It’s hard to argue with Popeyes’ Spicy Chicken Sandwich. It was a sensation when it dropped and had a huge impact on fast-food culture by revitalizing an old and often-overlooked category of fast-food alternatives to the regular old burger. Still, Popeyes didn’t invent the spicy chicken sando and, arguably, did not perfect it either.
Personally, I’ve always found the sandwich to be overrated. My main gripe has always been that the “spicy” just comes from a very mildly spicy mayo on a plain piece of fried chicken breast. Why isn’t that spice built into the brine of the chicken breast and/or the damn breading of the cutlet? For me, spots like Wendy’s and Culver’s get this and always stuck out in my mind as having the better, spicier option built into the chicken on the sandwich and not just the sauce.
So, I decided to put this theory to a test. While in Sioux Falls recently, I had access to both Culver’s and Popeyes. It was a two-lunch Tuesday for Zach as I hit them both for a taste test of each chain’s spicy fried chicken sandwiches.
I’m also doing more than just tasting the sandwiches and declaring a winner. I’m going deeper than that by looking at five categories for this adjudication: The bun, the dressings (sauces, lettuce, etc.), the chicken, presentation, and the heat. There’s just no way to judge these sandwiches without breaking them down by their components to find a clearer sense of the whole.
Okay, preamble over. Let’s get to tasting and judging some spicy fried chicken sandwiches!
Round One: The Bun
No one goes to Popeyes because they have amazing buns. It’s pre-toasted and kept warm for the build. There’s more of a vegetable oil taste to the toasted vibe than a buttery one, which is fine. I guess…
Overall, it’s not sweet or buttery. It’s just white bread with almost no discernable flavor besides white bread and vegetable oil.
The potato roll on this has a slight heft to the softness of the milk-inspired bun. There’s a sweetness to the crumb on this bread and it feels like there’s something there besides a soft sponge.
The bun is also buttered and has a buttery toasted vibe. It’s almost lush.
Culver’s by a mile.
Round Two: The Dressing
So this is where things diverge dramatically. Popeyes is dressed with their spicy mayo and a few pickles. The spicy mayo is on the top and bottom bun, providing good distribution of mildly spicy sauce and moistness to the overall eating experience.
The pickles kind of get lost in the mix. They add a nice crunch every now and then but don’t live up to the crispy outer crust of the fried chicken. I tried a bit with and without pickle and there wasn’t really any difference.
Culver’s sando comes with shredded iceberg, tomato, and pickles but no sauce. It’s mind-blowing that there’s not a spicy mayo or just plain mayo on this sandwich. Culver’s has a massive, interchangeable menu yet they don’t have sauce on this entry. Granted, you can ask for them to add anything to this. So you can just have them put some mayo on there or a slice of cheese. But, still…
As for the lettuce, tomato, and pickle, they’re not bad. They all 100 percent add to the textural experience of eating this sandwich. Culver’s also has very distinct pickles with an old-school deli saltiness and pickle crunch that stand the test of time.
Popeyes because at least there’s a sauce element.
Round Three: The Chicken
This is where things get prickly. Popeyes assembles your sandwich to order from pre-cooked pieces. I watched mine get made. The bun was pre-toasted and kept warm and the chicken cutlet came out of a warmer tray.
Here’s the thing, my chicken was pretty dry and not seasoned all that well. There was a nice crunch to the coating but that was made a little mushy by all that sauce.
Overall, it was underwhelming and I was reminded of something our own Dane Rivera said while ranking spicy fried chicken sandwiches. “Popeyes also sells a non-spicy version with mayo. It’s good but not great.” And, yeah, that kind of sums it up on the quality of the chicken at play here.
This isn’t hard to give the win to because this chicken breast was juicy, well-seasoned thanks to the spice being built into the chicken and not the sauce, and fried fresh.
Look if we’re talking moister chicken breast and better seasoning, I have to give it to Culver’s. Plus, this piece of chicken actually tasted of something.
Round Four: Presentation
That is a thing of beauty. Look at it up there!
This looks like it was served at a college cafeteria and I’m not mad about it.
Popeyes in a walk.
Round Five: The Heat
Is a simple, even non-descript “spicy” enough to push Popeyes over the top? I don’t know. The spice is certainly there, but it’s tame and a little blank. It sort of dissipates within less than a minute, leaving you with the mayo and dry chicken, and there was a lot of sauce on my sandwich. Any note of spice was already gone by the time I put the wrapper in the garbage can and headed to the car.
The actual spiciness was fine but felt very entry-level, which is probably the point since we’re not talking Nashville hot chicken here.
In the end, my memory of this non-descript spice on this sandwich being just “okay” was still accurate.
The spice of this is built into that chicken breast cutlet. That’s a plus already. But what really helped this edge out Popeyes wasn’t the intensity, it was the staying power.
I had a 15-minute drive from Culver’s and Popeyes between eating these two sandwiches. During the whole drive from Culver’s to Popeyes, I could still feel the slight tingle of spice on my tongue and mouth. It wasn’t an overpowering chili-spice bomb. It was more a pleasant, peppery, and chili-forward tingling spice sensation. It was a nice feeling that stuck with me. Comparatively, the spice from the Popeyes sandwich barely made it out the door, much less a 15-minute car ride.
Culver’s all the way.
That’s three to two for Culver’s, folks.
It probably sounds crazy to rank a fried chicken sandwich from a burger joint from Wisconsin over the same sandwich from a fried chicken joint from Louisanna, but here we are.
That dry chicken breast and extremely mild spicy sauce just weren’t enough to put Popeyes over the top. In theory, Culver’s should lose for having no sauce at all. Still, no sauce and plenty of spice on a moist piece of fried chicken are better than sauce with “okay” mild spice sauce and dry chicken. So, there you have it! Culver’s wins this round.