In the United States, one comfort food more popular, more craved and more sought after than mashed potatoes is fast food chicken. Not chicken fingers, though, or even just a bucket from Colonel Sanders. We're talking about the art of the perfectly seasoned, perfectly prepared fried chicken sandwich that is wrapped perfectly by the right bun. The recipe is only the beginning.
Everything plays a factor when determining the best fast food fried chicken sandwich. The size of the chicken, the seasoning, the crispiness, the condiments, the juiciness. All of it taken with as much seriousness as the bouquet from a glass of wine.
While you review the top 26, also consider Burger King's new Ch'King and Spicy Ch'King sandwiches. They entered the market this month. More below.
Chicago Tribune reports that fast-food fried-chicken sandwiches are not created equal. In general, they can be divided into three categories: chicken patties, frozen fillets and hand-breaded chicken.
Chicken patties are essentially giant chicken McNuggets. Chicken meat is ground up with various ingredients, formed into the desired shape, battered, fried and frozen. They are then fried to order at the restaurants. The result can be moderately crispy, and they usually aren’t dry, but they have a strange, spongy texture I can’t endorse. Nearly all I tried landed near the bottom of my list.
The frozen fillets actually feature whole parts of the chicken, usually the breast, which has been battered, fried and frozen ahead of time. When fried to order at the restaurants, these actually taste like real chicken, and some sport a crisp crust. But after frying twice, the meat is often dry.
Finally, we have chicken that is hand-breaded and fried in-house. This is obviously more labor-intensive for the individual restaurants, but nearly always results in the juiciest, most flavorful chicken. Go figure.
One strange constant across all of the different fast-food establishments was the topping combination of mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce. Has there ever been a more boring duo? Is this what we really want to eat with fried chicken? And I'm not talking about a smear of mayo across the bun; some joints felt the need to drown the chicken in a river of cheap mayonnaise. Gross.
And can we discuss how most of the spicy fried chicken sandwiches should be labeled mild? I suppose if you’ve never tried a Buffalo chicken wing or dipped a tortilla chip in salsa, you might cry uncle, but most had zero impact.
Fortunately, there are a few chains doing the job right. For your amusement, here are all of them ranked from worst to best.
26: McChicken at McDonald’s
This giant chicken McNugget has a spongy texture matched with an exterior that is painfully salty. $1 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
25: Original Chicken Sandwich at Church’s
Church's Chicken sandwich includes a sad, small patty with a few inconsequential pickles. 99 cents (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
24: Spicy Chicken at Checkers
The "spicy" chicken patty at Checkers barely qualifies as mild. $1.50 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
23: Crispy Chicken Sandwich at Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen uses an actual piece of chicken, not a chicken patty, but it's tough and bone-dry. None of the other components was much better. And what's up with the waffle-looking bun? $3.89 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
22: Big Chicken at Checkers
What a misleading name for such a diminutive, boring offering. $2 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
21: Original Chicken Sandwich at Burger King
The oblong bun gives you a clue that there's a chicken patty underneath. It's joined by a handful of lettuce and more mayonnaise than you'll ever need. $4.49 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
20: Chicken Ring Slider at White Castle
What are chicken rings? Are they some unheard of part of a bird? Nope. They are just chicken patties shaped into rings, and they taste slightly less good than White Castle's other option. $1.79 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
19: Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s
This certainly looks like the best of the McDonald's fried chickens, featuring a glistening bun and whole leaves of lettuce. But the chicken is shockingly salty, overwhelming every other flavor. $5.10 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
18: Classic Crispy Chicken Sandwich at Sonic Drive-In
Kudos for the mayo restraint. Sadly, a little black pepper is all I could detect on this dull offering. $4.49 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
17: Nashville Hot Crispy Colonel Sandwich Meal at KFC
Greasy, dry and defiantly mild, this confused offering sours the good name of Nashville hot chicken. $6.19 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
16: Crispy Chicken Breast Slider at White Castle
This is the highest rated sandwich using a chicken patty, mostly because it's so inoffensive. But I also liked the soft, warm bun, and the simple slice of cheese worked better than a deluge of mayonnaise. $1.49 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
15: Classic Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s
