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In a world mostly ruled by big corporations, it takes some serious nuggets to open a franchise of small, regional chicken joints next to a long-established outlet of that mega-chain famous for its 11 herbs and spices. It's pretty much the equivalent of opening up your mom-and-pop discount store across from a Walmart Supercenter. It just doesn't seem like a good strategy for long-term success.
Don't tell that to the owners of the new Little Rock outlet of Slim Chickens, a small Arkansas-born chain with nine locations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, which recently opened up on Markham across the street from the Colonel's. They're banking on the idea that if you make fresh, tasty, well-prepared chicken, people will literally drive right past KFC to get to it. Based on the crowds that have mobbed the place since it opened, it looks like Slim may be onto something.
Started in Fayetteville in 2003, Slim Chickens has become a fixture in Northwest Arkansas, with two locations in Fayetteville and another in Rogers. Founded by three friends who were fed up with bland dishes made from thawed birds, the idea was to serve fresh, never-frozen chicken in a fast-casual restaurant setting.
The menu is generous, but not unwieldy, sticking to the basics of tenders, wings, salads and sandwiches. The reviewer stopped in twice since it's been open. On our first strut through Slim Chickens, we tried the Hungry Plate ($9.99), which features seven chicken tenders, Texas toast, French fries and two dipping sauces. For dipping, we tried the Slim's Sauce and the Cayenne Ranch. On the side, we tried the fried mushrooms ($4.99).
The tenders certainly lived up to their billing as fresh and tasty: large, juicy strips, deep-fried a perfect golden brown in a thin, flavorful batter. They were certainly a heck of a lot better than you're going to get next door at that place from Kentucky, as were the fries. That said, the Slim's Sauce turned out to be a little weird for our taste — very salty, and with a strange, sweet undertone that oddly reminded us of grape jelly. The cayenne ranch was better, but dull; it could have stood a bit more cayenne and a bit less ranch. The whole button mushrooms were well-prepared, cooked firm and served hot, with a nice peppery breading.
Slim Chickens is also known as a wing joint, so on a return trip, we tried the chicken wings, ponying up almost $10 for 10 wings after tax. That's rich when it comes to a tiny chicken part that's mostly bones, especially when they're not being served by women in tight shirts, but we swallowed hard and pressed on.
Like any wing joint worth its paprika, Slim Chickens offers its in several flavors, from mild all the way up to varieties that should come with a flame-retardant haz-mat suit. Never one for public torture and having mostly lost our taste for heat back in college, we went with their mild wings. While the price burned us a bit, the wings turned out to be very good, tossed in a buttery spicy-but-not-hot sauce. Paired with a cup of ranch for dipping, they were a slippery, tasty mess, and made us glad we'd ordered them to go, if only for the easy access to a roll of paper towels and to save us the humiliation of having strangers see us drenched, hand and cheek, in nuclear-orange sauce. While we would have liked more wings for the money, we couldn't complain about their preparation or flavor.
All in all, Slim Chickens is a nice additon to the strip of restaurants along Markham between UAMS and University Avenue, especially for those looking for better, fresher chicken offerings than you'll find at Chick-fil-A or KFC. It's a bit pricier than either of those places (fast-food chicken, on average, costs more than a burger for some reason), but you get what you pay for. In short, we like it because it's an Arkansas company, but we'll be back for the same reason we return to any restaurant: because it tastes good. In a world of fast-food blandness, that's something to crow about.