Back in the late 1970s, when Americans still stuffed burgers in their maws as if they were cruciferous vegetables, McDonald’s was working behind the scenes to develop a chicken product to balance out its beef-heavy menu. Executives at the Golden Arches had seen the writing on the wall or, to be more precise, the language tucked into a Senate select committee’s 1977 report on the dietary goals of Americans. Among the recommendations: that Americans decrease their consumption of foods “high in total fat and animal fat.”
Here’s how McDonald’s read that line: Stop eating hamburgers, or you’ll die young!
By the early 1980s, the burger chain had gone nationwide with Chicken McNuggets, a box of battered-and-fried poppers, which may not have been the original nuggets, but they were the first to find favor with kids across the land. The era of McCognitive Dissonance was thus born: Children clamored for their finger foods, and parents often obliged but not without fears about what was within those deep-fried nuggets of processed chicken. Many theories were offered, few apparently correct.
Some four decades later, after practically every other burger chain under the sun has introduced its own chicken nugget, Shake Shack has entered the game. The darling of the fast-casual movement has developed the kind of nugget that you would expect from a company that built its reputation on burgers formed from all-natural grass-fed and grain-finished Angus beef. Shake Shack’s Chick’n Bites — I guess the chain spent so much on R&D that it couldn’t buy a second vowel for its “chicken” items — are prepared with antibiotic-free breast meat, according to a company news release.
What’s more, the company says, the breast meat is marinated in chicken broth, spices and molasses, and then cooked sous vide before it’s “hand-breaded” and fried to order. The bites (starting at $4.29 for six pieces, $6.29 for 10) come with your choice of dipping sauce, either barbecue or honey mustard, but you can also request of side of the Shack’s cheese sauce, should you require an extra layer of fat for your fried nuggets.
After testing out Chick’n Bites at the company’s West Village location, with its Innovation Kitchen, Shake Shack rolled out the nuggets nationwide Monday for a limited time. I sat down with a 10-piece box on the same day they were introduced.
If you’re wondering why Shake Shack is just now entering the nugget business, a company representative said the new item is a natural extension of the Chick’n Shack sandwich, and that restaurant customers wanted the bites after first trying the recipe found in the chain’s 2017 cookbook. This is no doubt true, or mostly true, but it also doesn’t take a genius to read the data on American dietary habits over the decades and figure out that beef-centric businesses are probably a poor long-term bet. (This is not the Finance section, so don’t consider this stock advice!)
A Shake Shack representative emailed to say there is “no hard end date” on the Chick’n Bites. “We are listening and learning and seeing how our guests like them!” wrote Meg Castranova, manager of brand communications for the company.
The weirdest (or greatest, depending on your point of view) thing about the Chick’n Bites is their texture. The breast meat has been cooked sous vide to the point of silkiness. Underneath its semi-crispy coating, the white meat is so soft and pliable that it doesn’t really have the chew of animal muscle. It’s like they were designed for those without incisors, nuggets for infants and old-timers. As a point of comparison, I followed up my Shake Shack Bites with some Chick-fil-A Nuggets, which, beneath their salt bomb of a coating, had a genuine meatiness. You’re reminded that somewhere in this cute little meat clod, there is the flesh of a farm animal.
But back to the Chick’n Bites: Their soft centers aside, the nuggets can be dredged unevenly in flour. Some bites were so thick with coating — well-seasoned coating, I must say — that it looked as if they were wearing a rubber suit. I ordered the nuggets with the barbecue and honey mustard dipping sauces, and even coughed up an extra buck for a side of cheese sauce. First things first: Three dipping options are about two too many for 10 nuggets; you’ll end up surrendering most of the sauces to the garbage gods. I’d stick with the barbecue sauce. It provides a shock of acid to the nuggets, a welcome contrast to the adult kiddie food in front of you.
Most restaurant food, I would venture, is designed to erase any evidence of the animal on your plate, but Chick’n Bites take it to a whole new level with the sous-vide approach. They’re like marshmallow bites. I like them on my palate, but I’m not sure I like them on principle.
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