Ikea Cafe Chicken Tenders

Lacey Muszynski / Cheapism

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Imagine this: You're famished after spending hours navigating the endless maze of Ikea's showroom to redecorate your living room. You head to the cafe, grab a tray, and move down the cafeteria line. You scooch right past the meatballs, the dried out salmon, and those weird veggie pucks, only to gaze upon the true prize at the end of the line. You ignore the judgmental stares from the stuck up lady behind you as you order, because she doesn't know the truth: chicken tenders are Ikea's best menu item.

That's how all my visits to Ikea's cafe play out now. For decades, I've dutifully ordered the Swedish meatballs, because it's just what you do there. It was a no-brainer when there was a "Manager's Special" for $4 (or was it $3?!) meatballs 20 years ago. But as prices have gone up and I've started making better Swedish meatballs at home, Ikea's version has really started to lose its luster. 

Those meatballs are now $9 a dozen with sides at my Ikea food court, which is far from the bargain they used to be. A plate of three chicken tenders on a big bed of fries is only $6.49. If you're lucky, your plate of fried deliciousness may even get rung up as a kids meal, as mine has a couple times with no kids in sight. Then it's only $5. You can barely get a fast food meal for that price anymore.

This isn't mere fast food quality, though. The meat is juicy, and most importantly, the thick black pepper-specked breading holds on to its crunch even after being held for who knows how long in the steam tray. The fries are thick cut and skin-on, tasting more like potatoes than the mashed that come with the meatballs. Even the barbecue sauce at the self-serve condiment kiosk is surprisingly tasty. It's a plate of nostalgia-filled diner-style comfort food, and there's no shame in loving chicken tenders as an adult.

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There is one thing you can do if you're feeling a little FOMO about the meatballs, though: Order a side of meatball gravy and lingonberries. The Ikea employee happily gave me a ladleful of each in small cups, and there was no extra charge for them. Then proceed to dip your chicken in the sweet-tart jam, followed by a dunk in the gravy. Voila!  The best of both worlds.

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