Folks who favor fast-food chicken may not realize just how foul their fowl really is. Chopped into unrecognizable bits and processed with sundry unpronounceable additives, these peculiar morsels often are frozen in great blocks for carefree transport around the globe.
Problem is, according to watchdogs, that consumable called "chicken" may contain only about 50 percent real bird. And it may have been thawed and refrozen into even weirder blobs before cooking, or otherwise mishandled in settings less pristine than your junior high science lab.
Not so at PDQ Fresh Tenders, the North Carolina-based casual dining chain that proudly declares itself a freezer- and microwave-free zone. A play on the phrase "pretty darn quick," the name officially stands for People Dedicated to Quality.
Beasley's Chicken + Honey certainly has nothing to fear from this competition, but PDQ's fried chicken tenders earn their signature status on the menu of the new North Raleigh branch. A bite into the lightly battered portions reveals whole breast meat that remains moist under the crisp, well-seasoned coating. Most diners order them with Cajun-spiced French fries that only hours before were whole potatoes.
Grilled tenders are an option for calorie counters, but they're not as tasty. Those who don't dig the carb-heavy options can graze on lighter salads and sides, such as coleslaw dressed with fresh blueberries and pineapple juice-marinated Granny Smith apple slices served with a portion-appropriate scoop of Heath toffee dip.
PDQ wants customers to know that it relies on whole and fresh ingredients, most of which are methodically rotated through its large walk-in chiller. Lean breast portions are kept in prominently date-stamped cartons alongside Butterball turkey breast slices sourced from Garner and Mt. Olive. Items produced in-house, like an array of sauces and salad dressings, bear both the production date and the name of the employee responsible for each batch.
The accent on accountability is bolstered by order-takers who enthusiastically explain the company's mission to first-timers. To ensure quality, workers discard cooked chicken and fries that have gone unclaimed for 10 minutes and cater to customer requests based on available ingredients: Hold the lettuce, add the house-made candied almonds. There are no breakfast specials or vegetarian options other than chicken-free salads.
Meals also are served through a take-out window, where friendly staff wish you a nice day. Transport takes a modest toll. The fries and crispy chicken steam a bit in go-boxes, and croutons in the grilled chicken salad have a tendency to go a little soft.
The Caesar salad was the one meal that proved disappointing. A big bowl of freshly chopped romaine lettuce came with a generous portion of grilled chicken and grated parmesan—and a small cup of sharp dressing that would have made Caesar's wife gasp. It's surely better with a different sauce (the honey mustard and bleu cheese both were good for dunking fried tenders), but neither the house-made lemonade nor PDQ's creamy shakes erased the bitter aftertaste.
Soft-serve Hood brand ice cream might seem to violate the no-freezer rule, but batches are produced daily and the results are appealing. Prefer something bubbly? PDQ's dining room features a Coca-Cola Freestyle soda station, a high-tech gizmo that not only turns the average soft drink aficionado into a mix master with 100-plus flavor combinations, but also automatically reports and orders syrup refills that look like printer cartridges. Made a mess? Clean up at the community hand-wash station stocked with Yardley's English Lavender soap.
While pricier than McDonald's or Taco Bell, a PDQ meal is no more expensive than one served at Panera or Chipotle, its obvious competition in the fast-casual market. If you like a little community commitment with your meal, know that PDQ regularly hosts fundraisers that benefit local causes. You just might find a high school principal or other local do-gooder helping out in exchange for a generous 10 percent of sales.
In addition to the North Raleigh store, which launched in December, PDQ will soon open eateries in Wake Forest, Cary and Durham.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Try a little tenderness."