It’s not often that splashy limited-time-only menu items overlap at the same fast food chain, but when they do, it’s like experiencing a meteor shower. (Of course, it’s the epitome of a manmade event, but we’ll let that slide.) Stacking special promotions makes no sense for a business; heavily promoting one new item might risk obscuring the other, and there are too many marketing dollars at stake to confuse customers like that. Which is why McDonald’s simultaneous re-release of two rare items, Spicy McNuggets and Szechuan Sauce, seems like such an unusual occurrence—but it’s one that works surprisingly well.
For those lucky enough not to remember this whole saga, Szechuan Sauce began its unlikely rise to fame in 1998, when it debuted to promote the animated Disney film Mulan. After it disappeared from the menu, nobody really cared too much... until it was featured as a running gag on Rick and Morty in 2017. Suddenly everyone was talking about it, and McDonald’s eventually re-released it for the hungry masses. Chaos ensued; we won’t bore you with it here.
After that, it seemed unlikely that Szechuan Sauce would make a comeback, at least not anytime soon. But Szechuan Sauce popped back up on March 31 of this year, only available via the McDonald’s mobile app in very limited amounts.
About a week ago, McDonald’s re-released yet another beloved limited-time-only item: Spicy Chicken McNuggets. We were fans when they debuted in 2020. The reddish breading features chile peppers and aged cayenne, and while they previously came with a tasty Mighty Hot dipping sauce to further amp up the spice levels, that condiment has unfortunately not returned.
So, why not try pairing the spicy nuggets with a little sweet-and-tangy Szechuan Sauce? It’s not the combo that McDonald’s has been pushing, but it feels like a natural fit. For the first time ever, the fast food stars are aligned.
Historically, I have never been a huge fan of the Szechuan sauce; it tastes like an overly sweet, starchy soy sauce dip with a touch of garlic and ginger. It feels like what someone in a corporate kitchen would describe as vaguely “Asian.” But I do like Spicy McNuggets for their slight kick and the added seasoning baked (er, fried) right into the breading. After striking out at a few different local McDonald’s locations, it turned out that the one right in my neighborhood had both the Szechuan Sauce and the Spicy Chicken McNuggets at the same time, and I was lucky enough to get an order of each. Every other location only had one or the other, and almost no locations in the city have any Szechuan Sauce remaining.
I was skeptical that the combination of Szechuan sauce and Spicy McNuggets would be any good until my first bite. I’ve tried many fast food items in my food writing career, so I know how to temper my expectations—good marketing often leaves me (and my wallet) disappointed. But I’ve got to say that this combo is a winner. In fact, I think it’s the best combination of nugget and dipping sauce I’ve ever had at McDonald’s.
By themselves, neither the Spicy McNuggets or Szechuan sauce are particularly interesting. The Spicy McNuggets are a little dry, with a welcome kick of seasoning, and the Szechuan sauce is salty and sweet, leaning a little more toward sweet. But together, the two make for a compelling bite, and the spicy nuggets and relatively boring sauce sort of fill each other’s gaps in flavor to become one harmonious combination. I think part of why I enjoyed it so much is almost because it doesn’t taste like the McDonald’s I’m used to.
Just to shake up my palate a bit, I dipped a Spicy McNugget into some Creamy Buffalo sauce. I like McDonald’s version of buffalo sauce, but it simply didn’t work as well with the spicy nuggets. The spice profiles seemed a little too similar, too redundant. But when I jumped back to the Szechuan, I was back to that satisfying intersection of sweet, salty, and spicy, with a savory MSG accent.
What’s a real bummer is that there’s no telling if the two items will ever come out at the same time again. The Szechuan sauce drop was sort of a surprise to begin with, and the Spicy McNugget release has been pretty quiet. The nuggets aren’t even available nationwide; Food and Wine reports that only half of McDonald’s locations are currently carrying them. But if you somehow manage to get a hold of both fleeting options, you’ve got to try combining them. It’ll be like tasting a manmade solar eclipse.