Fast Foodie: Wendy's goes Panera with the Fresh Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich

City Paper

In a world of Baconators, Big Macs, and fried chicken taco shells, fast food seems to revel in its role as spectacular junk food. Until, well, it doesn't.

While pushing menu items to new extremes by heaping on meat, condiments, or snack food won't go out of style anytime soon, every now and then a fast food chain will take a stab at something for the health-niks and/or fast-casual set. It's why, say, KFC offers grilled chicken or McDonald's has salads or Taco Bell offers tacos with pico de gallo in place of cheese and sour cream. Places like Chipotle and Noodles & Company are looked upon favorably by people who turn up their noses at fast food, but that won't stop chains from trying to win them over.

What first struck me about the new Fresh Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich at Wendy's ($5.49, or $7.89 for a combo) is it looks like something you'd get at Panera or a well-to-do independent cafe in a hip neighborhood. Not just any grilled chicken sandwich, this includes basil pesto sauce, diced tomatoes covered in balsamic, a nice lettuce blend (not those barely green pieces of iceberg that sadly sit atop fast food sandwiches out of obligation), and hunks of the namesake cheese. It feels downright gourmet compared to the standard drive-thru burger—and, for what it's worth, Wendy's also offers a deconstructed version as a salad.

The first bite I took hit the palate with the basil from the pesto before the the other parts of the sauce kicked in. Tomatoes were scant, making the sauce the only real flavor, and an overwhelming one at that. It didn't occur to me until after I was done that there wasn't any cheese at all. Hey, this is fast food we're talking about—a mismade sandwich is bound to happen every now and then. But it didn't really feel fair to write my review based something that was incomplete. So I ventured out to another Wendy's location, and this time I made sure to check under the brioche bun for all the necessary components before eating.

The results were much more satisfying. There was a really nice blend of Italian flavors with the tomatoes, which tasted similar to marinara, and the generous hunks of mozzarella. And with the basil pesto sauce slathered in more moderation, there was a lot more balance that allowed the tenderness of the grilled chicken to come through. I'm usually not too keen on scooping up leftover sauce in my wrapper or box, but with the Fresh Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich, I made a point to run my finger and some fries through the yummy basil pesto that dripped out.

For the health-conscious out there: The sandwich comes in at a pretty modest 420 calories and 14g of fat. And yes, it did feel like the grab for a more sophisticated dining experience was earned. Hey, greasy burgers are great and I love them. But this column is, if nothing else, about embracing options. Just make sure to give the sandwich a once-over before digging in.

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