The fried chicken sandwich is a fast-food staple, a go-to order for the burger averse and people who enjoy referencing deep-cut Insane Clown Posse lyrics. And though I’m sadly not a Juggalo, I have already knocked-off burgers, so I figured it was time I taste-tested the birds. But this go-round, I was (kind of) smart(er): I broke down the tastings over two days so I wouldn’t unfairly judge against sandwiches I was tasting later in the campaign, and also so I wouldn’t die from eating 6,300 calories worth of fried meat in one sitting.
How I did it: Unlike burgers, I opted to try all of the chain’s premium fried chicken offerings, rather than the lowest price-point chicken sandwich. As most consisted of some combination of breaded chicken fillet, lettuce, tomato, and mayo, I tried to stay as close as possible to that order (though, as you’ll see, sometimes it was challenging). The test was conducted in both San Francisco and San Diego over two days ending on August 4th, 2014. My mouth still tastes salty.
8. Jack in the Box's Spicy Chicken Sandwich
The build: Spicy crispy chicken fillet, lettuce, tomato, “Mayo-Onion” sauce, on a sesame bun
Wait time: 1min 58sec
Tasting notes: Jack in the Box left me in a quandary. Last time, with the burger taste-test, I felt badly because it seemed like their non-basic options would test so much better than the lowest level, so I was excited to get to try something premium. But the only non-spicy upper-middle level sandwich they offered was the Homestyle Ranch Chicken Club, and that was too different and too bacon-y to compare. So I was left with a dilemma, and decided the spicy option was the most similar to all the others. And though it did have some moves -- the lettuce and tomato were actually pretty crispy and juicy, which I definitely didn’t expect from Jack -- the rest left much to be desired. Although the chicken coating was sufficiently crunchy, it was over-breaded, the bun was really soggy on the bottom, and there was too much Mayo-Onion sauce. Like, way too much. Like, it made some sort of mayo imprint all along the top of the chicken, which is not something I enjoyed typing.
7. McDonald's Premium Crispy Chicken Sandwich
The build: Fried white chicken breast fillet, leaf lettuce, tomato, mayo, on a “bakery style bun made with 8 grams of whole grain”
Wait time: 3min 23sec
Tasting notes: Ah, Mickey D’s. Like BK, I have fond memories of the McChicken Sandwich from high school, usually eating one off the dollar menu, along with two cheeseburgers as I thought about what I really wanted to order as my entree. And McDonald’s usually knows what it’s doing on the upscale chicken sandwich front, but this felt like a miss. And here’s why: the bun. It was just really, really not great. Maybe it was all that whole grain they shoved in it, or the weird topping that felt like it belonged on nine-grain sandwich bread, but either way, it was dry and a little crumbly and sacrificed what was otherwise a decent experience. The lettuce and tomato felt fresh(ish). The chicken was breaded nicely and offered a good crunch, but didn’t really provide a very distinctive fried chicken flavor. Change that bun, Chairman Ronald. With your powers, I’m sure you can tuck "8 grams of whole grain" into something a little more delicious.
6. Wendy's Homestyle Chicken Sandwich
The build: “Specially seasoned” fried chicken fillet, lettuce, tomato, mayo, on a nondescript, seedless bun
Wait time: 4min 23sec (but I also got a Frosty)
Tasting notes: I like Wendy’s chicken sandwich game. If you asked me beforehand which chicken sandwich I’d like the best of the Big Fast-Food Three, I’d have said Wendy’s so quickly that you would get weirdly suspicious. I always get the Spicy Chicken Sandwich when I go there. Always. I never deviate, except once to get something on a pretzel bun, and that was a mistake I’m copping to now, because I feel like I can trust you.
Anyway, this was a perfectly fine experience. Although the lettuce was excessively limp, and the tomato was one of those tomatoes where the middle is basically all core, the chicken was moist, there was a good ratio of mayo, and the breading was peppery but not overwhelming, albeit a bit soggy. The bun -- which Wendy’s doesn’t even talk about on their site in the description, a rarity amongst fast-food chains nowadays -- was mostly pliable and a little sweet and soft. This is basically the utility infielder, the 1991 Steve Lyons of chicken sandwiches -- it may not be your first choice, but it can step in and perform serviceably when needed (also, I feel like Steve Lyons is definitely the type of dude to Google himself, so, hi, Steve Lyons!).
5. Sonic's Crispy Chicken Sandwich
The build: “Lightly seasoned and breaded” chicken breast fillet, lettuce, tomato, light mayo, on a “warm, whole grain Ciabatta bun” made with 10 grams of whole grain
Wait time: 5min 27sec
Tasting notes: Why you would ever go through Sonic's drive-thru is beyond me. You have the option to park, hit a big ole red button, place your order, and a dude in f**ing roller skates will bring your meal to you. ROLLER SKATES! Anyway, outside of getting food from people on roller skates, the spice blend in the breading is the real champion of this very solid sandwich, with warm black pepper notes on the backend of each bite. The amount of mayo added was perfect, and the lettuce and tomato were crisp. The only issue was the Ciabatta, which isn’t as light or really very Ciabatta-eque as most breads that would dare use that Italian white bread moniker. All in all, extremely solid.
