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KFC’s new plant-based nuggets look and taste close to the real thing

Plant-based nuggets made with Beyond Meat launched at KFC locations across the United States on Jan. 10.  (Emily Heil/Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

Plant-based versions of chicken nuggets have been around for years, but new wizardry is aiming to make these alt meats something more than soy dressed up in a cheap chicken suit. And Kentucky Fried Chicken, the fast food chain known for its fried bird, this week rolled out a new plant-based menu item with the bold claim that it would be just as “finger lickin’ good” as the real thing.

Let’s start this exploration of whether it lives up to that billing on a somewhat pedantic note and consider the nomenclature of the newest faux chicken to land in the coop. KFC is pointedly (and oddly) not calling these babies “nuggets.” The introductory news release dubbed them simply “Beyond Fried Chicken,” and the accompanying photo depicted the not nuggets in a paper bucket reminiscent of the receptacles that usually house the chain’s bonier offerings.

That choice seems strange to me because, well, they look like nuggets, not merely “fried chicken.” And the online menu I used to order them did identify them as nuggets even if their packaging didn’t. So regardless of what Colonel Sanders says, I’m calling them nuggets on the duckwalking principle. But putting aside the labels and getting to the more important question, what do they taste like?

OK, OK, but appearances first: Out of the box, they sure look like the real thing, albeit in a slightly more squared-off shape than I’m used to, with a nice, even, deep-golden-brown coat flecked with black pepper. And on first bite, I’m convinced by this dupe. The exterior is as crackly as its appearance promised, and the seasoning (there’s a good amount of salt) hits all my brain’s fast food neuron grooves.

I don’t get a distinct chicken flavor, though even real-deal nuggets don’t usually deliver much on that front. I’m of the opinion that the success of a nugget, whether meat- or plant-based, rests largely on the exterior. Nail a crisp, well-seasoned coating, and you’re roughly 75% of the way to a reasonable nugget. Dunk the thing in sauce, and you practically could pass off pages of the phone book as edible.

The KFC nugget was far denser than many of the other plant-based nuggets I’ve sampled, and when I pulled it apart, it actually looked striated, sort of like the way a chunk of actual cooked chicken muscle would. These soy-based hunks seem to aspire to be chicken tenders – actual pieces of fried meat, as opposed to mere nuggets, which are typically composed of ground-up meat that is pressed into a bite-size lump.

I actually prefer this to the fluffier or pastier interiors of many a faux (or even real) chicken nugget – though not everyone might agree, and one woman’s toothsome is another’s rubbery. KFC’s Beyond Meat version was even convincing enough to make my husband do a double take. On the afternoon I was sampling them, he rolled into the kitchen and grabbed a nugget from the box. “Wait, is this the plant one?” he asked, looking confused.

He had asked me to order him some real chicken strips. The new item seems to be a hit, too, with many fans on social media. Some, though, were turned off by the fact that the plant-based “chicken” might not be suitable for those who stick to strictly vegan or vegetarian diets. The new menu item is prepared in the same fryers used for real-deal chicken, a spokeswoman noted in response to my question about what an asterisk on the news release meant.

But that process isn’t made clear on the online menu I used. Their gripe was reminiscent of the situation that led a group of Burger King customers to file a class-action lawsuit – which was eventually tossed out – against the chain claiming that it didn’t disclose that its Impossible Burger was cooked on the same grills as its meat offerings.

Another turnoff could be price. My six-piece box of nuggets from a location in Washington, D.C., cost $8.39, and for the same price, you can order a combination meal that includes KFC’s popcorn chicken nuggets, a drink, a side and a biscuit. Still, it’s another option for people looking for more plant-based options at their local drive-thrus – and at grocery stores.

Impossible Foods, the leading rival to Beyond, debuted its alternative nugget last year, which is turning up on the menus of some fast casual chains and in the freezer aisle of major grocery stories. And Burger King just launched vegan nuggets in the United Kingdom.