The Great Chicken Sandwich Wars, Continued
It's time to judge some entrants, some exotic sandwiches, and the spicy ones.
Last month, my husband Scott and I took readers on a culinary tour of Warrenton, Virginia, in search of America’s best chicken sandwich meal. It was a fun little piece to put together but none of us could have anticipated the response it would get. Turns out, lots of people—lots of Dispatch readers—have great interest in chicken sandwiches (and meals) and very, very strong opinions about the same. (Those impassioned responses included one from my own father in the comments, chastising me for betraying my chicken-related upbringing.)
We knew before we were done that there was more work to do. And here we are. To recap our last dispatch from the front, I rated our chicken sandwich meals as follows:
I noted in our initial survey that McDonald’s and KFC were both rolling out their “real” entrants into the battle in February. And since then, Burger King has announced that it will have a new sandwich “later this year.” Taco Bell is also trolling America with a “half taco-half sandwich” reminder that they would like to get in on some of this free publicity.
I was also inundated with thoughts from all of you about sandwiches that were left on the list. Many were regional—Zaxby’s, Whataburger, Bojangles. Some wanted to include the more exotic options. But the biggest complaint was that I didn’t do the spicys.
Sadly, I was booked to fly to my home state of Texas last week to start my regional tasting tour, but that trip was cancelled due to increasingly desperate texts from Jonah, vacationing in Austin, begging us to send the Dispatch helicopter for an emergency evacuation. (Also, it wasn’t easy to travel to Texas during and after the storm that trapped him there.) So all regional sandwiches will have to wait because no regional sandwich test could ever be considered complete without Whataburger, which is the best at all things.
But never fear, dear readers, I have now eaten 10 additional sandwiches. In no particular order:
McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich
McDonald’s Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich
McDonald’s Deluxe Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Chick-fil-a Spicy Chicken Sandwich
Wendy’s Spicy Classic Chicken Sandwich
Wendy’s Jalapeno Popper Chicken Sandwich
Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich
Popeye’s Cajun Flounder Sandwich (which for some reason people thought should count as chicken)
Shake Shack’s Chick'n Shack
Shake Shack’s Korean-Inspired Chicken Sandwich
Given the vast quantities of food I am now consuming, I’ve been forced to ditch the “meal.” Therefore, these rankings will be based on sandwiches alone and not how I felt about the meal as a whole—something, I will note, that many of you were cranky about last time anyway.
First, based on their sandwich score alone, here was my ranking of the original-style sandwiches:
Chik-fil-a (fix the pickles!!)
And now, the newbies:
McDonald’s New Crispy Chicken Sandwich earned itself a new spot on the rankings.
Chicken: 6. Why even bother rolling out a new sandwich if you weren’t going to bring it with the chicken? It’s fine. It’s unmemorable. It’s the Gretchen Wieners of chicken.
Bun: 6. It *looked* great. But then it tasted too bready and not squishy like a proper potato bun should.
Pickles: 6. They fixed this problem. But the pickles aren’t anywhere close to the quality of Popeye’s thick crispy masters of the universe. They beat Chick-fil-a but that’s a pathetically low bar as we know from our last effort.
Sauce: None. Bold move. They were following Chick-fil-a’s cue here, but if you don’t have sauce, you’d better have some great tasting chicken like Chick-fil-a and a perfect bun. But they didn’t. As a result, it felt naked. Scared and alone, thrown into the fray of the chicken wars without any armor.
Notes: Look, it just wasn’t very good. It was bland. My expectations were high. They were not met. Scott agreed in a rare moment of sandwich marital harmony.
KFC Chicken Sandwich was only available at select locations and so we trekked about 30 minutes on a snow day to get this one. Was it worth it?
Chicken: 7. This caused some discord. Scott says this is the best chicken of all the chickens. But he admits he just really likes KFC chicken. Has since he was a kid. I, on the other hand, probably always preferred the Popeye’s bucket of chicken on the margin. Just had more flavor. Chick-fil-a is still the hands-down winner on chicken alone—for flavor and consistency. But KFC vs. Popeye’s might come down to personal preference. I think KFC isn’t as crunchy and doesn’t have that front of mouth wow flavor on that first bite. But its thick, delicious chicken is 20 percent larger than its previous sandwich, has a great texture, and may bring back some of that bucket-o-chicken nostalgia for you as well.
Bun: 6. Nothing special but not bad at all. Had the squish and the texture of a good brioche bun. Popeye’s bun is both butterier and toastier. This one wasn’t a net negative by any means. Maybe just above neutral?
Pickles: 8. Crunchy and wonderful. Not quite as great as the Popeye’s pickle perfection, but a great addition to the fast food pickle repertoire.
Sauce: 2. Holy mayo, Batman! Way too much. Used the foil wrapper to try to scrape some off and even then it was falling off in glops into my lap.
Notes: This was a damn good sandwich. But if they were right next to each other, I’d go to Popeye’s. And if I wanted a meal, I’d still go to Wendy’s. But it was definitely worth the 30 minute drive and it pulled up to the No. 2 on Scott’s list (after Chick-fil-a because he doesn’t care about pickles the way I do).
Shake Shack’s Chick'n Shack for your bougier, fast-casual chicken sandwich needs.
Chicken: 4. I don’t know what to tell you. The fry flavor on the outside was fantastic. So flavorful without adding a greasy, thick coating too. But the chicken itself was rubbery and weird tasting. Like really weird. Maybe it was a one-off chicken problem but the reason I go to fast casual national chains is consistency. There are no re-dos in the chicken sandwich wars!
