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I Drove to the Birthplace of KFC to Eat Plant-Based Nuggets

What does it mean when the world's biggest fried-chicken chain embraces fake chicken?
By Published Jan. 26, 2022

Last weekend I drove to Corbin, Kentucky, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, with my boyfriend and two friends. We wanted to try KFC’s new plant-based Beyond Fried Chicken at the source. Like many Americans today, we like fried chicken. The four of us are aware of the ethical and environmental implications of eating poultry and meat. We are the target market for these plant-based nuggets: People who want to eat more responsibly.

At the Harlan Sanders Café and Museum, a giant bucket of chicken revolves slowly on top of a flashing vintage sign advertising KFC. The café and museum are closed due to COVID, so we order at the drive-through window. Twelve Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets, plus six chicken tenders to compare them to—KFC doesn’t actually sell what we consider true chicken nuggets. For dessert, an eight-piece bucket of extra-crispy chicken.

Tasting plant-based nuggets in the parking lot of the Harlan Sanders Cafe and Museum.
Tasting plant-based nuggets in the parking lot of the Harlan Sanders Café and Museum.

We eat off the trunk of my car in the cold. The nuggets aren’t bad. Three of us would be willing to order them again, and one of us even thinks they’re better than the tenders. An exclusive product developed in collaboration with alternative-meat company Beyond Meat, the nuggets are square—an odd choice, maybe, but one that leaves no doubt as to their industrial provenance—and have a moderately thick, craggy breading. They’re pleasantly crisp, with a few extra-crunchy clumps that remind us of the nubbins of breading on fried chicken made from actual chicken.

Three of us would be willing to order them again, and one of us even thinks they’re better than the tenders.

The four of us aren’t quite sold on the nuggets’ interiors, though. Made from ingredients including soy protein and wheat gluten, they’re firm, approaching dense, and have a slightly dry, striated texture that we imagine is meant to mimic the texture of real chicken.

Do the nuggets taste like chicken? Yes, vaguely, though that’s not much of a feat, since the nuggets are likely fried in the same oil used for the tenders and popcorn chicken. (KFC notes that the nuggets are “NOT vegetarian, vegan, or Certified Vegan,” probably because of this preparation method. Then again, most of the strict vegetarians I know wouldn’t want to eat anything that tastes like chicken anyway.) Mostly, we taste the seasoning. The nuggets are assertively flavored, though not with the 11 herbs and spices the classic KFC chicken is known for. Their profile runs simpler: salty, with a kick of pepper and a back note of something savory: thyme, sage, onion powder, maybe. 

But the big questions linger. What does it mean when the biggest fried chicken chain in the world starts selling plant-based chicken? Is revolution imminent? Amnesty for a billion real chickens? (Not yet, anyway, since the nuggets are a limited-time offering.)  And what about those vegetarians–why not make more purely vegetarian options that they’ll be happy to eat? Is fake chicken even good for the planet, as Beyond Meat claims? No answers yet, but I imagine we’ll know more soon.

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