Are the fast food chicken sandwich wars over? It’s been four years since Popeyes unveiled its chicken sandwich and single-handedly inspired an arms race, er, bird race, that saw every single fast food brand obsess over making better chicken sandwiches. So where do we stand today?
Well, for the most part, exactly in the same place.
Two of the three current best chicken sandwiches in fast food were always the best chicken sandwiches in fast food. The newcomer on the medal platform is Popeyes — which was still selling the Chicken Po’Boy sandwich before it became the GOAT. (That was an awful entry into the pantheon, but now they make the best, so the Po’Boy can be retroactively forgiven.) As hard as places like Burger King, Carl’s Jr, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box have tried, they still can’t compete with the brands that have always been on top — Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A — or the new icon, Popeyes.
The popularity of Popeyes sandwich gave us all better fast food chicken offerings, to be sure, but is the GOAT still the GOAT? To check in on that, we’re running a blind taste test. We did this with our favorite burgers a couple of weeks ago and were shocked to find our number one totally dethroned. Will this method upend our chicken sandwich rankings too?
For a blind taste test to be fair, the sandwiches all need to consist of identical builds. If a sandwich has cheese or bacon, I’m going to like it better and by process of elimination, I’ll know exactly where the sandwich is from (I’ve eaten a lot of fast food). That’s not a blind taste test, so to make this as fair as possible we decided to go with the simplest chicken sandwich build ever: chicken, pickles, and bun.
Our original 2021 best fast food chicken sandwich article ranked Popeyes at number one, and if you were to ask me randomly on the street (not sure why you would) what the best fast food chicken sandwich is, I’d point you in Popeyes’ direction. So to see if that reigns true, I put it up against the two other suggestions that come to mind when I hear “best chicken sandwich” — Shake Shack, and Chick-fil-A.
I tasted all three sandwiches under the cover of a blindfold, made note of how each tasted, and ranked them based on first impression.
It should be noted that two of these sandwiches are usually served with mayo, but to match with Chick-fil-A I ordered all of them sauceless. I don’t think sauce makes or breaks a chicken sandwich, it’s mostly there because chicken breast is too dry and fast food brands are terrified of using dark meat cuts even though that would result in a way better sandwich.
When a brand finally decides to go dark meat, it’ll reignite the chicken sandwich war, but for now, this is the best we got. Let’s taste!
Part 1: The Tasting
Wow, this is great chicken. It’s tender, flavorful, and juicy and hits the palate with a mix of garlic and onion powder, and salt with a sweet and buttery aftertaste.
There are a few problems here though. The batter is a little moist, it’s way too wet and it’s affecting the crunchy mouthfeel in a really negative way. The bread is also incredibly dry, it doesn’t have a lot of flavors and desperately needs sauce to not get stuck in your throat. I had to take a sip of water between bites of this one.
The pickles are average. They taste earthy and tangy. Generally like a pickle should taste but nothing special.
Very interesting. The breading on this chicken cutlet is light and crispy with a prominent onion and black pepper flavor. The chicken itself is criminally dry, there isn’t a lot of juiciness to the breast, and it becomes mealy in the mouth.
I’m loving the bread though, it’s soft, slightly sweet, and compliments the flavors of the chicken. The pickles also have a nice amount of snap to them, they taste a lot fresher than what was on the last sandwich.
Uh oh, this one is just as good as Taste 1, this is going to be a harder ranking than I expected. There is a lot of complexity here, the chicken isn’t quite as thick as either Taste 1 or Taste 2 but the flavor is amazing.
It’s tender, juicy, and has an earthy and rich flavor with a nice balance of salt, black pepper, garlic, and the slightest hint of paprika. As I chew into it more the complexity of the flavor deepens, there is some hidden element here that the other sandwiches don’t have.
The mouthfeel is also incredible, and I haven’t even gotten to the pickles and the bread. The bread is soft, slightly sweet, and spongey, it’s a good compliment to the chicken. The pickles are also good, not great like Taste 2, but good, they emphasize the complex and dark flavor of the breading with a perfect tangy finish.
I think this is the winner, but it’s close.
Part 2: The Ranking
3. Shake Shack — Chicken Shack
Shake Shack dropped the ball on this one. Now I’d like to mention that my current favorite chicken sandwich in fast food is the Shake Shack Hot One’s Chicken Sandwich, but that sandwich has a Hot Ones-inspired spicy sauce, applewood bacon, and Monterey Jack cheese, none of which this sandwich has.
And this chicken desperately needs those accouterments to make it palatable. To Shake Shack’s credit, they know this, that’s why the Chicken Shack is usually served with herb mayo which I had to drop for the parameters of this blind taste test.
But still, I expect more from Shake Shack. The quality of the bread and pickles is on point, but this chicken needs work.
The Bottom Line:
Shake Shack knows better, this chicken sandwich is dry and lacks the tender juiciness of the other sandwiches in this tasting. It’s good, but not great.
Find your nearest Shake Shack here.
2. Popeyes — Chicken Sandwich
I know. I know, I know, I know, I know. I didn’t want it to be true either. Look, I love the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich (especially the spicy variety) and the flavor of this bird is amazing, but the sandwich as a whole, it needs work.
Popeyes has become complacent in having everyone’s favorite chicken sandwich, and a fried breast filet this delicious and flavorful deserves better pickles and bread. It’s like Popeyes didn’t even try to serve this on a good bun, this is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.
Yes, the chicken is amazing, my particular filet was a little soggy and wet and I tried not to hold that against the sandwich but quality control is important and Popeyes doesn’t have that on lock.
The Bottom Line:
A truly great chicken breast filet, but a sandwich that could use a little more care and attention.
Find your nearest Popeyes here.
1. Chick-fil-A — Original Chicken Sandwich
You hate to see it. I don’t want to give Chick-fil-A the number one spot, and I even tried to weigh in Popeyes’ favor before remembering why I did a blind taste test in the first place — I have to go with my original impression and this sandwich just delivered where Popeyes and Shake Shack didn’t. I even made my girlfriend and a friend don the blindfold and try each sandwich, and they came to the same conclusion.
I had no excuse to pretend Popeyes was the champ.
I have to admit, the flavor of the chicken is unparalleled. I love Popeyes but they marinate the chicken in buttermilk and Chick-fil-A uses pickle brine, pickle brine beats buttermilk, I’m sorry. There is just a depth of flavor and complexity here that is unmatched. They also have better bread and pickles than Popeyes, and that all matters — we’re talking about a chicken sandwich here, not just a filet.
I’ll offer this caveat — if you want a more filling sandwich, Popeyes is the play, but if you’re after the absolute best flavor, Chick-fil-A wins. I picked up the sandwiches in this order: Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, Shake Shack, and with the increased time in transit, the Chick-fil-A sandwich still tasted better than the other two. That speaks volumes.
The Bottom Line:
Ugh, Chick-fil-A wins this round. This chicken simply tastes better. It has a depth and complexity that is unmatched. Maybe with all the accouterments, one of these other sandwiches could’ve taken the crown but when we’re talking about who makes the best chicken, pickle, and bread sandwich, it’s hands down Chick-fil-A.
Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.