For much of the country, Zaxby’s is a mystery.
It won’t be for long, however — the chain is expanding aggressively. It opened a whopping 91 locations in 2016, and the chain has a growing cult following.
Fans of the fast-casual chicken chain say it elevates the fried-chicken experience from the greasy depths of similar quick-service chains like KFC and Church’s.
On a recent journey to Richmond, Virginia, we decided to check out the chain and see if it lived up to its burgeoning cult status.
After a day of dining at takeout-centric fried chicken joints, we found this Zaxby's to be large and spacious.
The interior had a vague sports bar vibe, but with big windows that added a welcoming family dining atmosphere.
There's no table service here, despite the extensive menu; orders are placed and picked up at the counter.
But, the menu does offer something that other chicken chains seem to lack: variety. It's extraordinarily extensive and almost too much to choose from, with 'zappetizers' and 'zalads,' and several types of chicken ranging from wings to tenders to grilled sandwiches.
We made a valiant effort to get a fair sampling of the menu: wings, chicken tenders, onion rings, two types of chicken sandwiches, and fried cheddar bites.
The quality of the chicken shines through with the tenders. They're juicy and well-marinated; however, the breading fails to impress. Tenders deserve to be crunchy, and Zaxby's falls short.
It's rare that a chicken chain will try to serve both tenders, chicken on the bone, and wings. But Zaxby's is not afraid. The wings aren't what you get at a sports bar -- they're not the same style as Wingstop or Buffalo Wild Wings. Instead, both the wings and breast are light and juicy; decent, but not extraordinary.
Putting tenders on a sandwich requires a certain amount of confidence in one's tenders. Raising Cane's, with its single-minded tender obsession, can get away with it. Zaxby's, on the other hand, with a decent but not earth-shattering tender, has bitten off more than it can chew. An anemic tomato and iceberg lettuce did little to help the situation, even with the addition of 'Zax sauce.'
Zaxby's grilled chicken is one of the best grilled fowl on the fast-food market -- well-cooked, well-seasoned, and with a hint of grill-char taste that sets it apart. Unfortunately, the rest of the sandwich doesn't match the chicken. It's unceremoniously shoved into a mushy bun with a sad tomato slice and the ever-maligned iceberg lettuce. The depressing toppings are even more infuriating in the face of such promising grilled chicken.
The fried cheddar bites soothed our nerves. Chunks of fried cheese can do wonders, and they're hard to mess up. The accompanying marinara sauce conjures a comparison to mozzarella sticks.
Zaxby's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its super broad menu. Having all these options is great in theory, and it can be a plus when dining with larger groups or finicky families. But all the zappetizers in the world can't make up for unremarkable chicken and easily-avoided missteps. Zaxby's has incredible potential, and hopefully, as it expands, it can harness that potential and make good on mistakes.
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