If you were to make a list of 10 reasons a person might avoid Chick-fil-A, its donations to anti-LGBTQ groups would likely be numbers one through nine. Number 10 would be the notion that a craving for a fried chicken sandwich with pickles always seems to come on a Sunday, when Chick-fil-A is closed.
Here’s another one to put on the list: The new Popeyes fried chicken sandwich — added to the menu last week — is, by every measure, a superior sandwich.
But you already knew that if you’ve been on Twitter over the past three days, where an intense debate over which fast-food chain has the best chicken sandwich has been a welcome distraction from the generally terrible state of the world. The thing about the Popeyes sandwich is that it seems to brush awfully close to what Chick-fil-A offers — a simple fried chicken sandwich with pickles and a pillowy bun. The Popeyes sandwich has plain or spicy mayonnaise, as opposed to the myriad Chick-fil-A sauces, but that’s it. For two sandwiches so alike, they couldn’t be more different.
Praise for the sandwich began on Black Twitter, but it wasn’t long before others weighed in.
Then came the brands, eager to capitalize on the momentum. First Chick-fil-A, clearly rattled, dropped the equivalent of a “Bless your heart”: A tweet that read “Bun + chicken + pickles = all the ❤ for the original.” Popeyes shot back: “ … y’all good?”
Other companies, thirsty for attention, and with their oddly personal, sassy social media voices — once distinctive, now compulsory — jumped into the fray. Wendy’s is always a rabble-rouser. Shake Shack reminded everyone that it, too, had a fried chicken sandwich with pickles. The echo chamber of Twitter became, for a few hours, a forum for tightly honed corporate one-upsmanship. McDonald’s, with its puck-like McChicken, wisely minded its own business.
And then came another type of pile-on — the one that we are participating in right now, via this very article. Every publication with a food reporter — the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Business Insider — has tried these sandwiches and written about them. Surely you understand that no journalist would pass up an opportunity to eat three chicken sandwiches for work. We can’t help ourselves!
We tried three sandwiches — Popeyes, Chick-fil-A and Shake Shack — because we needed to be sure of what we already knew, which was that Popeyes was very likely to win. The chain has long been regaled as the best fast-food fried chicken in the country, counting chefs David Chang and Anthony Bourdain among its fans. Its lack of a Chick-fil-A-esque sandwich until this point was inexplicable. So to try it was the equivalent of the person who asks to sample an ice cream before buying a cone — you know it’s going to be good, you just don’t know how good.
We didn’t bother including Wendy’s, and have no regrets. The defining feature of a Wendy’s chicken sandwich is that it comes with a raft of iceberg lettuce and a mealy tomato — not worth it, in our opinion, and it was easier to keep the sample size to sandwiches whose primary ingredients were fried chicken and pickles. Yes, the Chick’n Shack from Shake Shack has some shredded romaine, but it’s merely an accessory to the pickles on that sandwich.
The Chick’n Shack has good flavor, but too much mayonnaise. You can’t eat it neatly, with one hand — bits and blobs will glop out of it and fall into your lap. The Chick-fil-A sandwich is always damp if you don’t eat it immediately, and its limp bun deflates. It’s briny, but not crispy. And without the Chick-fil-A sauce, it can be a little dry.
Neither is bad, but neither is as good as the Popeyes sandwich. For one, it’s the crunchiest, crispiest fast-food chicken sandwich out there. It’s also hefty, with a greater surface area than either of its competitors. The bun is more buttery, and didn’t look like a deflated tire after a few minutes in its little foil-lined sleeping bag (another move Chick-fil-A must not be too happy about). The chicken is juicy, and the pickles are cut thicker. And on the side, the Cajun fries are a better textural accompaniment than waffle fries, which, despite their fun shape, tend to go flaccid.
Twitter was right, of course.
The sandwich became so popular that locations around the country ran out. There were delays at Popeyes drive-throughs and long lines in its restaurants. People began muting the term “chicken sandwich” from their social media feeds.
People have even dropped the brand name from it now. It’s just The Sandwich, no identifier needed — like Beyoncé. You probably can’t find it at your local Popeyes, and that is a tragedy on several levels, because the only thing worse than articles and tweets about the sandwich clogging up your feed is enduring 36 hours of sandwich talk without being able to try it yourself.
You’ll get your chance. Maybe it will be in stock by Sunday.
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