Chicken Nugget Showdown: Garden Catering, Chicken Joe’s, And McDonald’s

Which chicken contender will win the hearts of the nostalgic pocket-sized protein lover?

The chicken nugget: that ubiquitous deep-fried gob of pocket-sized protein and tender meat, longtime favorite of children and child-at-heart adults alike. Infinitely dippable, snack-able, and always found next to a pile of (hopefully) crispy French fries. Everyone seems to love them: the only question at hand seems to be where to order them. In our beloved county of Westchester, it is apparent to the seasoned nugget-lover, there are two local options, both with locations dotting Westchester and neighboring Fairfield counties: Chicken Joe’s, and Garden Catering. So I set out on the enviable job of comparing the two Lower-Hudson-Valley nugget behemoths, while adding nostalgia-inducing McDonald’s as a control group, to deliver to the informed reader an answer to the eternal question: just where should I go when I’m craving a chicken nugget?

Some information you should know prior to digging into my findings:
1. I went to all 3 locations at prime lunchtime: between 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm on a Thursday.
2. All locations were in Port Chester: the Garden Catering at 140 Midland Ave; Marini’s Deli (where Chicken Joe’s originated and where they have the same nugget menu) at 340 Willett Ave; and the McDonald’s at 321 Boston Post Road.
3. All the food was eaten and photographed shortly after receiving it, i.e., it was all still hot and fresh.
4. In the photographs, Garden Catering will always be on the left, McDonald’s will always be in the center, and Chicken Joe’s will always be on the right.
5. I went through the drive through at McDonald’s and at the other two locations went inside each location and ordered after waiting in line.
6. At Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s I ordered the exact same thing: One “special” (called a High-School at Chicken Joe’s and simply a “special” at Garden Catering), which consists of a half-pound of nuggets and an order of fries, one special with chili and cheese, and one small order of cones. At McDonald’s, I ordered one 4-piece nugget and one medium fry.
7. All food was rated on a scale of 1 (ugh) to 5 (nugget nirvana!). 

The Nuggets

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From left to right: Garden Catering, McDonald’s, and Chicken Joe’s

 

I started off with plain nuggets, which isn’t how most people eat them but gives us an idea of the canvas on which the most seasoned nugget artisan can do their best work. If it looks like you’re seeing double, that’s not your eyes deceiving you, these two nuggets from two different establishments look virtually the same. For those that haven’t eaten one in a while, the McNugget still looks vaguely like a Christmas stocking. Cutting them open, I found that while both Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s had real white-meat chicken, McDonald’s crispy exterior contained more of a chicken-flavored paste. Yum.

Upon tasting all three, I discovered that the eye test doesn’t lie: Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s were very similar, while McDonald’s might as well have been a different food altogether. Garden Catering was significantly moister, and overall I preferred it to Chicken Joe’s, but to someone paying less attention, they are virtually identical. Both had a strong, authentic chicken flavor that I appreciated, especially next to McDonald’s offering. The McNugget is for the consumer that is craving a McNugget, and little else. If you order a 4-piece like I did, it’s because you’re looking for nostalgia, not because you want the best chicken nugget available to you.

The Final Chicken Nugget Scores:
1. Garden Catering: 4
2. Chicken Joe’s: 3.5
3. McDonald’s: 1.5

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At both Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s, a “special seasoning” is offered. Dark red in color and always lovingly sprinkled onto your order prior to payment, it is a necessity for most regulars at both establishments. In my opinion, the seasoning is always necessary to boost the flavor of the nuggets and whichever side you prefer. I found that the nuggets are far too plain without the added flavor, ordering mine on the side so I could try each naked first. The special dust is very similar at both spots, but Garden Catering’s had a more distinct smoky flavor, while Chicken Joe’s reminded me more of a slightly more flavorful MSG. 

 

Even with the addition of chili and cheese, I preferred Garden Catering. Their chili had a cleaner flavor, while Chicken Joe’s was more “tangy”. I could really taste the beef in Garden Catering’s version, but Chicken Joe’s was saltier. Most importantly, I felt that Garden Catering’s was best suited to complement chicken nuggets.

So, although I’ve given Garden Catering the edge in my initial taste, I found that the nuggets are very similar. Luckily, I was well prepared, and added some more relevant information to help provide the reader with a more informed decision.

A note about speed: We all know that at lunch, time can be painfully finite. So, I recorded how long it took for me to receive my food beginning immediately after ordering and ending immediately after I had paid and was on my way. In order, measured in minutes, from fastest to slowest.

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Time to Process Order
1. McDonald’s – 1:15 (yes, really)
2. Chicken Joe’s – 5:05
3. Garden Catering – 7:10

A Word on the Fries

Every special comes with fries, so I would be remiss to leave them out of this battle. Again, the fries from Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s are virtually identical. I truly could not tell the difference between them. They both had a distinct potato flavor, and while some were crispier than others, for the most part they were decent fries that complimented the nuggets well, which earned them a tie at second place. McDonald’s fries are the ones we know and love; thin, crispy, and salty. They were my personal favorite, as McDonald’s has perfected the art of the fry, but you can’t go wrong with the fried spuds at any of the three.

In addition to French fries, potato cones are also very popular sides at both Garden Catering and Chicken Joe’s. These small crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside bites resemble deep fried mashed potatoes. At both locations, they look the same, they smell the same, they taste the same, they are the same.

While dipping sauces are important, all three had the standard options (ranch, barbecue, honey mustard, ketchup, mayo, Buffalo) and therefore I felt that it didn’t need to be covered.

French Fries Scores:
1. McDonald’s – 4.5
2. Garden Catering – 3.5
3. Chicken Joe’s – 3.5

Even after running a follow-up series of tests, my initial nugget tasting held up: Garden Catering comes out the clear winner. With the most tender, delicious nuggets, the more flavorful seasoning, and the more complementary toppings, they take the Westchester nugget crown. Chicken Joe’s again is a close second, while McDonald’s lags far behind in all but a few categories. Unfortunately for the competition, this taste test is all about the nugget, and that is where Garden Catering shines the most.

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