In the fast food world, fried chicken sandwiches are the new black. Just about every chain, whether a burger chain or fried chicken establishment, offers multiple versions.
But which are the best? We tried the standard fried chicken sandwiches*, whether chicken patty-like or chicken fillet-like, from KFC, Popeye's, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's, and Burger King.
During the tasting, one thing became very clear: not all chicken is created equal.
* We left out spicy chicken sandwiches for now. More fodder for a future taste-test! Please chime in with your favorites.
Flight One: 'Chicken Product'
These are the sandwiches where the meat you bite into seems like a reconstituted chicken patty—let's call it a giant McNugget—than any part of the animal. The McChicken wins for the best name, and brings with it a nice peppery kick, though it doesn't have a good crisp. In true McDonald's style, the mayo and bun feel eerily familiar—just what you'd expect from McD's, even if you haven't had the sandwich before. Kenji admitted to liking the pepper and mayo on the sandwich, though he added that "looking at it is a little scary."
The Wendy's had a slightly superior chicken patty, in which I could discern some texture, but the mayo was disarmingly sweet; the BK Original Chicken Sandwich fell short of both. So we have the McChicken as our winner. It ain't pretty, but it gets the job done.
Flight Two: 'Real Chicken'
Burger King's Tendercrisp, a chicken fillet sandwich, lived up to the first part of its name, but not the second—the crisp just isn't there. The bun dominated the sandwich, and felt hard, like a stiff roll, as opposed to a sandwich bun. The chicken tasted bland, and tasted undersalted—a rarity in the fast-food world.
McDonald's Crispy Chicken Sandwich actually gives you a few variations on a theme, even before you get to the "Club" and "Ranch" sandwiches. With the Southern Style Crispy Chicken, Mickey D's seems to copy the Classic Chick-fil-A sandwich, offering a real chicken fillet, bun, and pickles. The chicken is tasty; Kenji gave it a thumbs-up, and SE overlord Ed commented, "It's thinner chicken, and thus not as juicy as I would like, but it's pretty good." The Premium Crispy Chicken Classic Sandwich, though it comes with the same chicken, has a strangely sweet bun that doesn't jibe with what should be a salty delight.
Also plagued by sweetness was Wendy's; tasting it side-by-side with other sandwiches showed me how much sweeter their mayo tastes; I'd actually recommend ordering without, because it ruins one of the better crispy chicken fillets, though they're usually drier than most.
How about the early favorite, Chick-fil-A. Whatever you think of their politics, they make a damn good sandwich. Their pickles are tastier than McDonald's, and the buttery-tasting bun enhances the chicken, which had just the right amount of batter and crisp. (Kenji and Ed both approved.)
But then, there are the chicken joints. While Popeye's doesn't quite recreate the magic of real NOLA po' boys, it comes pretty close. The chicken tender is both juicy and crispy, with the outside salty crunch of a potato chip. Their bread reminds me of an Italian sub shop—definitely winning the "best bread" award. The mayo and pickles are both sparingly applied, but all in all, it's a winner. And the runner-up? The KFC Snacker. This sandwich smelled the best as we unwrapped it, with an alluring oily scent that reminded us of freshly fried chicken—and it tastes that way, too. They win the crunchiest chicken prize.
Popeyes and KFC are easily a cut above the rest; Popeye's nudges KFC out because of their bread. However, both are really stand-alone chicken in a sandwich. When it comes to the other fast-food outlets, Wendy's and McDonald's put up a good fight against Chick-fil-A, but ultimately can't dethrone the Southern star. And as for those chicken patty-like sandwiches? In our opinion, the McChicken took it.