram-virality of plates, there is sometimes a yearning to retreat to simple and recognizable foods that speak to the humble Iowan soul.
Fewer things are more recognizable than the chicken tender — a dish Midwesterners have been comfortable with since they were able to microwave a bag of Tyson frozen tenders.
More familiar on a children's menu than on a porcelain plate, the chicken tender embodies an earlier time, before meals required a fork and a knife.
But local chefs are putting more mature twists on the classic dish and forcing people to reconsider the chicken tender.
In one day, we tried 10 of the most recommended chicken tenders in the Des Moines metro. We based our reviews on three criteria: Breading, chicken quality and sauce, while also keeping an eye on the price.
While all of these places deserve a medal for their delectable tenders, we chose our top "best bang for your buck" picks here in the metro.
In alphabetical order, here are the chicken tender restaurants we tried and what made them creme de la creme.
If you're looking for a sweeter taste, Kim's chicken tenders at Christopher's in Beaverdale have it going on.
Three chicken tenders are battered and breaded in cornflakes and almonds. But the secret to the unique flavor is the brown sugar that adds another dimension to the breading, leaning the tenders more toward the sweet side.
With a color reminiscent of golden fried chicken, the addition of the restaurant's homemade honey mustard adds another layer of sweetness. Put simply, Christopher's does its own unique taste that's worth trying.
Address: 2816 Beaver Ave., Des Moines
Chicken tenders are the ultimate bar food that can complement any game you're watching. Francie's tenders are classic chicken strips with a familiar, savory taste that's nostalgic of childhood.
Dip the six strips in Francie's homemade honey mustard for an appetizer you can either share or chow down by yourself.
Address: 2100 Wakonda View Drive, Des Moines
Sometimes, the mouth just wants a satisfying crunch.
The Grumpy Goat basket comes with six chicken tenders encrusted with cereal flakes and almonds. The firm breading offers a bite that's like the crunch of a chip or a spoonful of cereal.
The tender isn't too big to detract from the breading, but it's enough to enjoy the savory taste of the meat. A subtle peppery taste gives it enough spice that it doesn't succumb to a bland cornflake taste.
Address: 1350 50th St., West Des Moines (locations across the Des Moines metro)
Polk City Pub
Fresh, hot and beer-battered chicken tenders at Polk City Pub give off a flakiness similar to a Friday fish fry. The golden and airy chicken tenders have a soft texture where the warm breading gives way to juicy chicken.
The beer batter keeps the tender moist and the simple flour breading reminds us that comfort food and mom's cooking are still delectable treats without needing any crazy flourishes. It doesn't hurt that each strip is the size of a fist.
Try the homemade honey mustard and ranch to cool down the steamy tender.
First bite is hot. Be careful.
Address: 217 W. Broadway St., Polk City
Rolling Smoke is dipping sauce heaven.
The new restaurant opened in November, bringing a taste of Alabama to the Midwest. Each of its long list of sauces has a unique dimension that diverges from the typical sweet barbecue or vinegary-honey mustard dressing.
The blackberry habanero barbecue gives an unexpected blend of fruit and spiciness, encouraging another dip to taste some more. The chipotle pineapple sauce has a sweet kick to the taste buds, with a smokey taste that is reminiscent of the grill.
Unlike other chicken tenders, these require a fork and knife. Like a famous Iowa pork tenderloin, the flattened chicken tenders at Rolling Smoke are large and thin, and truly emphasize the panko breading.
Address: 1225 Copper Creek Drive, Pleasant Hill
The almond smothered chicken tenders at The Radish remind us that chicken tenders don't have to lack class (or sit entrapped in oil).
Smooth with a slight nutty taste, The Radish's chicken tenders are battered in buttermilk and breaded in flour, almond slices and cornflakes. The plentiful almonds give the chicken tender a crispy, but not crunchy texture.
With quality chicken and a solid breading, make sure to ask for the homemade dressings to top off the higher-class chicken tender experience.
Address: 721 E. First St., Grimes
Get ready: The portions at Urban Grill are bigger than your typical appetizer.
Coated in pecans, the delicate tasting chicken tender resembles a tenderloin in size and flatness. Visible pecan chunks provide a surprising earthy bite. The best way to describe the panko breading is snap, crackle and pop.
Try the homemade honey mustard for a sweet addition and bring a friend to help you out — they are behemoths.
Address: 3651 86th St., Urbandale
Top 3 Best Bang for your Buck
No. 3: Coach's Pizza
Made fresh every morning, Coach's Pizza uses flour, buttermilk, cornflakes and almonds to create a delectable chicken tender. They start with the batter and then roll the three tenders in the cornflakes and almonds, giving the tender a nice texture and crunchy bite on the outside with juicy chicken goodness on the inside.
While cereal flakes and almonds were common choices at restaurants, Coach's Pizza stepped up its game with a high-quality chicken that wasn't dry or stringy, with a crunchy breading that stayed on the tender.
What brought it to the next level was the homemade sauces like the Parmesan ranch, with its creaminess and slightly cheesy taste.
They were solid and high-quality tenders all around that made it worth straying from Coach's signature pizza.
Address: 560 S. Prairie View Drive, West Des Moines
No. 2: The Chicken
If not done right, chicken can wind up on the dry side.
The Chicken reminds us of the absolutely bombastic taste capabilities that poultry has to offer.
Hand cut and tossed in buttermilk, flour and a secret seasoning, the chicken-obsessed Orilla restaurant truly lives up to its name.
The three juicy tenders deliver big flavors without the need for any sauces. The flour-based breading stayed on the tender and didn't overwhelm the delicious chicken taste.
And if you decide to add some sauces, there's a colorful flight to choose from, ranging from a sweet barbecue to a sweat inducing hot sauce.
A favorite was a dry rub that added some spice to the chicken tender, but didn't overwhelm the juicy flavor.
Price: $10.99 with fries and a biscuit
Address: 4221 S.E. Orilla Road, Suite A, just south of West Des Moines
No. 1: Smokey D's
Captain Crunch isn't just for breakfast anymore.
Smokey D's barbecue serves up a dreamy chicken tender breaded dipped in a nostalgic blend of Captain Crunch and panko.
The match made in heaven is amplified by the juicy chicken, resulting in a subtly sweet breading that works with the savory chicken, rather than overwhelming it.
The tenders are tasty enough that no sauce is needed, but for those who can't resist the dip, the honey mustard was one of the best we tried — thick, sweet and tangy without being too sugary or runny.
The restaurant also provided five chicken strips for less than $10 — a true bang for your buck when the taste makes your mouth salivate and crave more.
Address: 5055 N.W. Second St., Des Moines