The Great Fried Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 came to Lower Fairfield County last week, following the viral Twitter skirmish that began when Popeye’s introduced it’s new chicken sandwich, an attempt to go after the Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich market that has been dominated by Chick-fil-A for many a year. This has been a fascinating study in viral marketing as it has been one of the first cases where corporations have been able to use Twitter effectively to go after one another. By the end of the news cycle even Hot Pockets claimed to be a part of this Battle Royal.
If nothing else was learned, it’s that consumers like snark. As one commentator said, it became the fried chicken sandwich version of Real Housewives, and it seemed to drive everyone’s’ proverbial ratings through the roof as Popeye’s sold out nationally and others sold out in some locations.
I primarily wanted to try the national chains that are available locally (no local friend chicken sandwiches, for the sake of the review). And it had to be a fried (as opposed to grilled) chicken sandwich. The contenders: Popeye’s, Shake Shack, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, & McDonald's.
I do want to make a distinction, because there are two types of fried chicken sandwiches being made at the chains (outside of “flavored” ones like spicy or barbecue fried chicken sandwiches). For the sake of differentiation, “Southern” fried chicken sandwiches are made in the style of Chick-fil-A, served with a pickle. “Country” fried chicken sandwiches are served with lettuce and tomato. Setting aside the quality, the seasoning, and the cooking, if you replaced the lettuce and tomato with a pickle, they would pretty much all be Southern chicken sandwiches.
With that in mind, I want to compare the Country-style sandwiches as a group. Those came from Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King. I attempted to also get one of these from Kentucky Fried Chicken and even KFC was sold out of the chicken breasts with which they make their sandwiches. Don’t ask me how KFC can be out of chicken breasts.
Burger King's Crispy Chicken Sandwich is a failure
It is more a chicken cutlet than breast. The breading isn't crispy, but chewy. The chicken is also oddly chewy (like it was frozen and thawed more than once) and doesn't seem naturally seasoned - there's an off taste - where was this thing fried? - and a peculiar smokiness. The toppings (mayo, chopped lettuce, one pitiful tomato slice) were sad - even Wendy's (more on them, later) did a better job with the same toppings. The bun was too dense and tough to chew. There just wasn't any textural contrast in the sandwich, so it was not pleasant to eat. One thing that my fried chicken sandwich binge made me appreciate was that a crunchy fried breading on the chicken is important, for textural contrast and a pleasant meal.
Out of curiosity, I also tried the Impossible Whopper. Presumably invented for self-loathing vegetarians living lives of regret, this was at least better than the chicken sandwich. Interestingly, while a genuine Whopper has 660 calories, the meat-free Impossible Whopper has 630, so I don’t think it especially contributes to a healthy lifestyle. I could be fooled into thinking it's beef burger (within the context of a fast food burger with lots of toppings), albeit a bland one. It has a scrapple-like texture that some people might like. When I peeled half of it off the rest of the sandwich (to the puzzled glances of other diners) and nibbled on the patty alone, it seemed odder. Not much flavor except for grilled/smoky flavor. But the meat doesn't really behave differently from a thin Big Mac party, to which it seems most similar.
First, thank goodness they have returned to decent rolls. For five years or so, they have served their sandwiches on yeasty monstrosities that smell like the family dog. Wendy’s Homestyle Chicken Sandwich was served with bad lettuce, a bad slice of tomato, and too much mayo. The former Morton’s of Fast Food has definitely taken a turn for the worse.
This chicken also seems less a breast than a cutlet – if not as bad as the BK cutlet. BUT it is well-seasoned, especially peppery, and it has a thin yet crispy crust. It is nowhere near either Shake Shack or Chick-fil-A, but it is arguably better than some others. Can the bad meat still be better prepared? When life gives you chicken shit can you make chicken salad?
