As we drove through Warrenton, Virginia (population 9,913), it struck me and my husband, Scott, at the same time. In a quarter mile stretch of road, there was every major chain that has come to define the American fast-food landscape. We were hungry. We didn’t want to get COVID-19. I had forgotten the frozen pizzas in our rush to get out the door. And neither of us had tried the famous Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich that had sold out across the country in 2019. We set our minds to our new mission.
First, we devised rules:
At every venue, we would order a “meal” with fries and a drink.
We would get sandwiches in random order by getting our meals as they appeared driving up one side of the road and then turning around and driving down the other.
Upon being handed our bag of deliciousness, we would immediately pull into the closest parking spot, each take one bite of sandwich and a french fry.
After sampling each fresh sandwich, we would then pull out all of the sandwiches at the end for a side by side comparison.
But we forgot to agree on a pretty important rule: What were we actually judging here? Best chicken, best chicken sandwich, or best chicken sandwich meal? As you will see below—we didn’t discover this problem until we shared our rankings. Marital discord ensued.
Wendy’s Classic Chicken Meal
Chicken: 9. Good crunch on first bite and the chicken by itself tastes like an old school chicken finger from childhood.
Bun: 8. It’s squishy, but it holds up to its toppings
Pickles: 5. They were there but they got overpowered by everything else going on, including the lettuce and tomato.
Sauce: 7. They kept the mayo light and even.
Fries: 9. Whoa. I’d never thought much of Wendy’s fries back in the day, but they are way better than I remembered. They actually taste more like potatoes–similar to Five Guys fries. The only problem is that the fresh flavor requires fresh eating. By the time we pulled into our final parking spot, they had lost all flavor and were soggy.
Notes: This Wendy’s had Coke Zero (my favorite). And you can substitute (or just add) a small frosty, which is a perpetual craving of mine. Sandwich comes in foil which keeps it nice and toasty later.
McDonald’s Buttermilk Chicken Meal
Chicken: 4. It’s hot. And it’s not terrible. I can see why they aren’t satisfied with this as their entry into the competition.
Bun: 8. Perfectly toasted.
Pickles: 0. None. Tragic. Instead there was shredded lettuce, which has the feel and taste of eating ticker tape, and three nearly white tomatoes that had no flavor and no texture. Toppings actually subtracted from the sandwich experience as a whole.
Sauce: 4. Uneven. First bite had none and then a later bite there was mayo coming out of every corner.
Fries: 9. The fry that sets the standard for the rest. Are these even made of an organic compound? 20 minutes later and still delicious.
Notes: Diet Coke only, comes in a box which meant there was shredded lettuce everywhere and didn’t retain heat.
Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich Meal
Chicken: 10. Totally unique. By itself, the chicken just has that special Chik-fil-a chicken flavor. Definitely the freshest tasting, too.
Bun: 6. Maybe too squishy without toasting more? But great butter. Oh, the butter.
Pickles: 3. Wtf, Chik-fil-A. When a sandwich only has 3 ingredients, one of them can’t fall down on the job like this. The flavor was there but the pickles had fallen apart. The outer pickle skin had separated from the pickle body, which … I don’t even understand the physics of that. Flimsy, no crunch. Heartbreaking.
Sauce: None but I didn’t miss it.
Fries: 7. On their own, nowhere near good enough, but with the Chik-fil-A sauce, they make a great vehicle of salty, crunchy goodness.
Notes: They serve Diet Dr Pepper, which is a rare treat indeed. Comes in the iconic foil sleeve.
Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Meal
Chicken: 8. Wow. Ok, so the hype is real. So crunchy. Really crunchy. But then this was weird: By itself, the chicken flavor wasn’t all that special. But then another bite of the chicken in the sandwich and … wow again.
Bun: 9. So buttery and toasty.
Pickles: 10. Large, thick, crunchy, and tangy. They should consider just selling their pickles, frankly.
Sauce: 8. Maybe they could have backed off a smidge on the mayo but it was well within the margin of acceptable and evenly spread mayo-ness.
Fries: 4. Here’s the catch. The cajun fries taste like grocery store frozen fries, and they are not good. Sure, they had other sides. But I don’t want mashed potatoes with my chicken sandwich!
