10. Chicken fingers
Of all the cafeteria staples offered at IKEA, chicken fingers scared me the most. You have a lot of moving parts in this simple dish -- the moistness of the chicken, the texture and seasoning of the breading, the quality of the dipping sauce -- and the whole thing is lost if one of those is even a little bit off. Kids love chicken fingers, which meant showing up on “Kids Eat Free Tuesday” guaranteed a high rate of turnover that gave us access to chicken fingers at peak freshness.
The seasoning was -- take a guess -- salty, but the cut of chicken itself was juicy and not as rubbery as I’ve grown to expect from most other lunch counters. The barbecue sauce is just right: sweet and creamy with just a little kick at the finish. I would gladly revisit any and all of IKEA’s underwhelming chicken dishes if they opted for the fried variety, but I can’t see that happening any time soon given our nation’s interest in half-assed health-food options.
9. Carrot cake cupcake
For a dessert item that’s so obviously pulled from a giant box in a freezer and left out to thaw, the carrot cupcake is a real shocker in terms of flavor and texture. It’s hard to screw up the cake part itself if you add enough sugar, butter, and preservatives, but the real icing on the cake was, well, the icing. It stood atop the thing at roughly the same stature as the cake part itself, but the cream cheese that’s usually added to carrot cake icing did wonders in cutting the sweetness and adding enough density to keep it from sliding off in a fluffy mess after each bite. Adding a cup of coffee -- another remarkably pleasant feather in IKEA’s hat -- makes this a perfect bookend for a long day of pushing a shopping cart around.
8. Southwestern chicken wrap
I wasn’t wrong in expecting little more than the aforementioned chicken with black beans thrown in a wrap, but the triumph of this dish is the sauce that keeps each bite balanced and chewable. Chicken doused in some kind of peppery chipotle ranch is nothing new at grocery stores, but the surprising amount of success with which IKEA pulled this one off made me wonder why they don’t throw a bunch of these things in boxes and sell them alongside the hot dogs and soft-serve at the to-go counter between the checkout line and the exit. They could be onto something here.