My dad did not eat a chicken sandwich until he immigrated to America in his mid-20s. His first chicken sandwich, which was later also my first chicken sandwich, was a McChicken.
There are no McChicken sandwiches in this taste test.
The culture of immigrants is a culture of always trying to do better than the generation before. My dad ate McChicken sandwiches. As a member of the next generation, I had to find a better chicken sandwich – maybe even the best fast-food chicken sandwich out there.
I put together a list of the chicken sandwiches from the eight fast-food chains closest to Business Insider’s office in Manhattan. If a chain had more than one chicken sandwich, I chose the one that seemed most like a classic chicken sandwich. I also avoided kid-sized or dollar-menu items like the McChicken and the Chicken Jr.
My methodology, as usual, was as scientific as my bachelor of arts degree. I judged the sandwiches based on texture, flavour, bun quality, and overall impression.
The contenders in this taste test are: Arby’s buttermilk crispy chicken sandwich, KFC’s Crispy Colonel sandwich, Wendy’s homestyle crispy chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A’s original chicken sandwich, McDonald’s buttermilk crispy chicken sandwich, Burger King’s crispy chicken sandwich, Popeyes’ classic chicken sandwich, and Shake Shack’s Chick’n Shack.
All prices listed are what I paid in the New York City establishments I visited for this test.
ARBY’S BUTTERMILK CRISPY CHICKEN SANDWICH, $US5 — I was surprised by how thin the chicken patty in this sandwich was, especially because everything else about it was so pretty.
BUN: Sweet and soft, but strong. Just the bun I was looking for. TEXTURE: The chicken was crispy but really, really thin. It seemed reheated.
FLAVOUR: It tasted reheated too. All the accoutrements were great. The tomato was tart, the lettuce crispy, and the mayo fatty and sour. But the chicken was just wimpy.
KFC’S CRISPY COLONEL SANDWICH, $US5 — I was surprised by how small this sandwich was, especially because it was the same price as the Arby’s sandwich. It looked beige and not very fresh.
BUN: The bun wasn’t bad, but it was pretty standard. It was small like the rest of the sandwich. TEXTURE: Chewy rather than crispy. The chicken was tough and very dry. It was difficult to choke down.
FLAVOUR: It was also way too salty. There isn’t really anything in the way of moisture left in the chicken — it’s been salted out. OVERALL: This sandwich was small, salty, and plain, with no depth of flavour, and the chicken was terrible. I was disappointed.
WENDY’S HOMESTYLE CRISPY CHICKEN SANDWICH, $US5.79 — The slab of fried chicken in this sandwich dwarfs its apparel.
BUN: It’s a standard brioche bun, but it ultimately can’t stand up to the behemoth piece of poultry it’s meant to hold. TEXTURE: The chicken is kind of chewy, kind of crispy. It’s better than KFC, but not by much. Plus, the tiny lettuce leaves kept falling out.
FLAVOUR: The chicken drowns out all other flavours in this sandwich, and it’s too mediocre to carry the sandwich by itself. OVERALL: The lettuce, tomato, mayo, and bun were victims of a poorly balanced sandwich that was too eager to showcase its chicken at any cost.
CHICK-FIL-A’S ORIGINAL CHICKEN SANDWICH, $US5 — Chick-fil-A was named Americans’ favourite fast-food chain of 2019 in a recent Market Force survey, so I had high expectations going in. It wasn’t a very big sandwich though.
BUN: A standard bun. This one was nothing to write home about. TEXTURE: The edges were crispy, but anything touching the bun was soggy and soft. The pickles had no crunch.
FLAVOUR: It was very plain. The chicken was thick and pretty good, but not as juicy as it could have been. I missed mayo, lettuce, or tomato, which Chick-fil-A includes only in the deluxe version. OVERALL: I’d expected more, so ultimately I wasn’t impressed by this sandwich.
MCDONALD’S BUTTERMILK CRISPY CHICKEN SANDWICH, $US5.69 — I hadn’t expected such a good-looking sandwich from McDonald’s.
BUN: What a gorgeously brown, buttery, toasted potato brioche. It was sweet and light but tough — perfect for holding a tile of chicken the size of my face. TEXTURE: It was wonderfully crispy, but the breading was kind of dark, and the chicken was a little chewy and too bready.
FLAVOUR: The chicken wasn’t as thick as the chicken in some other sandwiches, but it was fairly juicy and a bit peppery. The tomato was tart and the mayo fatty, but the lettuce was more decorative than anything. OVERALL: I thoroughly enjoyed this sandwich. It’s not the thickest or the juiciest chicken, but it’s pretty good. And everything in the sandwich works well together. It’s also one of the bigger sandwiches.
BURGER KING CRISPY CHICKEN, $US6.29 — People don’t usually go to Burger King for the chicken, which makes sense. The chicken in this sandwich was darker than chicken usually is …
BUN: Sweet and dense, but nothing special. It was the right size for its contents though, which wasn’t often the case during this taste test. TEXTURE: The chicken was pretty crispy, pretty juicy, and a little bit chewy.
FLAVOUR: It actually tastes good, but also weird, like it’s not quite chicken. I thought it tasted vaguely like Christmas. I’m not sure if the chicken was burnt or if it was just the spice mixture. The lettuce wasn’t fresh. OVERALL: It tasted better than it looked, but I couldn’t shake a bad gut feeling.
POPEYES’ CLASSIC CHICKEN SANDWICH, $US4 — Popeyes added the classic chicken sandwich to its menu in May. Before, there was just the po’boy. The contrast in thickness between the Arby’s chicken patty and Popeyes’ patty was simply stunning. This sandwich was huge, even though it was cheaper than the others.
BUN: A sturdy toasted brioche with a hint of sweetness. TEXTURE: The chicken was unbelievably crispy, thick, and juicy, with a crinkly, crunchy layer of fried batter. The pickles too were crunchy.
FLAVOUR: Everything in this sandwich tasted amazing. The pickles were tart, the mayo added a smear of fatty comfort, and the chicken was outstandingly juicy and fresh. OVERALL: I was wholeheartedly surprised and impressed by how good Popeyes’ sandwich was, especially considering its price.
SHAKE SHACK’S CHICK’N SHACK, $US7.09 — Shake Shack made some waves when it added a chicken sandwich to its menu in 2015. It’s not a very wide sandwich, but it sure is tall.
BUN: The potato bun was very sweet and flavorful but crumbled under the weight of its contents. TEXTURE: A thin layer of breading still made for a solid, consistent crisp. The chicken was juicy, and the pickles were thick and crunchy.
FLAVOUR: It was way too salty. The bun, lettuce, and mayo did very little to cut the overwhelming saltiness of the chicken and the pickles. I couldn’t tell if the pickles were tart because they were so salty. OVERALL: This sandwich was, unfortunately, less than the sum of its parts. As per Shake Shack’s standards, the individual ingredients were all high-quality. However, it simply needed a break from the salt.
WINNER: POPEYES. Popeyes’ classic chicken sandwich was clearly better than its competitors in every way. The chicken was incomparably crispy, juicy, and fresh, and all the elements of the sandwich were well balanced. Each bite was bursting with flavour. And its price tag is also the most appealing — at $US4, it’s the cheapest sandwich in the lineup.
RUNNER-UP: MCDONALD’S. The buttermilk crispy chicken deserves a shoutout for punching way above what one might expect from the golden arches. It both looks and tastes good. Though at $US5.69 it’s on the expensive side, it’s certainly a step above the McChicken.