The Chicken Sandwich Wars: Finale
The third (and last?) episode of Sarah Isgur's quest to find the best fast food chicken sandwich.
In January, I brought you the first episode of the Chicken Sandwich Wars. It was exciting, contentious, and ended with as many questions as answers. Chick-fil-A had the best chicken, Popeyes won for best sandwich, and Wendy’s took home the overall best chicken sandwich meal.
But there was so much left unsaid, untasted. Readers clamored for more, especially regarding the spicy versions.
Once more into the breach and thus we had Episode 2 just a month later. McDonald’s entered the fray with a new entry, we tried the spicys, and I tested whether the higher-end Shake Shake was worth the extra dough. In the end, KFC was the Rocky Balboa comeback story we all needed but otherwise, not much changed. Sequels never move the plot along as quickly as you’d like.
But now it has been six months. So much has changed. I have driven thousands of miles to bring you the final installment to our chicken sandwich odyssey. Here’s who we’ve added:
*This denotes that the restaurant has recently started offering a new chicken sandwich as part of the ongoing chicken sandwich wars. Bojangles, in fact, updated theirs so recently that we had to go back just before publishing to redo our earlier taste test!
Hold onto your pickles, folks, you’re in for a ride.
But first a quick refresher. Here’s where things stood with the original-style sandwiches after Episode 2:
Let’s dive right in.
Taco Bell’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco
[Disclaimer: I once had a guy beg to take me out on a date for weeks. I finally relented and he took me to Taco Bell for dinner. I don’t think I’m a food snob but c’mon that was a weird choice. As a result, I have harbored a certain amount of Taco Bell-based animus for decades. There was no second date.]
Chicken: Whoa! That’s pretty good. Are they using KFC chicken as siblings under the Yum! brand? It’s super crispy but with lots of actual chicken in it. I’m shocked. The flavor really comes through.
Bun: Shocked again. By the looks of it, I figured I was about to get a mouthful of bread that was surely going to overwhelm any flavor or texture that might try to break through. But nope. It’s like a buttery, chewy pita and it’s incredible.
Pickles: Those are pickled jalapeños. It counts. And it works. Sweet with a little heat. Delicious!
Sauce: Because the sandwich is served in taco form, the sauce definitely hurts the aesthetic. It’s sloppy looking. Maybe there was a little too much of it. But in terms of flavor they are nailing it.
Notes: It looks like a mess. But this tiny but mighty entrant into the Chicken Sandwich Wars has shocked me more than any other. My expectations were low. It’s Taco Bell, y’all. When I unwrapped it, they dropped lower. But at only $2.99, this is a great snack. Scott says he would still probably order the Crunchwrap Supreme at future visits, but not me: I’m Team Chicken Taco/Sandwich all the way from here on out!
Burger King’s New Crispy Chicken and Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Chicken: Good. Not great. It just can’t compete with what Popeyes and KFC are doing on thickness or with Chick-fil-A’s and Wendy’s flavor.
Bun: Didn’t make a big impression either way.
Pickles: Definitely beats Chick-fil-A’s floppy green monsters but nobody has come close to Popeyes in this category.
Sauce: Hold on, wait a minute, what is this spicy glaze? It’s sweet, it’s hot, and it’s not mayo-based. Yes, yes, yes. It’s sort of like a buffalo chicken if it leaned a little more into the honey flavor of Korean fried chicken. It is working for me. Big time.
Notes: This is our only re-entry in this episode. Burger King beat McDonald’s in the first episode but after McDonald’s entered its new chicken sandwich in Episode 2, Burger King fell to last place. This new entrant chicken sandwich was good but seemed like too-little-too-late given how long it took them to introduce chicken that wasn’t as good as Popeyes or KFC. But the spicy version is a whole different story. Easily superior to the “spicy sauce” versions that too many of these places are getting away with. And—for me at least—the glaze concept also beat out the spicy breading that Wendys and CFA go with.
Whataburger’s Whatachick’n and Spicy Whatachick’n Sandwich
Chicken: Thin chicken, like most of the “regional places.” The breading is very crunchy, though, which is nice. The spice is in the breading, which is better than just throwing on a different mayo—but in this case, the spicy breading distracted from all the other flavors and didn’t work for me. Stick to the original.
Bun: Ooooooh so buttery toasty good. This is their new brioche bun, I guess. I couldn’t really tell because of the perfectly overwhelming butter flavor that comes off the grill when they toast it.
Pickles: Did they buy their pickles from CFA? Floppy, flat flavor.
Sauce: Simple mayo but it pulls it together nicely. But what’s great about Whataburger is that they come by with the sauce tray. Their fancy ketchup is superior to all other ketchups on the market. They also offer a spicy fancy ketchup—although I prefer the original with my fries. For the chicken sandwich, the honey mustard and jalapeño ranch are worth a try too!
Notes: But for giving birth during the height of COVID, I would have done this photo shoot with the Brisket. Such is my love for Whataburger. Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper are both available at the fountain, which is huge for Texans. Also the fries are the best in the country—like McDonald’s before “the change.” But let’s be serious: you aren’t going to Whataburger for the chicken sandwich. It’s all about that perfect, ‘In-N-Out isn’t anywhere close’ Whataburger.
Culver’s Crispy Chicken and Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Chicken: Very crunchy breading but zero flavor on the thinnest of thin chicken. So basically I’m eating a texture right now. The spicy was in the breading, which added a surprising amount of heat but somehow still didn’t really add any flavor. I’m baffled.
Bun: Very good, but not enough to save the sandwich from the monstrosity that is shredded lettuce—i.e. crunchy water.
