The summer of 2019 brought the great chicken wars. Popeyes changed the game when they released their sandwich to the masses, giving rise to The Purge levels of chaos and endless opinions about what makes a great fried chicken sandwich. Over the next few weeks, that conversation widened beyond just sauce, spiciness, and bun quality. Voices started to rise to fore questioning what cheap, fast food sandwiches mean to the bigger picture in our capitalistic food culture.
The fast-food economy is based on cowboy capitalism that’s short-sighted at best and, at worst, part of advancing the climate crisis. So while Popeyes’ new chicken sandwich is the current gold standard by which fast-food or fast-casual chicken sandwiches should be measured by taste-wise, its sourcing methods also deserve our attention. Because a truly great chicken sandwich should be great all the way down the line, from the farm its raised in, to the working conditions of the factories it’s processed in, to the fair treatment and pay of the workers that serve it.
According to Popeyes’ Animal Welfare Statement, the company “is not directly involved in the raising, transportation, or processing of chickens,” though they claim to be “committed to the humane treatment” of the chickens they’re provided from their various suppliers, none of which are listed on their website. And while this statement sounds high-minded at times (“The Company will continue to monitor emerging technologies related to improving animal welfare and product quality…”), it’s mostly bare-minimum boilerplate stuff.
Looking it over was enough to motivate us to find two companies doing better (which wasn’t quite as easy as we’d expected) to give their sandwiches a try. We hoped to champion a new entrant in the Chicken Wars. One with cleaner (or at least more transparent) sourcing that also tasted great. At the very least, one that wasn’t fully sold out nationwide. Read on as Dane Rivera and I pit Shack Shack and Crack Shack against one another in our latest food face-off.
Our first entrant was the international brand out of New York, Shake Shack. The Chick’n Shack claims to be “100% all-natural cage-free chicken, served on a non-GMO Martin’s Potato Roll. No hormones and no antibiotics ever.” That feels like a step up from Popeyes, but not a huge one. Their own “transparency statement” is still vague and… not at all transparent. They claim to be committed to sustainable sourcing, but what that means is unclear. Still, cage-free and hormone and antibiotic-free was enough for us to go on. Barely.
The next entrant was from the rapidly expanding fast-casual chain out of California, The Crack Shack. Their chicken is sourced from a real free-range farm, Jidori, that sustainably and ethically raises chickens for a large, West Coast market. Jidori’s credentials are some of the best in the farming world when it comes to cruelty-free, all-natural chicken farming. And the fact that Crack Shack names their supplier is, perhaps, the very best sign.
Crack Shack doesn’t use Jidori’s organic chickens, but the standards of their standard free-range chickens offer a massive step up from factory farming.
CHICK’N SHACK, SHAKE SHACK
Number of Stores: 200, worldwide
Price of a Chicken Sandwich: $6.99 (plus tax)
There’s a minor hiccup here. No matter how much we raced between locations, LA traffic is what it is and we tasted this sandwich about one-hour after I bought it. Also worth noting, when we set it side-by-side with The Crack Shack chicken sandwich, there was a pretty noticeable size difference (which helps to justify the cost difference).
That said, the first bite of this sandwich was a delight. There was a nice hint of spice to the breading of the chicken. The chicken itself was moist (albeit white) meat. The pickle had a nice crunch with a solid tang. The sauce was equal parts tangy and creamy with a slight spice as well.
The biggest drawback here was the chopped butter lettuce. It really baffles me that Shack Shake uses butter lettuce in general, and this is the only component that did not hold up to the time delay. That’s on us, obviously. Still, it’s a bullshit lettuce and I demand better. Sorry, Shake Shack.
The nicest surprise was how well that potato bun worked with the whole sandwich. It was pillow-soft with enough heft to hold together until the meal was done. There’s a nice sweetness at play which counterpoints the spice of the chicken and tang of the sauce.
I’m honestly blown away by how well this sandwich travels, I’m obnoxiously insistent about my food being hot, so once I saw the slightly smashed room temperature chicken sandwich that Zach had been carrying around, I was…troubled. I was also wrong.
