Chicken sandwiches can be a touchy topic. What type of batter works better — tight coats of seasoning and flour that shatter into oily little flecks, or popcorn-like blossoms of crackle and crunch? Does a chicken sandwich need pickles, or do tomatoes and lettuce suffice? Most importantly, which fast food chain makes the chicken sandwich to rule them all?
These are the questions that weighed on me as I set out on a quest to find the best chicken sandwich in fast food, a journey of self-discovery through crispy chicken and lots of pickles. I got my hands on chicken sandwiches from nearly a dozen popular chains across the country — from Carl’s Jr. to Culver’s. My rules were simple: The chicken sandwich had to be fried. It had to be similar in shape; only round buns, not squares of sliced bread or subs, were allowed. Finally, the sandwich had to have similar components to its competitors, meaning I didn’t go around comparing spicy sandwiches to regular ones or value menu offerings to those higher up the pecking order.
After devouring every chicken sandwich I could find at major fast food chains (sorry, Shake Shack, you’re fast casual) — and definitely feeling some sodium-induced bloat in my stomach — I can officially proclaim a winner and some runner ups, including a few that may surprise you.
McDonald’s: Crispy Chicken Sandwich
The Build: Potato roll, crispy chicken fillet, pickles, salted butter instead of sauce
I was wondering why this sandwich didn’t have any sauce on it. Turns out, McDonald’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich is served with a pat of butter — though all of it had melted and seeped into the squishy, rather flavorless potato roll McDonald’s selected for this sandwich by the time I had my first bite. Even with the butter, I feel like the sandwich overall was spectacularly dry. I’d prefer a spread of mayonnaise or some form of aioli. I can appreciate simplicity, but I’d prefer the added flavor and juiciness a sauce could add here.
The chicken fillet doesn’t measure up to that of other contenders in the chicken sandwich arena, especially Popeyes’. Literally. It’s much smaller and thinner, though I found it to be well-seasoned. The batter wasn’t anything memorable and certainly didn’t taste as if it were dipped and fried in-house like Popeyes or Church’s.
Jack in the Box: Cluck Sandwich
The Build: Brioche bun, white meat chicken fillet, a single pickle (but I hear it’s meant to be two), mystery sauce
The first thing I noticed when I pulled Jack in the Box’s new Cluck Sandwich out of its heat-preserving bag (yes, it comes in one of those thermal insulated paper bags like Chick-fil-A) is how perfect the brioche bun looked. It honestly felt like something out of a cartoon: glossy, perfectly toasted, yet still spectacularly soft. If we were ranking on buns alone, this would take the cake. Alas, chicken is the star of the show — but the Cluck Sandwich also shouldn’t be overlooked in this department. The chicken was well battered without being too greasy, giving way to a pleasant crunch. Inside, the breast meat was shockingly juicy. The patty marries well with the “mystery” sauce, which tastes like the love child of honey mustard, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise.
The downsides: the Cluck is a bit small — and pricier — than its competitors. And in my entire sandwich, I only received one measly pickle chip.
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