Hard to believe, but in all of my years, I had never tried the Filet-O-Fish at McDonald's, until this week. Surprising, I know, but I never liked tartar sauce when I was a kid—when I did much of my McDonald's eating —and avoided it like the plague until I moved to New England. First introduced in 1963, for Catholics who couldn't eat red meat on Friday, the Filet-O-Fish has been a McDonald's staple for years. (One that Serious Eaters have very strong feelings about.) And a few years ago, Wendy's added a cod-based "Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich" to the menu.
Which is the better of the fast-food fish sandwiches? We wanted to find out.
Wendy's version, the newer contender, has a Panko crumb breading, lettuce, and tartar sauce, stacked on their "premium" bun. (At 500 calories, it's not the lightest fare around.) Despite its name, the bun is standard: same consistency, taste, and moisture as all of their others. As for the tartar sauce, it's hardly recognizable as such; in my notes, I'd actually been calling it "Dill mayo." It's not chunky and pickle-laden, but creamy and totally dill-heavy.
The main event, the cod filet, had a particularly crisp breading on the outside that crunched as I ate. The fish inside reminded me a little of a fish-stick: not extremely meaty, not particularly moist, but you could discern the taste of cod.
The McDonald's classic. It's a smaller sandwich—less calorie-intensive, at 380, and about three-quarters the size of Wendy's. (I think I ate half of it in one bite.) As most of you probably know, the sandwich is a fried fish filet, a slice of American cheese, and tartar sauce on a bun. The bun, again, is a conventional McDonald's bun: spongy, resistant to flattening, and slightly sweet. Their tartar sauce is slightly more traditional, with chunky relish in it; however, they lop so much on that I ended up scraping more than half of it off. The cheese glows a yellow-orange hue that doesn't exist in nature, and somehow melts immediately under the sandwich but stays solid 2 millimeters away.
The fish filet breading was moist, semi-tasteless, and unremarkable. But the fish inside? Juicy, meaty, and quite tasty. Eating it, you might think, for a second, that it was a small fried piece of fish (not reconstituted Hoki and Pollock).
Picking a winner was tough, but McDonald's eked out a win. Wendy's had a better bun, bigger sandwich, better sauce, and great, crispy breading—but when I bit into the Filet-O-Fish, it was juicy, meaty fish. There may have been too much tartar sauce, and the cheese-and-fish combo may turn some off. (It's a cardinal sin in Italy—"Pesce con formaggio? Mai!") But at McDonald's, I felt like I had a Fish Sandwich, not a Fish-stick sandwich. Yes, the meat of the sandwich factored heavily in my decision. But when it comes down to it, isn't that so much of what a sandwich is all about?