The Chick’n Shack is delicious. The soft potato bun presents the sandwich with a burst of sweetness that compliments the bite of the herbed mayo and thick-cut pickle chips nicely, offering a well-rounded flavor that really supports the peppery buttermilk batter of the chicken breast. It’s shockingly consistent through every bite, and its smaller size, while admittedly less visually appetizing than Crack Shack’s Coop Deville, seems like a much more manageable and sensibly sized meal. It looks made to offer temporary heaven to anyone burnt out in an office who cherishes good food on their brief lunch break.
If Shake Shack was as widespread as Chick-fil-A, the Chick’n Shack would be its main competitor, the sandwiches are incredibly similar to one another in look, but Shake Shack kills Chick-fil-A on ingredients, sourcing, and bun. How does it stack up to Popeyes? I think it’s better. I even think it could win some of the die-hards over from Wendy’s, and for me that’s saying a lot.
THE COOP DEVILLE, THE CRACK SHACK
Number of Stores: 6, California and Nevada
Price of a Chicken Sandwich: $12 (plus tax)
Okay, this sandwich was served fresh from the kitchen, so we ate it second. Still, it got an unfair advantage. The chicken is breaded with a wonderful spice blend and a clear cohesiveness to the balance between the juicy chicken and breading.
Then there’s the slaw. It’s creamy, tangy, and full of fresh chili pepper spice and crunch. That’s amped up by crunchy and slightly funky pickles. Messy? Yes. But a messy delight.
My one drawback here was the bun. The chicken was much larger than the bun, and that’s fine. It was a bit messy with the slaw, again, that’s fine. But the bun was ever so slightly dry. It held up, had nice sweetness, and was perfectly toasted. It just didn’t have that moist potato bun element I’d fallen in love with five minutes earlier.
In retrospect, it doesn’t feel fair to compare these two chicken sandwiches. The Coop Deville is in a whole other league of cheffed-up-ed-ness. For years, I didn’t ascribe to the belief that chicken thighs are the more flavorful piece of the bird, but Coop Deville made me a believer.
One of the first things that struck me about the Coop Deville was the level of craft, the sandwich doesn’t look like it came from a fast-casual restaurant. There was a homemade quality to it. The batter was crispy and flaky, the Jidori chicken is juicy, tender, and is fully deserving of the hype. The pickled chili peppers add brightness and complexity to the typical chicken sandwich duo of mayo and pickles and was a nice detail that set this sandwich apart.
Will Crack Shack be able to maintain this quality as they grow? Who knows, but God I hope they do.
How does it compare to Popeyes and its fast-food fried chicken brethren? Sorry, Popeyes fans but this is like comparing your middle school cafeteria burger to an In-N-Out Double-Double. It’s better. Much.
I want everything from The Crack Shack’s Coop Deville on a potato bun. If I had that, I’d never stop eating there. That sandwich just felt like it was made specifically for me. It’s bespoke and well thought out in ways that I deeply enjoyed.
In the battle of factory-farmed vs sustainably-sourced, the winner is undoubtedly the more pampered and spoiled chicken. Is that always the case? Maybe not. But here, it was and as someone who has eaten Popeyes’ sandwich, it certainly feels like a trend.
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This is the chicken sandwich everyone should have been losing their mind over this summer. The Firebird from The Crack Shack. That's a spicy fried thigh, cool housemade ranch, crispy onions, dope pickles, and a potato roll. I had to eat one for a @uproxx taste test with my dude Dane Rivera. I regret nothing! Possibly the best chicken sandwich of 2019. Texturally complex. Massively flavorful.
As is becoming tradition, Dane and I sampled a higher-end item from the menu. In this case, we ordered The Crack Shack Firebird. That’s a chicken sandwich with a “spicy fried thigh, cool ranch, crispy onions, pickles, [and] potato roll.”
This one blew me away. First, let’s talk about the spicy fried thigh. The meat was fatty and light while still having a nice meatiness that wasn’t lost in the spice or breading. Speaking of the breading, there was a classic fried chicken feel to it with the spice folded in. The ranch, pickles, and crispy onions created a trifecta of tang, crunch, and funk.
This was one of the most texturally complex yet delicious chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had. The balance of crunchiness next to the soft potato roll and the hefty chicken was edging towards superlatives like brilliant. There was plenty of spice present but never once did it overpower any of the other elements.
As Dane said between bites, “This might be too messy for a weekly meal, but it’s probably the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had.”