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Burger King’s new spicy chicken sandwich is a worthy competitor, but it won’t dethrone Popeyes

Emily Heil/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

To get to the Burger King location where I sampled the chain’s new, upgraded chicken sandwich, I traversed a veritable thicket of chicken-y goodness.

A wing’s throw away was a Popeyes, whose spicy sandwich remains the golden-fried standard of the booming genre. I drove past a Royal Farms convenience store, whose fried chicken enjoys a cult following.

To put it another way: There are plenty of chickens in the sea right now, and so to stand out, a novel offering better be good. It turns out, the King’s new “hand-breaded” sandwich, oddly dubbed the “Ch’King,” might not sit atop the throne when it comes to the chicken-sandwich wars, but it’s a contender.

My taste-testing experiment, though, started out on an awkward note. When I placed my order, I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. Was it “chuh-KING?” “Chicking?” The genial gentleman at the register at first wasn’t sure what I was ordering, but after I pointed to its alluring picture on the light-up menu, and he confirmed that I, in fact, wanted “the new thing,” we were able to seal the deal.

Where does the new McDonald’s chicken sandwich rank? Turns out, the Arches fall flat.

I thought things were going to get even more embarrassing when I dug into the foil-lined bag (which seems to be the new standard for fast-food chicken sandwiches, a trend apparently spawned by Chick-fil-A’s signature packaging) and unearthed the spicy version. This was one saucy sandwich, and I immediately imagined myself with rivulets of both of its dressings dripping down my chin.

And I will admit that my initial attitude toward this new guy was already more than a little skeptical. I’ve tasted enough chicken sandwiches in the past two years to turn me jaded — and possibly, sprout feathers. In the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars, I like to think of myself as Ernie Pyle (minus, of course, the Pulitzer, Purple Heart and immeasurable bravery).

But my fears of a sloppy mess didn’t bear out. Though both sauces coated both sides of the patty, the result was that it seemed to bind the craggy, irregularly shaped disc (that’s a good thing in chicken sandwiches, meaning it likely wasn’t stamped out by machine) to the glossy, pillowy bun.

The overall effect (hmm, this new guy is all right!) quickly overtook my sandwich cynicism. The thick serving of bird itself was juicy and briny, and the layer of crinkle-cut pickle — de rigueur in the current craze for “Southern style” sandos — offered a familiar, but still pleasant, pucker. The sauces could have been punchier. The “signature sauce” was basically mayo, and the heat level of the other — a russet-toned condiment meant to impart spice to the patty — registered as a slow burn, but was no match for Popeyes’ famous kick.

I also tried Burger King’s non-spicy version, but found it to be merely a less-flavorful version, an order I’d only recommend if you’re truly heat-averse. A “deluxe” version comes with tomatoes and lettuce, but I usually find such additions turn fast-food sandwiches soggy.

If BK’s spicy sandwich had been around earlier this year when my colleagues and I ate our way through the top fast-food chains’ offerings and ranked them, I could easily imagine it crushing McDonald’s and even beating out some of the big names in birds, such as KFC, though Popeyes would still outrank the King.

To be fair, Burger King has had plenty of time to get this right. The chain better known for “flame-broiling” than “hand-breading” said it has been developing the menu item for two years, a period that involved market testing and tinkering. (That’s also longer than it took scientists to develop and distribute a pandemic-flattening vaccine for a deadly virus, but we digress.) The news release touting it acknowledges the late-to-the party timing with the promise that it was “worth the wait.”

Probably for some. And for the previously burger-focused King, the foray into the crowded chicken field is a feather in his crown.

It seems Burger King is feeling particularly salty now that it has a chicken sandwich in the derby. On Thursday, the day the sandwich debuted nationwide, the chain tweeted that it would donate 40 cents to the Human RIghts Campaign for every one it sold.

The message was clearly an attempt to troll rival Chick-Fil-A (which is closed on Sundays), and followed a report that Dan Cathy, Chick-FIl-A’s billionaire owner, has continued to donate personally to an group fighting the Equality Act, legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2019, the chain’s foundation vowed to stop giving to causes that had angered LGBT groups.

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