Reviewing the Colonel's grilled chicken

Kentucky Grilled Chicken, a new product offered by KFC.
Kentucky Grilled Chicken, a new product offered by KFC.
Posted: June 02, 2009

Old Colonel Sanders would be rolling in his grave of secret herbs and spices if he knew what was going on with his beloved chicken dynasty.

The problem is not necessarily KFC's desire to update its deep-fried image. Good fried chicken is timeless, but the concept of a presumably healthy grilled alternative is long overdue.

And the issue goes well beyond the public relations controversy over the company's launch of its "Kentucky Grilled Chicken" last month, when an Oprah-sponsored giveaway had to be temporarily suspended because of unexpected demand, leaving nearly six million hungry coupon holders with a mail-in rain check. Advertising Age magazine crowned that episode "one of the all-time blunders by advertisers," on a par with the release of New Coke.

No, the real disaster here is not about clumsy marketing or a well-intentioned concept: "Un-frying" of KFC.

The problem is in KFC's kitchen, and the result was steaming inside the plastic bag handed to me yesterday through a hatch in the bulletproof counter window at a KFC on Broad Street at Girard Avenue.

I had come to taste this much-touted new grilled chicken for myself, and when I opened the plastic lid, I was confronted with one of the most insipid fast-food meals I'd ever been assigned to eat. I had expected the mealy mashed potatoes in gluey brown gravy. A bird that appeared to have been run over by a panini truck, I did not.

To be sure, my "control bird" - two pieces of the classic fried chicken - was a far cry from the crispy glory of KFC's halcyon days. But there's a reason fried chicken is a fast-food staple: the durable, bready crust can cover a multitude of poultry sins.

Stripped naked of that crumby armor, this was one ugly chicken. A ragged shard of bone protruded through the middle of the breast. A disconcerting blotch of black goo covered the bottom of my drumstick.

To be sure, the mahogany brown skin had been rendered thin and pressed into deep ridges (not unlike those left by a panini machine) by the grill racks inside the convection ovens. (Yes, this chicken seems to be more "baked" than truly "grilled" over an open flame, but I'm well beyond semantics.)

The parts of the breast that had come in contact with the grill looked as if they'd been shrunk inside a papery brown film whose flavor was more like salty, caramelized bouillon than the complex, musty spice of the deep-fried bird. The meat right behind those grill marks was chewy and dry (easy retention of moistness is another benefit of deep-frying). The portions of chicken, however, that did not come in direct contact with the grill were even worse - repulsively flabby, with flaccid meat inside the under-crisped crannies of leg and wing that seemed to be slipping in half-rendered puddles of fat.

Having to eat it - with a five-minute, teary-eyed pause for heartburn - was bad enough. Trying to get a busy counter person to buzz me into the restroom so I could wash my hands of it, only to witness the resulting filth of a broken-handled toilet, was the kicker. Maybe a multimillion-dollar revamp for the decor is next.

KFC, owned by Louisville-based Yum Brands Inc., has obviously spent millions on the testing phase, marketing, and launch of this bold new "unfried" era. Based on my recent lunch, at least, it has a long way to go before anyone discards the "F" and reflags the Colonel's beloved chicken dynasty "KGC."


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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