Taste-Testing Two-Thirds of Wendy's New "Signature Sides" Side-Dish Menu

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My eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw that Wendy's had added a baked sweet potato to their side-dish menu. One of my go-to fast-food meals is a Wendy's Sour Cream & Chives baked potato (320 calories) plus a small chili (210 calories) -- when we moved from New York to Texas we road-tripped, and I ate this for lunch or dinner almost every day. I needed to try this new baked sweet potato ASAP, so I sent my husband out the door to return the recycling and with instructions to pick me up a baked sweet potato from Wendy's.

Obviously, that plan was not executed. (Well, he did return the recycling.) My husband claims Wendy's was out of baked sweet potatoes, so instead he came home with the other two side dishes Wendy's has recently added to their menu -- Mac 'n' Cheese and Chili Cheese Fries. Coincidentally, these are two of his favorite things to eat. But sure, let's just go with "they ran out of sweet potatoes."

We dug into the take-out boxes, but immediately exchanged skeptical glances. Visually, neither dish was all that appealing. The chili fries were limp -- granted, they had to endure a three-minute ride home, and in-package steaming is bound to take its toll -- though well-doused in both chili and cheese. The mac 'n' cheese was downright puzzling in appearance, as the top was covered in what appeared to be totally unmelted shredded cheddar cheese. "Made with a blend of real white and Vermont cheddar cheeses," promised the Wendy's Web site, depicting a bowl of velvety macaroni and cheese, with a few decorative shreds of cheese sprinkled throughout. Instead, what we got was a bowl of sticky, dense macaroni in cheese-ish sauce, covered in a quarter-inch-thick layer of cold, raw, shredded yellow cheddar cheese.

I suppose in theory the chili cheese fries might be more pleasing if ordered and eaten in Wendy's, rather than to-go. The combined effects of the steam, the cheddar cheese sauce and the chili resulted in limp fries, and if that weren't enough, the fries tasted a little raw. I wouldn't have necessarily minded the chili-fries-you-eat-with-a-spoon aspect, if the dominant flavor had not been raw potatoes.

But the real crime was the mac 'n'cheese, which tasted like a bad parody of Kraft macaroni and cheese: the macaroni was overcooked to the point of being comically chubby, the cheese sauce was thick and gloppy, and the layer of cold, unmelted cheddar on top tasted like the unmixed Kraft cheese powder pack -- artificial, salty and just a little grainy. If my husband pulled the old switcheroo on me, he paid for it. We were both horrified at how truly terrible these new side dishes looked, smelled and tasted. This was the least delicious fast-food experience I have had in a very, very long time.

Nutrition information: • Chili cheese fries: 570 calories, 30 g fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 1200 mg sodium, 58 g carbs, 8 g dietary fiber, 18 g protein • Mac 'n' Cheese: 370 calories, 19 g fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 940 mg sodium, 29 g carbohydrates, 1 g dietary fiber, 17 g protein

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