Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine
When it is done properly fast food is an utter joy, but when it is done badly it is the devil’s own work. The difference between really good food and really bad food is perhaps at its sharpest with fast food.
At the right end of the spectrum you have the likes of Patty & Bun, Honest Burger (seemingly coming to Cardiff this year) and Bleecker Burgers in London and Hoof at Sticky Fingers in Cardiff. At the other end are McDonald, KFC, Burger King (cheap rubbish is still rubbish to my mind) and the late night burger and kebab vans of my drunken youth.
I would also put a lot of the so called upmarket US burger imports, such as Shake Shack and Five Guys, at the bad end of the scale. Many of these are expensive and rubbish (with clever marketing enabling them to seemingly pull the con trick of persuading people that being really pricey correlates with being really good). A lot of people vehemently disagree with my views on the likes of Shake Shack and Five Guys, but I just don’t get the attraction of paying a tenner plus for an indifferent meal that wouldn’t (in the case of Shake Shack) fill up a gerbil.
It may, therefore, come as a surprise to many that I found myself in a queue at the newly opened Slim Chickens in Cardiff’s main shopping centre (St. David’s 2). I am a curious (nosey) bugger and as a mate and I were in the vicinity looking for a spot of lunch, we thought what the heck.
The queue wasn’t short, but an efficient operation would have cleared it toot sweet. One thing US fast food chains tend to be is efficient at hoovering up people’s cash and moving a queue quickly is essential to maximising revenues. On this basis, I assumed the queue would move quickly (never assume as the saying goes).
Slim Chickens is an apparently well loved American chain, founding in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2003. As with many of these sorts of places, it is a story of rapid expansion from humble beginnings, with one restaurant turning into a chain of over 80 restaurants (predominately in the Southern USA), including London, Kuwait and now Cardiff.
Much as I love Cardiff I am always surprised when it is chosen by US chains as a “first move out of London” location as against much bigger (and potentially more affluent) markets like Brum, Edinburgh and Bristol. I suppose we should be flattered, but I wonder at the economics of such moves (Shake Shack in Cardiff never seems to be remotely busy). I suspect very preferential rent terms being on offer have a lot to do with it.
In terms of the offering, the blurb refers to hand-breaded buttermilk marinated chicken and house made (whatever that means – I doubt very much they are whipping them up from scratch out the back) dipping sauces (13 in all), which if done right promises much.
In terms of the place, it is for the most part your typical fast food joint with a few knobs on (table service of a sort, for instance). You queue up and your order is taken at the counter. You are then given a number and wait (in our case at the table, but they also do take aways). Somewhat oddly they seem to be going for a sports bar vibe, with TV’s playing US sport (never short affairs by any stretch, so strange choice for a fast food joint- assume highlights). I always wonder with the US fast food culture why their sports last so long (average American Football game – 3 hrs 12 min of which 11 mins is the actual ball in play and average length of a baseball – 3 hours of which 18 minutes is actual play). I suspect, ironically, that much of the dead time in such sports is due to TV adverts for fast food joints!
Back to the matter at hand, the first issue for me was the taking of orders was a painfully slow process. Only two people were on the tills (the third person’s till didn’t seem to be functioning) and the queue inched forwarded at a snail’s pace. Initial teething problems and a needs to respond to questioning customers’ unfamiliar with the place and it’s processes no doubt, but even taking that into account it still seemed very slow.
There seem to be touch screens to order from, which will speed thing up I suspect, but there were not operational at the time of my visit.
After the wait in the queue I got to the counter 30 seconds after my mate and we both got given a number signifying our respective orders (mine was 35, his oddly in the forties – different tills) to put on our table. Question here – what do you do if after you have got your number for an “eat in” meal there are no free tables?
We had to clear away the debris on the table ourselves and if I am honest it all seemed a bit disorganised in terms of orders arriving and detritus being cleared off tables. There was also a right mess by the ketchup dispenser, with seemingly no attempt being made to clean it up. As it was their first week you can perhaps forgive this with systems being bedded in, but basic stuff like clearing tables and cleaning mess up ASAP should really to be in place right from the start.
We then waited. In my mate’s case not long, in my case an age. This took it from fast food to slow food and not in the good way slow food.
This meant the food had to be pretty good to assuage my growing ire at the double (in the queue and then at the table) wait.
The food offering is fairly simple, with chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches, wings and various sides. Nothing wrong with simple, if the flavours are there.
There are also salads and wraps on offer, but I will never understand why places like this do them. If your are going down the filthy food route why dilute it with a pretence of healthiness. To me, this is akin to wrapping a Mars bar in a lettuce leaf.
My mate’s 3 chicken tender meal (with Texas toast, fries and a drink – £7.45) arrived fairly quickly.
His view was the chicken tenders (decent size) were nice and tender, but the coasting wasn’t that crisp and they were lacking a bit on the flavour front. The fries, whilst hot and fluffy on the inside, lacked the exterior crispness of a good chip.
As for the Texas toast, this was on plastic, white sliced bread and had (at best) homeopathic levels of garlic on it – his view was it was a bit of a waste of plate space. He did quite like the BBQ sauce it all came with.
As he ate his meal (I told him not to wait to avoid it getting cold), I waited and then waited some more. After nigh on 15 minutes, I ran out of patience and flagged down a staff member and asked where my meal was. To my surprise they asked me what I ordered, which begged the question of why bother giving me a number to put on the table if there isn’t a system to allocate orders as against it. I told them anyway and my order (very belatedly) then appeared (my friend had long since finished his meal). Seems clear they had forgotten my order as tables around us that arrived after us had all got their orders.
