The scene: One of the biggest little restaurant chains in America, Zaxby's has expanded from a single shop in the college town of Statesboro, Ga., in 1990 to more than 500 outlets across some 13 states, all on the strength of a very limited and focused menu. Many people outside these states have never heard of Zaxby's but it is worth knowing about for road trippers, because they have taken two very popular restaurant dishes, including one largely ignored by fast food chains, and built an empire around them. If you favor chicken wings and chicken tenders, you should know about Zaxby's, as the chain has forgone burgers on one hand and traditional fried chicken on the other to seize a unique middle ground.
Zaxby's is fast food - drive-through, counters and all - but its restaurants physically feel much more sit-down, more like Applebee's or Chili's than Burger King. Most are freestanding and boast different décor. One might have exposed brick walls covered with antique sports gear (including wooden skis in the middle of Georgia), another sports wood walls covered with railroad memorabilia, old toys or or antique metal advertising signs. All have a lot of booths for a more intimate feel, but some have nondescript synthetic furniture while others have much nicer wooden booths with leather seats. In each case you order at a counter, and are called by number when your order is ready by friendly and efficient staff. In one case someone walked around and asked if guests needed anything, something you rarely see at a roadside fast food chain eatery. While you still bus your own plastic trays, serve yourself soda and eat with plastic utensils, the feel is much homier than at competitors.
Reason to visit: Wings, especially teriyaki and Buffalo-style hot, boneless wings with sweet & spicy, chicken tenders and salads.
The food: The menu takes three staples, "Fingerz" (fried chicken tenders), chicken wings and boneless wings, and offers each in several ways. Bone-in and boneless wings are both available with a wide array of sauces: hot honey mustard, teriyaki, sweet & spicy, barbecue and a traditional Buffalo-style hot sauce in five heat levels from wimpy to original to tongue torch to nuclear to insane.
While Fingerz are also available covered in any of these sauces, the standard Fingerz are served plain, with signature Zax sauce on the side. The sauce is sort of a more robust take on Russian dressing, made with tomato sauce, vinegar, corn syrup, Worcestershire sauce and other spices. I could take it or leave it but Zax sauce has many passionate fans and if you Google it you will see countless homages and recipes for recreating its flavor at home. The tenders themselves are quite good: real chicken pieces, not formed, well-seasoned, juicy, tender and tasty.
The tenders are also the backbone of the "Zalads," including the house, Caesar and Blue, all of which feature cut-up tenders (you can also choose grilled chicken) with a variety of creative ingredients. For instance, the house features mixed greens, cucumbers, roma tomatoes, carrots, red cabbage, cheddar and jack cheeses and tasty fried onion crumbles that add a lot of flavor and crunchy contrast and really make the salad. The greens and vegetables taste fresher and less generic than most fast food salads and the results are surprisingly tasty. The only thing I didn't like at Zaxby's was the fries, which are crinkle cut, not crisp enough and pretty bland, even though they are dusted with Cajun seasoning. On the other hand, another side, the cole slaw, was fresh, crunchy, lightly dressed with sauce and surprisingly good.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but a unique fast food alternative and a good fix for chicken wing lovers.