Bun: 7. It was good. I actually think Popeye’s bun added more to my overall sandwich experience, which is odd given the price difference. But this was a good, tasty bun, no doubt.
Pickles: 9. A fun, festive addition to my pickle repertoire. These were thick and crunchy but made from much narrower pickles. And I loved it! It allowed for better control over my pickle-bite ratio and the flavor was spot on.
Sauce: 3. This is not your blue collar, work-a-day mayo, folks. This is a “buttermilk herb mayo.” And I love me a good mayo mix, but this was overpowering. Too salty. And there was way too much of it. Mayo was all over the console after the first bite, which my husband found none too pleasing since we took his car for this outing. Let your chicken do most of the talking, people!
Price: $7.39. This is nearly double the price of our other sandwiches. And adding in fries and a coke adds another $6 to the total. So our meal of 2 sandwiches, 1 fry, and a large coke was a whopping $22.
Notes: Some of y’all swore by this sandwich. The price alone is bonkers compared to what you can get elsewhere. I’d start carrying pickles in my pocket and just getting the Chick-fil-a sandwich before I’d order this again. Also the fries are a great texture and consistency but it’s like they fry them in an oil that is too healthy or something. No flavor and not worth the calories (and this is coming from someone who has literally eaten close to 2 dozen fried chicken sandwiches in a month.)
New Original Class Sandwich-Only Rankings
Chik-fila-a (if only they’d fix the pickles!!)
McDonald’s Deluxe Crispy Chicken Sandwich. This is where McDonald’s takes the same sandwich as above, subtracts the pickles (one of the few bright spots in their sandwich), and adds tomato, shredded lettuce, and mayo. Not only does this not save their sandwich, it substantially worsens it. The lettuce, like their original sandwich, is all over the place. The tomatoes are soggy. The mayo does little to brighten the mood. If you’re at McDonald’s and you really want a chicken sandwich, stick with the original.
2. Wendy’s Classic Jalapeño Popper Chicken Sandwich. I love jalapeño poppers, but this was a joke right? The sandwich is “covered with jalapeño cream cheese, shredded pepper jack cheese, jalapeños (obviously), applewood smoked bacon, and cheddar cheese sauce.” Scott told me this was a mistake but I was excited for cream cheese and jalapeños on my sandwich. I really was. And then I saw it. And then I took a bite of it anyway. It tasted like movie theater nachos and not in the good way. Was there even chicken? I couldn’t taste it. Where’s the cream cheese? Why is there bacon here? Have they ever had a jalapeño popper? Scott said “I told you so” and I wasn’t even mad. He was right.
3. Popeye’s Cajun Flounder Sandwich. I know you’re wondering why this is even on the list. I don’t have a good answer for you. Basically, they advertised that this was the same as their chicken sandwich but with cajun seasoned flounder and tartar sauce. Which means it’s nothing like their chicken sandwich. But we were at Popeye’s anyway and I thought ‘let’s give it a whirl.’ Look, it was pretty good. I would have gone much heavier with the cajun seasoning and much lighter with the tartar sauce. And if I ever saw anyone order this sandwich, I’d wonder what was wrong with them when the chicken sandwich is RIGHT THERE.
4. Shake Shack’s Korean-Inspired Chicken Sandwich. This was by far my favorite entrant in this category. We need more (any?) Asian flavoring in fast food. This was a “spicy-sweet Gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast over our white kimchi slaw featuring Choi’s Kimchi and toasted sesame seeds.” The slaw is really the highlight here. It’s so crunchy and has some great flavor. The problem is that there is too much of the Gochujang glaze and the sweet-to-heat ratio was way off. It should be very spicy with a hint of sweet. Instead this was like a donut with a single hot pepper flake. So much potential! But I’d go to Bonchon chicken (or whatever your local Korean fried chicken place is named) over this anyday.
People sounded actually offended that I did not include this category in the first round. Angry emails, name-calling tweets, canceled memberships. Ok, not really, but there were a lot of feelings. So I went back to all of the top-tier places to get their spicys. Just because I love y’all so much.
And yes, it changes the rankings dramatically.
Popeye’s Spicy. This is just the regular Popeye’s sandwich with spicy mayo. Color me unimpressed. It wasn’t even hot. It was more like flavored mayo. No me gusta.
Wendy’s Spicy. Now this was spicy! The breading on the chicken is totally different and actually hot. That Coke zero was gone after just a few bites.
KFC Spicy. Also just a regular sandwich with spicy mayo. But at least this mayo had some kick to it. But it was more heat than flavor, which then masked the underlying flavor of the chicken.
Chick-fil-a Spicy. Interesting. So the nice folks at Chick-fil-a take the time to make a whole other sandwich with spicy chicken and it's not … spicy. It was tasty. It was a different flavor. But that flavor wasn’t hot.
McDonald’s Spicy. Why did McDonald’s even bother with this rollout? This was the original sandwich with spicy mayo. But the sauce tasted like chemicals and thus the sandwich was inedible.
Any of the original sandwiches with your own hot sauce that you should be carrying with you at all times anyway
McDonald’s (which should probably be a DQ since it may or may not have been dangerous to consume)
So there you have it folks. All new rankings (now with buckets—for all you Advisory Opinions listeners) and a lot more sandwiches!