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VOL. 44 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2020

Try as they might, competitors aren’t there yet

By Catherine Mayhew

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Here’s the meat of the matter, as it were. We tested six chicken sandwiches. Well, hang on. “We” is me.

My qualifications for the job are these: I’m a former restaurant critic for the Charlotte Observer, a former syndicated food writer, the food writer for the Nashville Ledger and I like chicken.

I ate all the sandwiches on premises to ensure that I was getting the freshest renditions each chain offered. I stuck with the regular sandwiches versus the spicy ones just because I figure most people would not choose spicy. Normally, I would.

Let me say at the outset, all of the sandwiches were acceptable. I didn’t feel as though I wasted money at any of the chains. But the cream rose to the top. These are not ranked by preference until, of course, you get to the end.

The Runners Up:

McDonald’s Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich

McDonald’s Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich ($5.35) is neither transcendent nor objectionable. It is a good solid middle-of-the-road chicken sandwich. The brioche bun is slightly sweet and perfectly pillowy. The accompaniments are fine – fresh leaf lettuce, a roma tomato slice and a properly applied smear of mayonnaise.

It is the chicken itself that drags this sandwich down a notch. The crispy coating is very acceptable if not particularly well seasoned, but the chicken portion itself is uniformly flat as though it had been pounded with a meat mallet.

That subtracts from the feeling that you’re eating a real chicken breast with undulating levels of thickness. It’s real. Just very uniformly flat.

This sandwich is apparently not the best McDonald’s thinks it can do in the poultry department because it’s test-marketing a new fried chicken sandwich meant to compete with Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A.

Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich

Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich ($4.79) is just fine. Not great. Not awful. The chicken patty, like KFC’s and McDonald’s, is uniformly flat, which doesn’t bring up images of a juicy chicken breast, although the chicken was moist.

The menu describes the breading as “light.’’ I’d describe it as not very crispy and bland. The lettuce is iceberg, and the tomato slice is, well, just what you’d expect from an industrial tomato. It also is served on the now obligatory, it would seem, brioche bun.

Wendy’s made it into this taste test because it attempted to muscle in on the action on Twitter when the Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 erupted.

KFC’s Crispy Colonel Sandwich

KFC’s Crispy Colonel Sandwich ($4.49) has an enticing menu description: “CRUNCHY FUN IN A BUN: You probably can’t hear me because it’s so crunchy, but the bronze and gold goodness of my Crispy Colonel sandwich is so tasty and extra crispy I can’t hear myself, either!”

The copywriter gets an A+ on creativity. Makes you want to order one, right? Well, the sandwich itself doesn’t live up to the verbiage.

I most definitely could hear myself as I bit into the barely crispy chicken patty. On the plus side the distinctive KFC spice blend was front and center, and the chicken was on the juicy side on this sandwich, which is served with pickles and mayonnaise. The brioche bun was slightly sweet and agreeably pillowy.

It’s respectable if not inspiring.

KFC is test-marketing a plant-based chicken nugget that tasters report is remarkably like the real thing. If successful with that product, KFC will be the only chain occupying an entirely new chicken space, as it were.

The Chick’n Shack at Shake Shack

The Chick’n Shack at Shake Shack ($7.09): I am a huge fan of the Shake Shack burgers, and the chicken sandwich has gotten a lot of rave reviews. But, for me, it was underwhelming.

The sandwich comes on a perfectly toasted buttered bun and includes shredded romaine lettuce, thick-cut pickles and buttermilk herb mayonnaise. The chicken itself was clearly a whole breast but was on the small side. The breading was less than crisp. And because of the breast’s relatively small stature, it was in great harm of being overwhelmed by the thick pickles and herb mayo.

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And it is, by far, the most expensive. For $7, I expected more. It was a pleasant sandwich. Just not a knock out.

Top Chicks

Chick-fil-A’s Original Chicken Sandwich

Chick-fil-A’s Original Chicken Sandwich ($3.79): There’s just not a thing wrong with this sandwich. It hits all the high notes. The bun is grilled and buttered. The pickles are tart, although there could be more of them (I got two very thin slices). And the chicken is just perfection.

It’s crispy, well-seasoned and exceptionally moist. There’s no doubting that this is a real chicken breast the way God intended it. Chick-fil-A has always served its chicken sandwich naked, as in without condiments other than the pickle. But there’s nothing to prevent you from adding on a smear of mayonnaise if you want. I did and I thought it made the sandwich even better.

I feel as though I must make a disclaimer here. I had not been in a Chick-fil-A for years because of its history of discrimination – not in its stores but by its charitable foundation. In November, the chain announced it would no longer contribute its foundation money to groups that are controversial in the LGBTQ community. Despite keeping the courage of my convictions, I was happy to have a chicken sandwich there again.

Popeye’s Classic Chicken Sandwich ($3.99): BOOM! The moistness of the perfectly marinated breast. The intense crunch of the buttermilk crust. The spices that let you know right away you’re eating Popeye’s. The thickness of the pickle slices, a swoosh of mayonnaise and a buttery brioche bun.

I apologize. As the woman in the Popeye’s commercial says, I’m having a moment here. I would not stand in line for hours or break someone’s arm for this sandwich. But I’d consider it.

The Winner

Popeye’s Classic Chicken Sandwich

Popeye’s by a thread. Both Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s make stupendous chicken sandwiches. But Popeye’s chicken was just a little juicier and more flavorful. And the buttermilk crust was the crunchiest not only between the two but of any chicken sandwich I sampled. The contrast between the juicy chicken and the crunchy crust made every bite revelatory.

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