The Absolute Best Fast Food Chicken Nuggets, Ranked

All nuggets are good. But only some nuggets are great.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Welcome to The Fasties, Thrillist’s second-annual fast food awards! The awards feature more than a dozen categories celebrating all the best foods that came out of drive-thru windows over the past year—from Best Chicken Nuggets to Best Bacon Cheeseburgers, and many more. Watch the full awards show and check out the full list of categories and winners.

When the cafeteria served chicken nuggets at school, you were having a great day. Now you’re older, and you’re confronted with the downsides to being an adult (bills, work responsibilities, an acute awareness of your own mortality). But the one big plus is that every day can be chicken nuggets day if you want it to be. 

Chicken nuggets have never been more delicious (or more culinarily creative!) than they are right now. To help you decide which drive-thru you should pull into next, we hit up more than a dozen of the country’s biggest chains that serve the humble, satisfying chicken morsels you know and love. More specifically, we judged them on important criteria like juiciness of the chicken, creativity, and overall flavor. Here are the best ones in America.

These greasy looking, slimy tasting, wholly unappetizing chicken bites can’t be a serious menu item. Clearly Chick-fil-A is pulling that The Producers scheme on us— it’s bad-on-purpose. Because there is no other reason for them to exist.

Do not go to Cook Out for the chicken nuggets. The breading is well-seasoned, but that’s about where the positives end. The meat is squishy and while we know chicken nuggets aren’t typically made with the highest quality chicken at fast food restaurants, Cook Out does a good job of reminding us of that. There are six sauces to choose from—Cook Out Sauce, BBQ, Honey Mustard, Polynesian, Ranch, Buffalo—but it doesn’t matter because they can’t save these nuggets.

It’d be cool if DQ had a rotisserie behind the counter with tiny chicken bites spinning around on it, but sadly not all dreams can come true. In reality, the bites may draw comparisons to Chik-fil-A size-wise, but that’s where the comparisons stop. Here’s the good news: these breading-free chicken morsels are undeniably juicy. But there’s a fine line between juicy and soggy, and they err on the side of the latter. Some bites are all gristle, while others are like eating a nugget that’s been soaking in a vat of cooking oil for hours. DQ deserves some credit for the clever “rotisserie chicken bite” branding, but it’ll make you long for a standard breaded nugget.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

“Cardboard chicken nothings” is a more apt description of these popcorn nuggets. The nugget overall lacks any sort of crispness, and the meat itself isn’t juicy at all, though it lacks the gristly quality of an ultra-low quality budget nugget. And the breading features plenty of black pepper seasoning, which saves it from lacking any flavor whatsoever. If you’re pulling up at Sonic, do yourself a favor and grab a burger along with an ice cold slush, blast, or shake. Skip the nugs.

Wendy’s seemingly focused so much on the spicy part of the “spicy nugget” that it forgot the nugget element is equally important. While the spicy end of the bargain delivers (and lingers a fair amount even after you’ve had a couple bites), and most of the nuggets are crispy, the nugget is subpar overall. It’s an uber-thin, dry, gristle-filled item. The heat is its only redeeming quality. You’re better off licking the seasoning from this nugget and eating a satisfying Wendy’s Crispy Nugget instead.

White Castle instantly earns points for taking the basic chicken nugget form factor and engineering it into a ring-like shape, though the execution is a tad questionable. Ours resembled flattened chicken discs with holes in the middle. While traditional nuggets don’t typically inspire philosophical questions, these left us wondering about the point of the ring shape before we dived in for a taste. But upon first bite, it became a little clearer. Our theory is that it’s all about the surface area, though we’re admittedly not great at math. Going with a flat ring shape with a circular punch out in the middle results in more breaded surface, which thereby results in additional crispiness. This extra crisp is delightful, but the chicken within is too dry, flat, and flavorless to satisfy a craving for chicken nuggets.

Ever want to eat a starfish you find washed up on the beach? Us either, but this star-shaped chicken nugget is much tastier anyways. The stars aren’t juicy in the least (and Carl’s should consider adding any kind of seasoning whatsoever), but the chicken to breading ratio is acceptable, each nugget is crisp, and there’s something about the small joy of devouring a tiny star bite by little bite. If you’re someone who eats primarily with their eyes, this is the nugget for you. If you’re super hungry, it might make more sense to supplement these with one of the chain’s massive burgers.

These small pieces of chicken are available to order by the half pound (with fries), and that’s a great thing because their size and crispiness make them delightfully poppable. The breading is well-seasoned and holds up well in the cardboard container in which the bites come packed, leaving you with a mountain of bite-sized vehicles for the BBQ, Honey Mustard, Ranch, and Frank’s RedHot Buffalo sauces you can get on the side. Like with a lot of chicken bites from fast food chains, many of these come with a lot of breading and little visible chicken inside. And the ones that did contain a substantial amount of chicken were often on the dry side and gristly, hence the need for more and more sauce. Get them with the Frank’s Buffalo sauce. You’re gonna need it.

