The Popeyes Fried Chicken Sandwich is currently the best chicken sandwich in the fast food universe. Period. But is there something better out there? And by “better” we don’t mean is it possible to make a chicken sandwich at home that rivals the GOAT. Our team tried that and Joshua Weissman built a whole career around answering that question. What we mean is: does a chicken sandwich exist for sale that tastes better than what Popeyes has to offer?
To find the answer, we’re comparing the current fast food fried chicken sandwich king, Popeyes, to two regional LA chicken sandwich classics — Howlin’ Rays, which serves up deliciously hot Nashville style chicken (along with crazy lines), and Richard Blais’s chicken concept, The Crack Shack. Will fast food beat the bespoke spots? Or will cheffed up sammies trump the simple Popeyes construction?
To find answers, we’ll be assigning three five-point scores to each sandwich, a score for flavor, a score for value, and a final score for spiciness — as all three of these are spicy chicken sandwiches. If spice isn’t your thing, disregard that final score and modify your order accordingly.
Taste 1 — Popeyes Spicy Chicken Sandwich
To search for the best chicken sandwich money can buy, we’ve got to start with the current GOAT, Popeyes. This sandwich is so good that it inspired around-the-block lines and a black market of sandwich sellers, which is insane and something no other nationwide fast food item can lay claim to. The chicken batter is probably some of the best in the fast food universe, it’s supremely crispy — providing an audible crunch that is as appetizing aurally as it is… orally — with a white pepper, garlic and onion powder-forward flavor on the outside that gives way to a juicy fillet of white meat chicken on top of a soft spongey bun with pickle chips. A tasty spicy mayo-based sauce pulls the whole thing together perfectly.
Now that we’ve said some good things about the sandwich, it’s time to get harsh. Popeyes Spicy Chicken sandwich is great but it leaves a lot to be desired when you’re comparing it to fast-casual restaurants. As good as it is, well we’re just going to go ahead and say it — it’s f*cking boring. The bun is overly buttered (like Popeyes biscuits) leaving your hands a greasy mess as soon as you pick it up, and while the chicken is good, that’s almost all thanks to the batter. I’ve ordered this thing without the spicy mayo and it’s incredibly bland. The pickle chips are a joke, they’re not particularly fresh and not nearly thick enough. The whole thing calls desperately for another ingredient.
An obvious way to improve the sandwich is with the inclusion of cheese, but that’s not really Popeyes’ thing, so an easy way to improve this great but flawed sandwich is to give the bread an overhaul (a potato bun would be nice) and add some type of slaw to add a burst of freshness.
Total Score: 10
A delicious but ultimately flawed fast food chicken sandwich. This sandwich is good but once you start thinking about all the ways it can be better (when compared to more serious restaurants) it quickly starts to fall apart.
Find your nearest Popeyes here.
Howlin Rays — The Sando
Howlin’ Rays has, hands down, some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. But the establishment also has famously long lines that take on average an hour and a half to get through, so I wasn’t looking forward to reacquainting myself with this sandwich for this review, no matter how good it is. Luckily, the lines seem to be a thing of the past. Covid-19 safety policy means this sandwich is only available when delivered via Postmates. While that’s a little bittersweet — the journey to the sandwich and the friends you make along the way (yes I’m serious) is part of the Howlin’ Rays experience — I’m thankful for the streamlined approach.
The Sando features a boneless chicken breast available in six different spice levels, Country, Mild, Medium, Medium Plus, Hot, and Howlin. Howlin is so hot that it’s served with a pair of latex gloves. Personally, I think that makes it unenjoyable — I always go with Medium Plus, it’s hotter than it sounds. Howlin’ Rays approaches spice the right way, so if you think you have a high spice tolerance, prepare to be humbled.
The sandwich is served with a freshly prepared slaw (take note Popeyes), a Worcestershire, ketchup, and mayo blend they call comeback sauce (another improvement over Popeyes), thick pickle chips, and an unremarkable buttered bun. The bun is this sandwich’s only weak link, but the flavors here are all strong and well represented with each bite. You have the depth of the comeback sauce, the bitter bite of crisp pickles, and a deliciously juicy filet of chicken breast that explodes with the type of flavor Popeyes wishes it had. The batter is crunchy and well-seasoned with a blend of spices that linger on the palate, giving each bite an addictive quality.
At the end of the day, as good as this sandwich is, I’d rather have Howlin’ Ray’s Skinny Jimmy, which ditches the bun and puts the full focus on the chicken, the real star of the show.
Total Score: 11
$12 dollars for a chicken sandwich is steep. But high price is a… small price to pay, as it’s bursting with flavors good enough to linger on your memory. Thinking about the Howlin Rays’ Sando will actually make your mouth water if you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating it, that’s something Popeyes isn’t capable of.
Find Howlin Rays here.
The Crack Shack — Firebird
The hilariously named Crack Shack is home to our favorite chicken sandwich of all time, the Firebird. The Firebird features a spicy fried Jidori chicken thigh (dark meat ftw), ranch sauce, crispy strings of fried onions, and thick pickle chips, served on a soft poppyseed and onion encrusted potato roll. If you’re not familiar with Jidori chicken, it’s basically the Kobe Beef of the chicken world, it’s so good and juicy and packed with flavor that you’ll be wondering if what you’re actually eating is chicken at all.
Everything about this sandwich works, the sauce coated chicken adds a nice level of spice that is cooled by the creamy ranch sauce, crisp pickles that bring that needed acidity with the crispy onions adding a nice mouthfeel and that extra bit of flavor — all making way for juicy chicken that practically melts in your mouth. The potato roll is easily the best bread roll of the three sandwiches and it’s this sandwich’s harmonious construction that earns it the number one spot in our book.
It’s so good in fact, it’s the only chicken sandwich that could get away with going sauceless. Yes, if ranch isn’t your thing, simply don’t order it, and this sandwich will still be one of the best you’ve ever had. Our only gripe is that it isn’t nearly as spicy as we want it to be. But this isn’t a ranking of the spiciest chicken sandwiches, it’s a ranking of the best tasting!
Spiciness: 4The Final Score: 11
Again, another expensive ass chicken sandwich, it actually makes us uncomfortable to spend more than $10 on a chicken sandwich, I get that the value is there, but it just feels wrong. This sandwich is mouthwateringly good, eating it might forever change the way you feel about Popeyes. It’s not the spiciest chicken sandwich out there, for that you’ll need to go to Howlin’ Rays, but if flavor is what it’s all about, you’d be hard-pressed to find a chicken sandwich that tastes better than this one.
Find the Crack Shack here.
The Final Verdict
Through this experiment, we learned that Popeyes is far from the best chicken sandwich when it comes to flavor. It’s the best fast food sandwich on flavor alone, sure, but Howlin’ Rays and the Crack Shack blow the Popeyes Sando out of the water. They both provide mouthwatering chicken that melts in the mouth and are accompanied by sauces and slaws that elevate the overall experience. So points-wise, although this ended in a draw between the LA chicken spots, we’re going to go ahead and say Crack Shack offers the best overall experience due to how the ingredients make it greater than the sum of its parts, something Howlin’ Rays just comes shy of, thanks to that bland bun.
Having said that, if you’re looking for the best and cheapest chicken sandwich money can buy, at just $3.99 Popeyes still holds the crown. You can buy three Popeyes chicken sandwiches for the price of one from the Crack Shack. Value doesn’t trump flavor in our opinion, but it’s definitely something to consider. As is the ubiquity of Popeyes, with 3,102 locations nationwide.