"The egg is arguably what makes a breakfast sandwich a breakfast sandwich. And sadly, we've been conditioned to expect the pre-made egg-loaf-spongy-patty-blob-thing."
Even people who swear they won't touch fast-food seem to make exceptions for breakfast sandwiches. Something about the combination of egg, melted cheese, salty meat, and toasted bread is so satisfying, not to mention a lifesaver on those especially rough mornings. You go from zero to feeling-more-like-a-real-person in just a few bites.
Sure, it's not that hard to make one at home, and even tastier with just-fried eggs (try not to think about the pre-cooked egg loaf on most fast-food sandwiches too hard) but sometimes you just need to grab one on the go.
For a whole week, we gathered around the big table at Serious Eats headquarters (Ed has been known to call it the stadium) at 10 a.m. every morning to nibble on breakfast sandwiches (note: no breakfast burritos, but we made an exception for one wrap) from various fast-fooderies to think really hard about each component:
- Bread: Toasted? Fresh-tasting? Good on its own, or just a tool to hold the sandwich together? Chewy? Too much chew? This raises the question of bagels—are they an appropriate breakfast sandwich bread? We all agreed the answer is often no because there's too much bready mass, which throws off the whole bun-to-insides ratio.
- Meat: Good salty, smoky taste? If bacon, does it have the right crispy-pliant balance? And if sausage, is it rubbery? Because that's a bit of a dealbreaker.
- Cheese: Melted? American cheese or something fancier? Does it overpower the sandwich?
- Egg: Alright. This is arguably what makes a breakfast sandwich a breakfast sandwich. And sadly, we've been conditioned to expect the pre-made egg-loaf-spongy-patty-blob-thing. It doesn't even look related to an actual egg. We held our breath, hoping to find a source that actually cracked the eggs in front of us.
We tried sandwiches from 11 different chains: McDonald's Panera Cosi Starbucks Dunkin' Donuts Burger King Tim Hortons White Castle Subway Wawa* Jack in the Box**
Thanks to help from our Philly-based hot dog columnist Hawk Krall. ** Thanks to help from San Diego-based photographer friend (you may recognize his work from the Domino's Big Deal Pizza post) Jon Liu.
The Winner: White Castle
White Castle, we apologize for having no faith in you at first. To be honest, we even questioned walking the extra ten blocks to you. But while staring off into space waiting for our order, we heard a crack—the magical crack that only a real egg could make. Could it be? A real egg?
Yes. Finding a fast-foodery that will actually do this for you is rare. "There's not enough room.. not enough time." But White Caste didn't give us any hogwash excuses.
The fried egg (you can see the yellow and white parts! with the real browning around the edges! it's so real!) goes onto one of the slider buns, with your choice of meat. The sausage is well-salted, but not in a whoa, settle down, kind of way. The bacon had the right crispity-pliant balance.
Our only complaint? The buns. They could have been toasted and buttered, but then again, we gobbled it down too fast to care.
Honorable Mention: Wawa's Ham & Cheese Ciabatta Melt
Unfortunately we don't all live near a Wawa. But somehow this convenience store chain (in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) has a way of putting a spell on people. The iced tea! The made-fresh hoagies! And, if you haven't already, you should add breakfast sandwiches to the list. Our favorite was the Ham & Cheese Ciabatta Melt ($4.29).Stuffed with scrambled eggs, deli ham, and Swiss cheese, this thing is massive.
The roll was lightly toasted and by far the best bread of all the Wawa breakfast sandwiches we tried. It's a big roll, which could be problematic, but they overstuff it to balance out the ratio of bread-to-innards. There's no skimping on the ham either—it had as much meat as the regular hoagies. And the eggs taste so eggy.
"They're first frozen then go into a rethermalizer," a Wawa employee informed us. Retherma-whatawhat? We looked into it, then stopped and just accepted the creamy, fluffy, eggy-tasting goodness.
The Rest of 'Em We Liked
Still the Classic McDonald's Sausage McMuffin with Egg
Most like the Sausage McMuffin But Not Starbucks's Sausage, Egg, Cheese on an English Muffin
Best on a Bagel Panera's Bacon, Egg, Cheese on a Bagel
Best-Sounding Bagel Alternative Cosi's Squagel
Best on an "Artisan Roll" Starbucks's Black Forest Ham, Parmesan Frittata, Cheddar on an Artisan Roll
Best on Pancake Buns* Bacon, Egg, Cheese McGriddle
*OK, this one didn't have huge competition, but still.
Most Edible Croissant Options Dunkin' Donuts' Sausage, Egg, Cheese on Croissant Jack in the Box's Supreme Croissant
Most Healthy-Tasting Panera's Whole Grain Breakfast Power Sandwich
Best Excuse to Have a Philly Cheesesteak Before Noon Wawa's Philly Steak & Cheese Breakfast Hoagie
Best Use of Egg Whites Dunkin' Donuts's Egg White Flatbread
Best on a Biscuit Lots of disappointments here. We're still hunting for "the one."