It may seem counterintuitive to say that a chicken nugget tastes like actual chicken. After all, don’t all chicken nuggets taste like chicken? Actually, no. Many fast food nuggets taste like salty, deep fried breading with a hint of black pepper. But not chicken. That’s why this BK nugget is a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about it on the surface—sure, the morsels are suitably crispy, and there’s significantly more chicken here than in skimpier nuggets elsewhere. But this is higher in the ranking because the nugget imparts superior chicken flavors, plain and simple. It’s one of the chicken-ier nuggets in fast food, and in a sea of nuggets, that stands out.

Don’t let the apostrophic spelling of these nuggets fool you. Even though they share some grammatical similarity to plant-based chicken substitutes, these are the most real, real chicken of nearly every fast food outpost. No pink slime, super-processed, identically shaped orbs of sadness that simply exist as dipping sauce-delivery mechanisms here. Instead, they’re like Mini Me versions of the popular Whatahick’n Strips. Available in six- and nine-piece boxes, they’re hot and juicy on the inside, audibly crunchy and well-battered on the outside, and excellent entirely on their own merit. But for us, naked nuggets require a saucy companion and you’ll find 10 different sauces to choose from, including hot, black-peppery gravy. Order them as a meal and you’ll even get two triangles of buttery Texas toast to dip in that sauce between bites or provide the foundation for an impromptu DIY chicken sandwich project.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

We all know the world-famous chicken chain loves to kid around, as evidenced by its commercials and its Twitter account. So it should be no surprise that an order of KFC’s popcorn chicken is housed in a bright red, movie popcorn-esque box. Things get even better from there. The breading surrounding these nugs is exemplary—a 20 out of ten. Some nuggets have so little chicken in them that it’s become a morsel of fried, crispy bread. You will not care. And while the chicken isn’t particularly juicy (and there is some gristle in each box), overall you get a full meal-sized amount of nuggets that pair great with a side of mashed potatoes or its Finger Lickin’ Good sauce. Colonel Sanders would be proud.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Unlike the chain’s Spicy Nuggets, its Crispy Chicken Nuggets are worthy of having a cult following. They’re much thicker nuggets that pack plenty of chicken into each one. The best nuggets have mastered the perfect chicken-to-breading ratio, and Wendy’s has solved this eternal riddle. The black pepper seasoning is noticeably delicious, and adds a subtle kick. Maybe one day the brand will offer a half spicy and half crispy nugget deal, letting you experience both spicy heat from one and superior chicken from the other.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

The glorious nugget was invented in the ‘60s, with McDonald’s popularizing them in the ‘80s. And yet, Facebook existed eight years before Jack in the Box added chicken nuggets to the menu. The chain has been around since the ‘50s. Considering how delicious these suckers are, it’s shocking it didn’t happen sooner. The white meat nuggets appear so small it seems unlikely there’d be much chicken in there. But there’s plenty of chicken in each bite, and almost no residual gristle, along with a delicious breading that’s been well-seasoned with black pepper. The nugget is so crisp, and the chicken is so juicy, you won’t even need a sauce—though the chain does have Frank’s RedHot. Added bonus: You can snag an order of nuggets even during breakfast hours. If you think eating nuggets for breakfast is weird, take a trip to your local Chick-fil-A for one of those transcendent Chicken Minis.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

It tastes like your childhood, and this nugget doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. (If you thought these were made with “pink slime,” you’re wrong.) It doesn’t have to change. It’s a McNugget: hot and crispy, with a unique tempura breading. No, it’s not the juiciest chicken around, and it should be illegal to eat it without dipping it in honey mustard first, but it’s a menu item that’s stood the test of time. It was the first popular nugget in fast food. It represents American ingenuity, convenience, and loads of flavor, all for a couple bucks. In a world where the status quo changes on a dime, the McNugget is always there. It’s still fantastic. And its enduring popularity says something about its quality.

Illustration by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Let’s put that unpleasantness with the whole “grilled nuggets” thing behind us and focus on what Chick-fil-A does better than any other fast food chain: breaded chicken nuggets. Why are these so perfect? Is it the MSG in every bite? Is it because it’s pressure cooked? The hand-breading? The high quality chicken that’s practically gristle-free? You probably know the answer: it’s all of these things. Chick-fil-A has the best chicken nuggets in fast food. 

Each bite is perfectly juicy without being oily. The breading is uneven, and in some spots on the nugget, there’s barely any—a stark contrast to the uniform breading in every other fast food nugget. This should be a ding against the Chick-fil-A nugget, but it’s not. If there’s not a ton of breading in one spot, that’s just dandy because you’re going to get a mouthful of crispy, delicious chicken. It doesn’t even need sauce (though there are solid options). 

This is what chicken nuggets should be, but rarely are. It’s why the chain inspires such strong devotion. If you want great nuggets, you can certainly enjoy Chicken McNuggets or KFC Popcorn Nuggets and go about your day. But if you eat these nuggets for dinner one night, by the time you’re done, you’re already planning for when you can eat them again.

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