Pickles: I see them. I’m staring right at them. But I can’t taste them.
Sauce: Didn’t come with any. It needed it. Scott says she asked if he wanted mayo and he said, “does it come with it?” She said “no.” The rules are that you get the sandwich how it comes in its original form.
Notes: Culver’s was founded in Wisconsin, the place of my husband’s birth. So this is like his Whataburger in terms of nostalgia if not reputation. For him, it’s all about the turtle sundae with their famous custard. Which is good, because that was the best part of our meal by far. The fries were crinkle cut and crispy on the outside but also didn’t have much flavor. I know Midwesterners traditionally eschew flavor in their food, but it’s called salt, y’all!
Bojangles’ Bo’s Chicken and Spicy Chicken Sandwich
Chicken: Well done. There’s a little kick built into the breading. It’s not a thick chicken like KFC, but it’s not thin by any means. Definitely in competition with CFA for best chicken flavor.
Bun: Ugh. In the previous iteration of this sandwich, they had an amazing sesame bun that was maybe my favorite bun. Now it’s brioche and way too buttery. The butter flavor overwhelms and the bun texture itself is too soft and doesn’t hold up to the sandwich. Such a loss!
Pickles: Thick, crunchy, exactly what a chicken sandwich deserves
Sauce: Keeping it simple with the mayo.
Notes: The inside of this Bojangles was lovely—more like a Panera than normal fast food. When I went to change the Brisket in the bathroom, it actually smelled … nice. And speaking of the toddler-maniac, the chicken tenders, biscuit, and mac and cheese he got with his kids meal was beyond excellent. Definitely beat KFC in every category. For drinks, they offer Diet Mountain Dew, which Scott considers a special treat and I consider undrinkable but you’re going to get the sweet tea anyway so it doesn’t matter. Overall, the chicken sandwich was the least impressive part of the Bojangles offering—but that’s in part because everything else is so good!
Dairy Queen’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Chicken: The breading is that peppery breading they use on their chicken tenders, which I loved back in the day. (Mmmmm, that cream gravy dipping sauce.)
Bun: It is bread.
Pickles: There was what appeared to be a tomato—though it didn’t have the color of one. At least it was real lettuce and not that shredded iceberg nonsense.
Sauce: Yep, that’s mayo.
Notes: It doesn’t look like much, but if you like the DQ chicken fingers, then this will taste familiar … but also you should get the DQ chicken fingers. Or the burger because it’s damn good. And obviously the whole point is to justify that Blizzard. Be aware: you can only get the sandwich at DQ Grills. Most DQ’s have been converted to blizzard-only DQ Treats.
Zaxby’s Signature and Spicy Signature Sandwich
Chicken: Thick. Very thick. Scott thinks this is thicker than KFC, which had taken the previous award for thickness. It’s almost hard to take a bite. … but just squish it down a little and it’s perfect. That being said, I think it lacks a little in the flavor category. Scott disagrees.
Bun: Big and buttery. Too buttery? I’m not sure I should taste *this* much butter with my sandwich.
Pickles: Sirens!!! These pickles rival Popeyes. It’s true!
Sauce: Whoa whoa whoa. You lost me with the spicy sauce. Way too much. It’s not pulling the sandwich together, it’s tearing us apart.
Notes: The crinkle-cut fries were mediocre. Also they said this was Coke Zero. I know Coke Zero. Coke Zero is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Coke Zero. This one was a real marriage disagreement. Scott was in love. I was satisfied.
After waiting 20 minutes in the drive-thru somewhere between Syracuse and Scranton, we were told they were out of burgers and they handed us chicken on a bun. Literally. There was a piece of “chicken” and it came with bread. No pickles, no lettuce, nada. I’m as confused as you are. But after changing a *very* dirty diaper on patch of grass overlooking I-81 as the Brisket wriggled away from me multiple times, we weren’t going back. The point of fast-food is consistency. We were forced to survive on tots and cherry limeade until we got to the Gettysburg Dairy Queen.
Popeyes: Still the king
Wendy’s: The full package
Chick-fil-A: Can’t beat that chicken
KFC: It’s Thicc
Taco Bell: Jalapeno snack tastiness
TIE: Zaxby’s/Bojangle’s: The chicken tenders are better
Burger King: Get the spicy glaze for sure
Whataburger: So many sauces to choose from
Dairy Queen: Basket of chicken tenders and a blizzard are your best bet
Shake Shack: Not worth the money
McDonald’s: I’ll still be ordering the dollar cheeseburger
Culver’s: Stick with the burger and custard
Epilogue: Some of you may be wondering how my chicken sandwich reporting has changed my life. Maybe because Popeyes isn’t conveniently located near us and isn’t really marketed for freeway exits, I haven’t been back, which is shocking even to me. I’ve eaten at Chick-fil-A several times since … and never gotten the sandwich because I always go for the nuggets. Dairy Queen is usually a midafternoon excuse to stretch my legs while luxuriating with an Oreo Blizzard.
As it turns out, I’ve been back to only one of the places on the list and gotten the chicken sandwich. In my pre-Chicken Sandwich War days, I would have always stopped at McDonald’s during any long road trip, but last month, I found myself craving a chicken sandwich and we needed to find something a mostly toothless toddler could enjoy. And there it was in all of it’s chickeny glory ...
So that’s how this three-part saga ends. With me eating a KFC chicken sandwich in the backseat of my car while a 14-month old stuck his entire face into a bowl of mac and cheese as Rainbow Connection blasts through the speakers. And it was glorious.