Notes: The foil sleeve is perfect and keeps the sandwich warm and intact. Plus the soda cup is enormous.
Burger King Crispy Chicken Meal
Chicken: 5. This reminded me of junior high cafeteria chicken and not in a good way. It’s a thin patty with processed looking chicken. It actually doesn’t taste bad—but it doesn’t taste all that good either.
Bun: 6. On the fluffier side, which by itself wasn’t a bad thing, but nothing else going for it.
Pickles: 0. None. And we know how I feel about pickles at this point.
Sauce: Too heavy, came off gloppy in bites.
Fries: 6. Came super hot, which I appreciate, and had a good flavor, but it was like it couldn’t decide which way to go and so it just fell in the middle.
Notes: It was clear at this point that Burger King and McDonald’s just didn’t make the cut. The paper wrapper was a metaphor of sorts. This wasn’t a bad sandwich, it’s just that there are so many better sandwiches out there now.
DISQUALIFIED: KFC Original Chicken Sandwich Meal*
Chicken: Right off the bat, the chicken had kind of a weird color. Like greige? Still, I took a big bite, and for the first second I was tasting some stuff .. and then it hit. As a pure reflex, I spit it out back into the bag.
Bun: Cold, not toasted, no butter.
Pickles: Had a flavor but didn’t “go with it.”
Sauce: Very heavy mayo that came squishing out the sides in big glops.
Fries: Ewwww. Scott spit his fry back into the bag as well. He told me not to try one.
Notes: Like a symphony where every instrument is out of tune and maybe several of the players recently had a bad breakup with one another. Smelled awful. Only serve Pepsi, which I don’t love.
* DQ: After some discussion in the car, we decided that there was a good chance that something was actually wrong with the fryer or this specific KFC. We both LOVE buckets of KFC chicken and think their biscuits are the best. So we have decided that this run didn’t count and we will just start from scratch when they release their new sandwich. I’m on the email list eagerly awaiting notification!
Results and Overall Impression
McDonalds: I’m a McDonald’s girl so this was just disappointing. Had kind of a weird overall flavor. The shredded lettuce was insulting. The pictures of the new one from the website look very promising. Will update on Feb 24 for the national rollout.
Burger King: Better flavor than you’d think from looking at it, but mayo and the fry coating are doing too much work to compete with the others.
Chik-fil-A: Let me be very clear about one thing: Chik-fil-A had the best chicken. Not even close. First place. But this wasn’t a chicken competition. The bun was a neutral, the pickles were a net minus, and there are better fries out there. But this is where Scott and I diverged as judges. He thinks this is the winner and that it’s not really a question. He thinks this IS a chicken competition because, you know, what’s a chicken sandwich without the best chicken. This is so obviously wrong to me I don’t think it requires refutation. He also thinks my fry rule was stupid and that we should have gotten the mac and cheese. What can I say? Life isn’t always fair.
Popeyes: Now things got hard for me. This was the best chicken sandwich. I don’t understand how it works. But the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Each bite sang with glorious notes all up and down the palate scale. Like in the second movement of Beethven’s Symphony No. 7, right around the two-minute mark, when he really let’s it all go and your heart just expands in your chest. Yes. That is how I felt about this sandwich. Buuuut I wasn’t going just for the sandwich, was I? After all, I purchased a meal. And the fries were abysmal. Like Will Ferrell was playing the cowbell during my beloved Beethoven! Clang clang clang, went the Cajun french fries. (And I must also note that Scott disagreed on the sandwich point as well. He doesn’t share my love of pickles and he hates mayo. A boy from Wisconsin who hates mayo? Blasphemy!)
Wendy’s: I’m as surprised as you are. It wasn’t the best chicken; it wasn’t even the best chicken sandwich. But it was second in both categories and then you add in the delicious fries and the price … this was always about the data after all!
And so after a romantic afternoon with six of America’s finest chicken sandwiches: If you’re looking for a well-balanced, tasty chicken sandwich with french fries and a Coke for a great price that you can get without ever leaving the comfort of your car, it turns out that you can’t beat Wendy’s.