When it did arrive I was again surprised as it wasn’t in a basket like my mate’s chicken tender meal, but with the chicken sandwich in one cardboard tray and my chips in another. Seeing sandwich meals delivered to other table in baskets I asked what the difference was between those and mine. I was told just the receptacles, but it looked to me that the offering in the baskets was bigger (possibly an illusion created by the basket) than that which I got given – hmmm.
I had wanted a side of deep fried pickles, but on ordering was told they didn’t have any. I love fried pickles and it seemed odd to me in the first week of opening that items on the menu are not on sale.
With the chicken sarnie meal it seems you just get the sarnie, fries and a drink (looking in hindsight at the menu) whereas the tender meals have a sauce and Texas toast (not that the latter added much mind) thrown in. Not knowing the system, with my mate getting a sauce and with none arriving with my meal, I questioned this and got a cheery “Which one would you like?” I went for blue cheese. Seems odd that there is no price for the sauces, which appear to be a key component of Slim Chickens’ offering, and that they are seemingly only available with the chicken tender and wing meals. Why not also make them part of the sandwich meals?
After my wait I was quite hungry and if I am honest a little disappointed with the size of my buffalo chicken sandwich (not inexpensive at £9.45 with fries and a drink – £5.95 solo) and particularly the chicken inside it.
Slim pickins with a slim chicken at Slim Chickens it seems! Again chicken sarnies that were going out in baskets looked a lot more substantial than mine (maybe I got unlucky)
and the menu photo showed something very different looking to what I got. There is artistic licence and there is this.
Did I get the runt of the chicken breast packet I wonder? I suspect (but could be wrong – happens a fair bit) I got a meal destined originally for take out rather than eat in, which was then substituted for my eat in meal when they realised my order had been lost/forgotten.
So to the taste of the food itself. The bun was pretty regulation and a bit pappy on the inside and greasy on the outside. Inside the rather dimulative chicken (Little) breast actually had a nice flavour with the buffalo hot sauce not too incendiary in nature (I am a bit of chilli wuss), but sufficiently piquant for my tastes. The hand breading was, however, minimalist (a clear theme developing here) and seemed to me to be missing in areas. More a case of crack hand-breaded.
The coating had also lost any semblance of crispiness and was just soggy. In addition to the chicken, there were a tiny amount of onion rings (quite nice and still crisp, but very minimalistic), a lone slice of pickle (odd that they had them to put in the chicken sandwich but none to deep fry) and some limp chopped lettuce. All in all pretty uninspiring stuff if I am honest.
My chips (£2.95 regular, £4.95 large – if ordered solo) were ok and I thought not a bad size portion (until I saw baskets going to other tables loaded up with what looked like a bigger portion).
As with my mate’s portion, mine were a bit pale and lacked crispness on the outside.
The one bonus was the blue cheese sauce. Nice and punchy and not too artificial tasting, it made for a pleasing dip for my chips.
It would, I suspect, have been really good with the fried pickles I tried unsuccessfully to order. Lots of other sauce options available.
On the drinks front they have the usual soda suspects, both in a dispenser form (for unlimited refills – always find these taste of syrupy water which I suppose is what they are 🤔) and in cans.
Nice to see Cawston juices as part of the meal deal, in addition to the sodas. I had a Pepsi (not much to say about that), but you can upgrade your meal deal drink to a milkshake for an extra two quid and those I saw on other tables looked quite nice.
On the booze front they have ghastly Budweiser (King of Beers – my ar#e) and, if you find water too challenging taste wise, Bud Light (proof if ever there is that the Devil exists). Amazingly they had a offer of upgrading your drink to a Bud Light for £2 – I had assumed that meant they knock two quid of the menu price if you get the Bud Light 😀, but it seems not.
I don’t get out much, but are people these days really prepared to pay £4.50 for a pint of Bud (sh)Light?
Other booze is on offer, with it nice to see a beer from a local brewery (Tiny Rebel, in the form of Cwtch) featuring, as well as American offerings of Goose Island and Brooklyn Brewery
If truth be told I have been unimpressed with the most of the US imports in Cardiff to date and, I am afraid, this place doesn’t break the mould (to my mind). It is not that cheap and isn’t anything to write home about (albeit based on only one visit during their opening week).
In terms of value, I found it odd that my Buffalo chicken sandwich meal was £2 more expensive than my mate’s 3 chicken tender meal. His was bigger (by some margin) and more loaded than mine. Seems to me the addition of the bun and calling it a sandwich added a few quid to the price of my meal as against his and I fail to understand why.
Price wise for a mere 55p more than my meal deal here, I can get a very classy steak and chips at Asador 44. Alternatively a damn good chicken curry and/or Keralan Fried Chicken at the Indian Upstairs can be had for less than the stuff here.
To my mind the chicken sarnies here are inferior to the likes of the Prairie Girl Burger from Burger Theory at Kongs (£9 without fries, £12.50 with fries and the (admittedly not chicken) Hoof at Sticky Fingers (£7 without fries, £9.50 with fries).
Would I go back? Doubt it, but I suppose I may try again just to check I didn’t get unlucky. It is not really my cup of tea though and, curiosity sated, it seemed very much a case of slim pickins rather than finger lickin at Slim Chickens to me.
I have an invite to their launch party on the 10th January, but have declined (would be disingenuous to do otherwise bearing in mind by failure to see the place’s merits).
Having said all of the above, I suspect the kids will love it and judging by the number of stores they have and how busy this one is every time I have walked past it plenty of people will disagree with my view of the place. Pays your money and takes your choice I suppose, but this place is unlikely to be my choice for spending my money going forward. All a bit disappointing, unsurprisingly so perhaps, to be honest
Address: 69 St. David’s Way, St. David’s 2, Cardiff, CF10 2EL.
Website: click here
Mon – Sun: 11.00 – 20.00.