4. Carl's Jr.'s Big Chicken Fillet
The build: Crispy chicken fillet “dusted with Southern spices”, plus lettuce, tomato, and mayo, on a “fresh baked bun”
Wait time: 2min 37sec
Tasting notes: This is the new kid on the block, and probably the biggest surprise of the group. I didn’t know what to think of Carl’s Jr.’s new entry into the chicken sandwich wars, mostly because I’m so used to them strictly introducing stunt products that 21-year-olds really, really want to eat when they’re enjoying safe amounts of legal alcoholic beverages. But this sandwich was subtle and great.
The winner here was the fresh baked bun, which kind of looked a little strange (as you can see in the pic), but was squishy, lightly grilled and buttered, and stood up to the moisture really well. The actual fillet was huge, definitely the biggest of any of the restaurants, and the breading was peppery in a way I really liked, adding a little more spice than most of the standard builds. The only reason it didn’t move even higher was because the chicken got pretty soggy where it was posted up against the tomatoes, and so my middle bites weren’t quite as glorious. Still, even if you’re not 21 or named Connor, you should still probably eat this.
3. Popeyes' Chicken Po' Boy
The build: Two handcrafted, fried chicken tenders with lettuce, pickles, and mayo, on a French baguette-style roll
Wait time: 5min 28sec
Tasting notes: Now we’re getting into the chicken shops, the specialists. I’ve always been a rather large fan of Popeyes' fried chicken, the spicy Bonafide style with a biscuit and Cajun fries. And if you’d asked me to give pre-taste-test odds, I would’ve guessed that Popeyes would be competing for the No. 1 slot. So, that’s why this sandwich coming in at No. 3 feels like they underperformed.
Rather than the more substantial crust of a real baguette, the bun was more like a sub roll, and the limitations of a sub roll when eating are well-known: its thin surface area forces the food to spread out, which means you have to bite twice to get all the elements of the composition -- one for the chicken, and another for the condiments. Other than that, though, it’s in the top three for a reason. The chicken is great, crispy, and not super heavy, and the acidic tones from the pickles mesh well with the lettuce and mayo. Also, they didn’t include tomatoes, which I always appreciate, but it truly did feel like what it is: a second-tier opening act to Popeyes' fried chicken main event.
2. Chick-fil-A's Deluxe Chicken Sandwich with American
Fried chicken fillet, lettuce, tomato, pickle, Chick-fil-A sauce, American cheese, on a toasted, buttered bun
I must admit something: I thought Chick-fil-A would win this. I didn’t think it would be close. I love Chick-fil-A. At a USC-Stanford football game, I discovered the Coliseum had a Chick-fil-A and missed a full quarter just to purchase four sandwiches, all of which I ate myself. And this didn’t happen 10 years ago; this happened LAST YEAR. But alas, Chick-fil-A does not win the title, and this is why: American cheese.
Allow me to explain:
To keep up with the spirit of the taste-test, instead of their regular chicken sandwich, I had to get the more premium version, the Deluxe, which includes lettuce, tomato, and American on top of the pickles that normally adorn these things. Now, as you may know from my 33 best burger picks
, I love American cheese. But added to what was otherwise a pretty flawless melding of lightly breaded crispy chicken, fresh veggies, crispy pickles, and a sort of Dijonaise sauce, the cheese almost seemed to render the chicken less flavorful. It’s entirely perplexing, and I think it cost the heavy favorite the crown.
1. KFC's Doublicious
The build: Fried chicken fillet breaded in Colonel’s Original recipe, plus Monterey jack cheese, bacon, and “delicious sauce”, on a Hawaiian bun
Wait time: 6min 23 sec
Tasting notes: No one orders the Doublicious at KFC. I know this because, when I went through the drive-thru and asked for it, the guy paused, asked me if I really just said Doublicious, then paused again to talk to someone, and told me it would be a five-minute wait. “Do you still want it?" he asked, feeling quite confident I’d opt for something they’d actually sold before. But I had a job to do, so I said, “I do,” and finally just went inside so I wouldn’t hold up the drive-thru line, because I am a gentleman.
When it arrived, I was underwhelmed. It was about 75% of the size of most of the other sandwiches I’d had. And on top of all of that, I forced myself to take the bacon off the sandwich, because, I reasoned, it wasn’t fair to the others to have that bonus-meat advantage. And yet, it didn’t matter. That Original recipe spicing worked magically with the sauce (mayo?), and the Monterey jack had just the right amount of tang to be able to pair with the chicken, rather than throw a wet, cheesy blanket over it. The Hawaiian-style bun was delicious, and something I’d maybe eat on its own, and it gave the whole thing this savory-sweet element that none of the other sandwiches had. I implore you to get it friends, even if you have to wait five minutes.
Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national food/drink executive editor, and now kind of wants to do a taste-test of antacids. Follow him to the pharmacy: @KAlexander03.