7-Eleven surely knows that the people eating most of its food offerings are either drunk or recovering from being drunk the night before. Who among us hasn't scarfed down a hot dog or taquito or two (or three) from a 7-Eleven roller grill after a long night of bar hopping? And who hasn't drawn the ire of a 7-Eleven clerk while you dump extra liquid cheese onto your nachos, as if the steely glare could somehow raise the level of shame you feel?
Let's give credit where credit is due because 7-Eleven is trying to change its image. Sure, the nachos and hot dogs are still options, but over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort from the Irving-based convenience store chain to get more fresh food choices in front of us.
The latest of these efforts, a selection of "locally made, chef-inspired, heat-and-eat meals," landed in a small group of 7-Eleven stores last week, including most locations in the DFW area. The entrees run the gamut of Italian, Asian, Mexican or homestyle cuisines, although 7-Eleven is curiously quiet as to what chefs inspired the dishes. What it does have is a notable celebrity spokesman in Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who is part of radio spots and in-store promo materials for the new dishes. The entrees can be heated up in store, or wherever you find a microwave handy, and will set you back between $4 and $5, plus tax.
Starting Sept. 25, the meal entrees will be supplanted with a trio of egg-based breakfast dishes, so your questionable dining decisions need not be limited to lunch or dinner. But how bad are we talking here? Is it worth giving up your buffalo chicken taquitos? Over the course of three days, we tried one new entree a day for lunch so we could find out. We ate one at meal at home, one at the office and one sitting on the curb outside a 7-Eleven, just to get a feel for how most people might enjoy their locally-made, chef-inspired meals. Sadly, we weren't completely drunk for any of these, so your results may vary.
Chicken Parmesan ($4.99 + tax)
7-Eleven, 2680 Old Denton Road, Carrollton
The picture on the label of the Chicken Parmesan looks promising, and the description continues the hard sell. Who wouldn't be ready to embark on a dining adventure with 7-Eleven's "signature breaded white meat chicken filet on a bed of penne pasta, topped with marinara made with California vine-ripened tomatoes and aged Parmesan cheese"?
This illusion holds up much better if you don't read the ingredients on the back label. That is, unless your taste buds are stimulated by a dish of "chicken breast filet fritter with rib meat" breaded in "bleached wheat flour" that contains less than 2 percent "autolyzed yeast extract, caramel color, corn starch, dextrose and extractives of paprika." Mmmm, extractives.
Out of the microwave, the chicken looks pretty sad. We tried dressing it up; we plated it, located some clean silverware and poured ourselves a glass of Cabernet. We even found a fresh basil leaf for garnish and cleared off the table to complete the illusion. It's possible you could buy two of these entrees, go through the same dress-up process and really impress a date, but let's be honest — you're totally eating this alone while your cat stares at you in silent judgement.
If you served this to a date, they'd be well within their right to leave you on the spot. The breading is a soggy mess that turns to paste in your mouth, and the chicken is so overprocessed to be devoid of texture. The penne pasta is decent and not overcooked, but the marinara sauce seems to be nothing more than watered-down tomato paste. For something that lacked much in flavor or seasoning, the dish is loaded with an astounding 2040 mg of sodium, or 85 percent of your recommended daily allowance. We could almost feel the retained water building after we finished eating.
Verdict: It's a close approximation to a frozen dinner version of chicken parm, but you've paid $5 at 7-Eleven versus $2.50 in the grocery store and gotten nothing in return.
Asian-style beef and broccoli bowl ($4.99 + tax)
7-Eleven, 7801 N. Belt Line Road, Irving
The beef and broccoli bowl definitely wins points for looking the most like the picture on the label when it comes out of the package. The broccoli was a bright, crisp green, and the beef looked as appealing as microwave beef has any right to be. Even the tablespoon or so of diced red bell pepper looked appealing. If we're nitpicking, the label picture showed us five healthy-sized broccoli florets and our dish only had three, plus a few extra shards, but we imagine most people won't notice.
After 2 1/2 minutes in the office microwave, we headed back to our desk to try our quick lunch. Takeaway No. 1: our office microwave must be sourced from 7-Eleven because the entire dish was scalding hot, even after letting it sit for several minutes. Takeaway No. 2: this really isn't that bad. In fact, with our expectations sufficiently lowered going in, it's surprisingly good.
The broccoli tasted as fresh as it looked, neither under- nor overcooked, and nailed the perfect combo of crisp and tender. The first couple of bites of the beef slices were overpowered by the sweet teriyaki glaze, but a few bites farther in, we found some beefy flavor starting to come through. Even the rice was evenly cooked, managing to be soft without being mushy. As an added bonus, the beef and broccoli isn't terrible for you, nutrition-wise. The whole bowl checks in at 420 calories, with 11 grams of fat and 740 mg of sodium.
Verdict: If you're closer to a 7-Eleven than your favorite Asian takeout joint, the beef and broccoli is a reasonable alternative. Plus the 7-Eleven cashier doesn't expect a tip.
Creamy chicken Alfredo ($3.99 + tax)
Two taquitos ($2.29 + tax)
7-Eleven, 18118 Midway Road, Dallas
To be honest, we were looking forward to trying the Chipotle Chicken Bowl and getting a good mix of all the international cuisines that 7-Eleven has to offer. But after hitting up three 7-Elevens, we struck out each time. We had worked up quite the appetite, so we settled on the creamy chicken Alfredo ... and two taquitos. What can we say? We're slaves to our basic urges. And you can't buy just one taquito at $1.49 when a second one is just 70 cents more. Scout's honor, we hadn't even started drinking yet.
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SHOW ME HOW
Since we're making questionable dining choices, we decided to eat this meal at the 7-Eleven. We popped the chicken Alfredo tray into the in-store microwave, procured a plastic-wrapped fork from the clerk, and two minutes later, we're dining al fresco on the sidewalk in front of the store. As it turns out, that's not such a great idea because the bubbling dish of pasta and cheese and sauce nearly burned our legs through our jeans. Pro tip — flip the lid over and use it as an insulator if you're eating from your lap.
Chicken alfredo (notice we didn't say "fettuccine" — the pasta here is the same penne from the Chicken Parmesan) is pretty difficult to screw up. 7-Eleven does a decent job here; the sauce has some good flavor, and there is lots of extra cheese sprinkled on top of the dish. The chunks of chicken are much better than what's being passed off in the chicken Parmesan, and even the penne pasta seems to work well in bringing everything together. But those extra globs of cheese end up overcooked and chewy after the blast from 7-Eleven's industrial-strength microwave; a less patient diner could easily burn a tongue without much effort.
Our craving for spicy fare was left to the two taquitos we added to the order. As appealing as a buffalo chicken taquito sounded, the gentleman in front of us, dressed in business casual attire, took the last one. He didn't look drunk, either, so maybe ordering 7-Eleven taquitos while sober is really a thing. There's not much difference between a taco chicken and a taco cheese taquito, but there's a mild zing to each bite, and it's kind of fun to sop up extra Alfredo sauce with your taquito. It's not like how they do it in the Old Country, but what do those Italians know about cooking anyway?
Verdict: 7-Eleven succeeds in not screwing up an Italian basic, until we added taquitos to the mix. Mangia bene!