Wendy's new "Signature Sides" -- one outta three ain't bad

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Wendy's just introduced three new "Signature Side Dishes," no doubt to bolster the chain's efforts to keep Burger King out of the number-two fast-food spot -- with McDonald's holding fast at number one, of course. Wendy's had better try a little harder, though, because only one of the three sides is worth bothering with, and that may be by default. Officially, the new sides are Macaroni and Cheese, Chili Cheese Fries and Baked Sweet Potato with Buttery Cinnamon Topping.

"Consumers want new foods with exciting flavors and satisfying tastes," Gerard Lewis, Wendy's SVP, product innovation, told RestaurantNews.com. "Our new side items have high integrity ingredients like cavatappi spiral noodles, Cheddar cheese and freshly baked sweet potatoes with buttery cinnamon topping. No one in our industry offers this unique variety of high quality products."

Mmmmkay. "High-integrity ingredients" is a clever marketing phrase, much like "all-natural" and "home-style." But cavatappi noodles are really just those big, lined spiral noodles, sweet potatoes are dirt-cheap and plentiful, and Cheddar cheese is, well, Cheddar cheese, so it's hard to get worked into a lather over these ingredients.

I hit the drive-thru at the Wendy's at 857 East Colfax Avenue, where I was reminded of how much unadulterated bliss comes with ordering fast food through a window. Even when the person on the other end of the line isn't too swift. My drive-thru operator had a dilly of a time understanding/taking my order -- to the point where I wondered if I was being secretly taped for a reality show. After finally making it to the window to collect my crinkly, white paper bags, I surmised that if I had translated my order into World of Warcraft-speak, he would have instantly understood. This guy looked like he was never more than a few mental minutes away from going on a raid. And I understood why that might be after I looked at my glumpy macaroni and cheese. Holding times and temperatures were clearly factors here, since the dish tends to dehydrate quickly and needs to be handled carefully, even to the point of preparing it with more liquid from jump. Cavatappi noodles are not ideal for this dish when it has to be held; the large noodles were soggy and melded into the gloopy sauce, forming a solid clump in the container. The taste wasn't bad, though, mimicking the flavor of prepared boxed shells and cheese mix -- rather than the blue box powdered-mix stuff. Next up was the chili fries. I've had a longstanding beef with Wendy's over the steady deterioration of its chili; the signature watery, celery-and-kidney-bean-laden stoop is a massive disappointment. If Wendy's really wants to do something constructive, it should consider taking the chili back to basics: pinto beans, thicker consistency, no celery hunks, and maybe use some seasonings.

Wendy's new fries aren't very good, either. They taste like cooking oil to me, a taste unfortunately magnified by the recent switch to sea salt -- which means no iodine to mask the grease taste.

So when you take dreary chili, lackluster fries and then dabble some processed cheese sauce on top, you get......chili fries that no one should care about.

But the sweet potato was fantastic. It was perfectly baked, warm and mealy inside. The "buttery" spread (translation=margarine-based) was pretty sweet, though, so using half the given portion is recommended unless you want your mouth to taste like a spitty sugar-pit, since the natural sweetness of the potato would be best-served with a topping that is buttery, cinnamony, but sans sugar.

Wendy's has always been good with baked potatoes in general -- just don't order one late at night, because you'll get the old, crinkled ones with the leathery bottoms. So it stands to reason that Wendy's would do okay with sweet potatoes. Then again, wash, prick, wrap in foil, bake, remove from oven -- that's not rocket science, so it's probable that the success of this new side is purely due to the simplistic nature of the preparation.

Keep trying, Wendy's. You do fine with baked potatoes, but when you're trying to imitate Boston Market, you either need to try harder -- or back up offa that thing.

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