Though it looks like someone punched it in the nose, the classic chicken sandwich is probably the best chicken offering at McDonald's. That said, the crust is outrageously salty, and most of the components are thoughtlessly hurled on. $3 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
14: Crispy Chicken sandwich at Burger King
Burger King’s regular sandwich beats the similar offering at McDonald's by a hair, mostly due to the fact that the crust is slightly less stupidly salty. $4.69 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
13: Spicy Crispy Chicken sandwich at Burger King
If you have to get a fried chicken sandwich at Burger King, this offering's slight touch of heat gives it the edge. Still, you have to deal with mayo overload. $4.39 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
12: Double Crunch at KFC
As you can tell by this photo, someone in the kitchen upended an entire jar of mayonnaise on this sandwich. That said, the chicken tenders were nicely seasoned with the Colonel's distinctive blend of herbs and spices. $5.39 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
11: Crispy Chicken Sandwich at Culver’s
The fried chicken is thin and exceptionally crispy, if also a tad dry. The well-toasted bun is a great touch, and the toppings are fresh. $5.29 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
10: Homestyle Chicken Sandwich at Wendy’s
Without the spice, Wendy's chicken sandwich tastes rather uneventful. Nothing is particularly bad, mind you, and the chicken has a decent crust. $5.56 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
9: Crispy Colonel Sandwich meal at KFC
KFC's best sandwich option features an extra-crisp piece of chicken on a toasted bun. It's a petite offering, but one that mostly delivers the goods. $5.69 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
8: Spicy Chicken Sandwich at Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A's offering in the spicy category was the mildest one I tried, which knocks it down the list a bit. Still, the chicken is juicy, and the bun is soft. $4.49 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
7: Spicy Chicken Sandwich at Wendy’s
Of all the spicy fried chicken sandwiches I tried, none came anywhere near the spice level of Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich. I'd still call this more of a medium heat, but the warm glow helps add some actual excitement to each bite. $5.59 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
6: Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich at Hardee’s
This solid option also starts with a frozen chicken fillet. Fortunately, it's moist and seasoned with lots of black pepper. Instead of a jumble of chopped lettuce, it's placed on top of a crisp iceberg lettuce leaf. $5.29 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
5: Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich at Arby’s
Of all the chains that use frozen chicken fillets, Arby's came out on top. That's mostly due to the extra-crispy crust of the chicken. All the other elements worked well too. The soft bun houses the chicken without getting in the way. The lettuce and tomato also didn't taste as if they'd been left in the cooler for a couple weeks. $4.99 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
4: Sandwich Combo at Raising Cane’s
Raising Cane's serves chicken tenders and not a lot else, so the chicken sandwich here is really just a bun with a few tenders tossed on. But guess what? Those tenders are breaded and fried in-house, so they have a crackly crust that shatters as you dig in. Plus, instead of boring mayo, the sandwich gets a liberal drizzle of Cane's sauce, the restaurant's own tangy, spicy concoction. $6.79 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
3: Chicken Sandwich at Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A knows what it's doing. The white meat chicken is always tender and juicy, and the bun is always steamed until soft and pillowy. While the pickles are small, the sandwich is blessedly free of mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce. The only real criticism, and it's a big one, is that the crust on the chicken is not very crisp. $4.15 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
2: Fried Chicken Sandwich at Popeyes
The chicken in Popeye’s sandwich crunches audibly when you bite in, with all those nooks and crannies on the surface shattering into a thousand delicious pieces. This makes for an exciting contrast to the soft bun. The chicken itself is also juicy and well-seasoned, without tasting wildly over-salted like the fried-chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s. $3.99 (Nick Kindelsperger / Chicago Tribune)
1: Chick’n Shack at Shake Shack
This was not even close. Shake Shack's offering had the crackliest crust, the juiciest meat and the best toppings. I especially loved the Martin's potato roll, which is certainly the softest bun around. Instead of a basic mayonnaise, this gets a buttermilk and herb mayonnaise, which lends a tangy freshness to each bite. Shake Shack also understands the importance of pickles, adding extra crunchy thick-cut versions. The catch? Shake Shack doesn't have nearly as many Chicagoland locations as the rest of these competing chains. $6.79 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune)
Source: Nick Kindelsperger for Chicago Tribune.