The Golden Arches have long been the gold standard of fast food. Other chains might have edgier marketing or more innovative menus. Still, McDonald’s is the category’s market-dominating stalwart.
And with the splashy debut this week of the new bird on the block, we figured it was time to check in on the status of the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars: Who has the standout sando? Does Popeyes’s viral hit of 2019 still reign supreme, or has it been dethroned by the clown’s?
I enlisted two brave colleagues, Tim Carman and Aaron Hutcherson, to join me in tasting popular sandwiches (each in original and spicy versions) from Chick-fil-A, KFC, McDonald’s, Popeyes and Wendy’s. The logistics weren’t as simple as they might have been pre-pandemic, but we managed, through a combination of drive-through runs, delivery orders and two Zoom sessions (along with some antacids).
Here’s our consensus on how this flock stacks up:
The heralded new offering from the Golden Arches turned out to be our least favorite of the bunch. The regular version — basically a dupe of the Chick-fil-A style, with a buttered bun, pickles and a chicken patty — was drier than a subcommittee hearing on C-SPAN.
The star of the show here is odd: “It gives off a whiff of processed meat,” Tim complained of the thin puck. But the bun might be this sandwich’s sleeper downfall. It looks appealing, with a satiny finish and split top that gives it a fresh-from-the-bakery appeal. But the first impression doesn’t last long. This bun is super-sweet and overwhelms the whole experience. “It kind of reminds me of a challah,” Aaron said. “I want to make a bread pudding out of it,” I said.
The spicy version fared better than the plain; the “original spicy sauce” adds a surprisingly potent kick — but not nearly enough to distract us from this disappointing clown show.
Unlike most of the others we tasted, this fella comes standard with mayo, tomato and lettuce, making it a little “gloppy,” Tim and Aaron agreed.
The patty’s uniform coating and size had a more industrial look to it than some of the others we tried. But we liked the relatively intense, smoky heat and visible flecks of black pepper in the seasoning of the spicy version. “It’s got more of a kick than Chick-fil-A,” Aaron noted.
This chicken chain debuted an upgraded chicken sandwich this month to keep up with the Joneses. It’s not yet available in every market, so Tim and I wound up with the new version and Aaron the older, though the differences seemed small (mainly, KFC’s 2.0 sandwich boasts a thicker cut of chicken and a beefier bun). Both versions feature a pickle and mayo garnish.
We all liked the flavorful breading, which had an almost homemade feel to it, and the quality of the bird, which tasted like … chicken (not a small thing when you’re talking about fast food). “I’m not mad at this one,” Aaron said.
The fast food chicken sandwich that launched a thousand knockoffs was an early favorite, “politics aside,” as Aaron said.
The chicken itself offers a lot to like, namely a craggy crust and evidence of a bath in a flavorful, pickle-y brine. “It’s so moist,” Tim commented. The spicy version, with a nice complex burn in the seasoning, is even better.
The bird to beat soared in our test.
We all dug the super-crispy coating and hefty, natural-looking (i.e. irregularly shaped) patty of this sandwich, which went viral after its 2019 debut, inspiring lines wrapped around stores and Instagram swoons. “It’s mammoth — like the size of my face,” Aaron said as he brought it up to the camera to illustrate his point.
The brioche-like bun that contains this beast was a hit, too. “It gives it a little bit of sweetness but it doesn’t dominate it,” Tim said. The hands-down winner of this chicken derby was the spicy model, which adds a peppery sauce to the mix and proves that it’s still worthy of the 2019 hype.
A lot has happened since way back then, when masks were for Halloween and social distancing was a Friday night choice to Netflix and chill solo. But as competitors throw their feathers into the ring, we agreed that Popeyes still rules the roost.
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