McDonald’s - the big surprise
McDonald's previously had a disastrous 2015 run with its own Chick-fil-A ripoff, the Southern Chicken Sandwich. But they still have a Crispy Chicken Sandwich which aims the same general direction, with lettuce and tomato, like Burger King and Wendy’s, as well as their "special sauce" (basically, Thousand Island Dressing).
While thin, the breast is just thick and juicy enough to seem like an actual chicken breast, as opposed to a cutlet. The breading is very thin, but pleasantly crunchy, with a little more salt and a little less pepper than Wendy's.
The lettuce and tomato slices are fresher and better quality than Wendy's. This surprised me, and it may be simply a question of delivery dates, but I can only judge what I'm served. (I wonder if I could just order this with pickles instead of lettuce and tomato?) I was mildly surprised that it had a clear edge on the Wendy's sandwich.
Popeye’s – the upstart
This first of the three Southern-style chicken sandwiches I had was the much-hyped sandwich that started this thing, Popeye’s Classic Chicken Sandwich. In hindsight, I would like to have tried the Spicy version, which simply has a spicy mayo instead of the Classic’s mayo, but with them selling out nationally, I can only judge by what I tasted.
I grabbed this sandwich in Bridgeport, which was overwhelmed with drive-thru customers and a staff that seemed a little out of sorts. I mention this because this was not a notable chicken sandwich.
Popeye’s uses a good quality chicken breast. Better than cheaper fast food burger chains. Unfortunately, problems begin with the lack of seasoning. There is nothing assertive like the pickle-brine taste of the Chick-fil-A. It's got more crust, but it isn't crunchy. More "chalky." There is simply little or no seasoning to the coating, so it's remarkably bland. The mayo just added more fat to the fat of the fried crust. The pickle wasn’t assertive enough to cut through all the fat, either. Ultimately, this was very disappointing, especially from a chicken chain that has specialized in spicy chicken. It didn’t make any sense to me that they served such a flavorless sandwich.
Shake Shack – the old reliable
After the Popeye's fiasco, I stopped by Shake Shack for a Chick'n Shack. This is an old reliable chicken sandwich to me. To more clearly ape Chik-fil-A, I always order it with no lettuce and extra pickles. Shake Shack serves a nice, thick chicken breast, well-seasoned, with a flavorful and crunchy crust. Thickness aside, this is a small (if expensive) chicken sandwich, hardly more than a chicken slider. Still, the quality makes a difference. Better pickles than Popeye's.
Chick-fil-A – the standard bearer
I take my responsibility as the arbiter of the Fried Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 seriously. While I avoid the chain because of some of the troubling political positions of ownership, I was here to openly revisit the Chick-fil-A sandwich after many years.
I left work one evening and swung by the Norwalk location, a half-hour before closing. This location has always been busy enough to support two drive-thru lanes, but even later in the evening it was packed, with an ordering line twenty-deep. Clearly, the Fried Chicken Sandwich Wars are good for business.
Like Shake Shack, they have a thick but small chicken breast that hardly fills the small bun. The chicken itself gets a big edge on flavor. It isn't just that it is well-seasoned on the outside, but that it is tasty through and through. It has a thick breading that is toothsome and not unpleasant (like Popeye's) but it doesn't have the great crunch of Shack. Great pickle - even better than Shack's, which probably obviates the need for any mayo or sauce. Not that this is a contest of side dishes, but their flaccid waffle fries are horrid.
It's a close contest here, (and putting aside any influence of politics), Shake Shack makes a better sandwich. The Shake Shack crunch makes for a pleasant textural contrast. (There's just isn’t much crunch with Chick-fil-A.) The Shake Shack sauce more than offsets the slightly inferior pickle, and the two combine to give a nice acidic contrast to the fried chicken. In fairness, I should point out that you spend 50% more at Shack, but (especially with sides) you get a clearly superior meal. McDonald’s surprised me with the third best sandwich, a solidly made sandwich with surprisingly high-quality ingredients for the huge chain.