The Food Network star is everywhere—he might as well be here, too.
On a mid-August afternoon at Disney Springs, the vast dining, shopping and entertainment complex formerly known as Downtown Disney, it was hot and it was humid, as August tends to be in Central Florida, and there were people, so many people, traveling in giant, intergenerational packs, running down the clock on summer, one last lap in the proverbial pool before the start of another school year.
That day, there was a particular buzz surrounding one of the more modest-looking establishments you will find at Disney Springs, tucked just around the back of Planet Hollywood, looking like not much of anything. Not that it mattered—a long line of people waited for their invitation to enter, while plenty more people stood around curiously, wondering if they should perhaps brave the line as well.
There was no significant signage, no major announcement as to what was going on inside, behind closed doors, but I, and most likely the people waiting in line, already knew the score—here was one of the newest restaurants to make its debut, here at Disney Springs, a place where there are already so many restaurants, it is difficult to keep up. This was Guy Fieri's newest concept, Chicken Guy, a casual joint selling chicken fingers, and things that pair well with chicken fingers, accessorized in the modern style with an overwhelming number of custom-blend condiments, one of which was—naturally, always—Donkey Sauce, a Fieri favorite.
The restaurant opened just a week or so ago, rather quietly, with reasonable-for-Disney prices. It just so happened that I was at Disney World last weekend, attending to extremely important business, but then I found out that Guy Fieri had opened a chicken finger restaurant, and I quickly made room in my busy schedule of riding rides, and eating other food.
From a winery in Sonoma to burger joints aboard many a Carnival cruise ship, not to mention the casino restaurants, found everywhere from Baltimore to South Africa, Guy Fieri has his hands in a lot of pies, or at least has his name on a lot of different establishments, and that's just the extracurricular stuff. The Northern California native, with his trademark spikey hair, boundless enthusiasm for hamburgers, and for making up unnecessary acronyms (it takes approximately .25 seconds longer to actually say super melty cheese, can we stop trying to make SMC happen), but as someone who calls New York home, I mostly know Guy for his Times Square restaurant that didn't make it, an impressively ambitious restaurant, a restaurant that left many diners bewildered, including, rather notably, some local critics.
For Guy, that whole episode was most likely a blip on the screen—the man is California personified, too busy to be mad, he is everywhere, all over the place, all of the time; in fact, so fully committed is this man, he couldn't even make it to the opening day of Chicken Guy!, and will apparently be dropping by for an official event, at a later date to be determined. I'd like to think he was shooting a segment at a diner in Nebraska, or flying back from a casino in some foreign land I've never contemplated visiting—the man is so unstoppable, he can't even get to the openings of his own restaurants. That's pretty busy.
Not that they needed him, to be honest. I clearly remember dining at the New York restaurant, back in olden times, wondering how the heck something like this was ever going to work, and what exactly they were trying to do, or who they were trying to reach. Here, there are no such burdensome questions. You know this is a Guy Fieri establishment, because there is a life-size cutout of the man, being cheerful as per, welcoming you up to the cash registers, where you place your order. (This is a counter service joint, with indoor and outdoor seating available.)
The menu is simple, it is very appealing, and it is noticeably affordable, at least for the moment. There are tenders, crispy fried or grilled, with your choice of the many sauces, of which I will tell you more about in a moment. The meat is all-natural, high quality, no screwing around, there are fries, there's slaw, fried pickle chips, macaroni and cheese, loaded fries, there are some salads, and then there are the sandwiches, which are just five different spins on two chicken tenders on a bun—or so I thought.
The Bourbon Brown Sugar BBQ sandwich came out absolutely monster sized, for $6.99. If you are the sort of person that likes to get a lot of food for the money, you'll love this thing, before you even take your first bite. But wait, it gets better. Colorful coleslaw, pickles, pepper jack cheese, barbecue sauce and the house special sauce go on the tenders, a dripping, beautiful mess capped off by—what a move!—crunchy barbecue kettle-cooked potato chips. The rolls are formidable, but fresh and very fine tasting, something like brioche, but not quite so ridiculous—this was a very good sandwich, and for $11.49, I could have had the thing with a big pile of fries, nicely seasoned with the house blend (nothing too outspoken, I mostly tasted salt), as well as a drink. In this neighborhood, that's what you call excellent value.
The sandwich wasn't just big though, there was this terrific mix of textures when you bite into it, and most of the heavy lifting is being done by the tenders themselves. Flat and apparently breadcrumbed, they are simple in appearance, but not to worry, for they are perfectly structured, perfectly crunchy, and yes, that chicken tastes like very good chicken.
The two sauces on the sandwich proved to be a great advertisement for the rest of the Signature Sauce menu, and there are, at last count, 22 of them. I tried nearly 10 of them—the cashier looked at my ridiculously large order and decided that I could have as many as I wanted—and think I'm in love with the Peri Peri, made with roasted red peppers, chilies, garlic, onion, paprika, oregano and lemon. It's a sauce for adults, not that I'm an adult, but I do have aspirations; I loved that there is neither cream nor sugar in this sauce, at least not at detectable levels—it is all heat, all tang, and if you like those things, you will eat this with a spoon.
The rest of the sauce menu turned out to be a mixed bag—Guy's famous Donkey Sauce turned out to be a boring mayonnaise with barely detectable levels of garlic and Worcestershire; much better was the creamy lemon pepper, and wow, was that barbecue sauce—the Bourbon Brown Sugar BBQ, previously alluded to—delicious; it was everything you want those sugary Kansas City-style sauces to be, but without the tastebud-murdering levels of high fructose corn syrup.
There are other things that you should know about—the loaded fries ($7.99), for one, smothered in cheese sauce, chopped chicken tenders, bacon and green onions. This is a very good side dish, so good that I had to fight my dining companion for access, despite the fact that it serves two normal humans. Equally important are the milkshakes ($4.99), billed as Flavortown Frozen Treats; the Cinnamon Apple was assault by sugar, as you might expect when throwing handfuls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Jacks cereal into a blender already filled with vanilla ice cream, but the Triple Double Mint shake, made with mint chocolate soft serve, chocolate mints and crushed Oreos, was balanced enough that I struggled to keep from sucking the entire thing down.
Disney Springs is not exactly light on casual dining, and if you have not been lately, there is so much to try—everything from the in-house burger joint, D-Luxe, to grab-and-go ramen at Morimoto, to Rick Bayless' taco window, hidden behind his Frontera Cocina restaurant. So there's competition. Still, as long as the food stays this good, as long as the prices stay reasonable, and as long as the place runs as efficiently as it did on the day I was there, Chicken Guy is going to do exceptionally well. I'll certainly be back.