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#GarbageTime presents The Fast Food Fried Chicken Sandwich Smackdown

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I Ate Oklahoma is brought to you in part by:

#GarbageTime is I Ate Oklahoma’s exploration of limited-time-only fast food dishes. Lobster from Long John Silver’s? A Big Mac that is bigger than normal? A taco made entirely of burritos? We’re there!

This is the third Garbage Time review and already we’ve broken the rules, as there’s no way Popeyes is going to let this cash cock go away any time soon. That said, when the Internet is in an uproar, we are Extremely Online™ and incapable of ignoring dumb food news. And this, my friends, has to be the dumbest food news around. 

So, Popeyes finally made a fried chicken sandwich. Chick-fil-A already had a fried chicken sandwich. Wendy’s also...uh, exists. They were a-fussing and a-feuding and we decided to be the judges of which chicken sandwich is actually worth eating.

Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich

Chick-fil-A

Ben Luschen: Quick disclaimer: Every sandwich I ordered for this review was the spicy variant. In my opinion, spicy should be the default option, and customers should have to specify “mild” and own up to their own blandness. 

To me, Chick-Fil-A’s food strengths are twofold. First of all, they make great sauces. Every regular customer has their favorite: Polynesian, barbecue, honey mustard. Personally speaking, I’d probably never set food inside a Chick-Fil-A if not for my occasional craving of the classic Chick-Fil-A sauce.

Secondly, their food quality is the most consistently high out of the drive-thru chains. I can go to any Chick-Fil-A in the country and feel fairly confident they will at least hand me an edible meal. I can’t be so sure with any other chain — some I’d even bet against. 

All of that was necessary to say this: I don’t see the classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich as a particularly great food item. Classic, sure. Consistent? Yes. But great? The chicken in the Chick-Fil-A sandwich might consistently be “not dry,” but it is rarely what I’d call “juicy.” That’s why they lean on their sauce selections. I purposefully went through this review with no sauces, as I was strictly judging sandwiches. Without a dollop of that trusty ole CFA sauce, the only thing to distract you from the overwhelming breadiness are the few pickles beneath the chicken. While a pleasant addition, those pickles aren’t enough to bring the ‘wow’ factor. 

Score: 6/10

Recommended for: Picky eaters. Haters of equality.

Becky Carman: The worst thing about Chick-fil-A is their well-documented discriminatory corporate practices. 

The second-worst thing about Chick-fil-A is people who make capitalist compromises in nearly every other facet of their lives using a fast food chain as their virtue line of demarcation.

The third-worst thing about Chick-fil-A, if I’m able to isolate a singular customer experience from the company’s aforementioned discriminatory corporate practices, is when someone working grueling shifts for near-minimum wage says, “My pleasure!” as they hand me my food. It’s creepy, and it’s a lie, and there is no situation I can think of where I want someone to lie to me in a creepy way. 

Not one item on my long list of bad things about Chick-fil-A involves the way the food tastes. For this episode of Garbage Time, we’re talking the plain-Jane, OG Chick-fil-A® Chicken Sandwich, which I actually find superior to the spicy version (AHEM, BEN), and which involves two of my favorite cooking fats, peanut oil (chicken) and butter (the bun). 

Where other fast food sandwiches put on a big show of well-roundedness with a thick slice of mealy tomato you can’t bite through and a leaf of lettuce, all sad and wilted from the heat of the other ingredients, this sandwich is like, “No no, my good dude/lady, trust me.” The Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich is like a high-quality white T-shirt—an essential and timeless addition to your sandwich-eating repertoire. Its only accoutrement is thinly sliced dill pickles, which cut through all that fried and buttery goodness like a statement piece of jewelry. I used two fashion analogies here but don’t actually know anything about fashion: that is how inspiring this sandwich is. 

The point is that it is good, and it is indeed fast food, and it doesn’t seem to matter which restaurant you visit because it always tastes the same. I don’t have children, but sometimes my appetite and my impatience join forces and turn me into an absolute freaking toddler who must eat a very specific food item as quickly as humanly possible. When that has happened in the past—most often at Dallas Love Field Airport and really almost no other time, now that I’m thinking about it—Chick-fil-A has answered the call. But I don’t generally go out of my way to get it or anything.

So for my hot take on the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, I’m ripping an answer straight from Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete: “I do not approve of their politics, but I kind of approve of their chicken.

Greg Elwell: When I said, “I might get the Garbage Time Gang together to try these sandwiches,” I was immediately reminded by two of my favorite online people that Chick-fil-A’s ownership are full of terrible people who support lots of things I hate and vice versa. Which is fair. 

Honestly, it wouldn’t even be an issue except that Chick-fil-A is very, very good at making chicken sandwiches. So much so that McDonald’s introduced a copycat version several years ago, but took it off the menu because they hate money, I guess. Call it the Mcfil-A if you’re worried about being too subtle, guys.

Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches come in both regular and spicy, with the spicy version being both superior and actually kind of spicy, which is a sharp turn from most “spicy” foods peddled by fast food restaurants. 

The sandwiches are notable for their homogenous nature. While Popeyes has quite a big of variability in their crust, Chick-fil-A is pretty much the same every time—close-cropped breading that sticks to the juicy chicken in the middle. The buttered bun really melds itself to the chicken, so when you’re eating it, the only real difference you’ll feel when eating comes from the (too few) pickles on each one. 

I guess my issue, other than the political one, is that it’s not really fried chicken. It’s chicken. It has breading. But it’s not what I consider fried chicken, which has a much more robust crust and a more concentrated chicken flavor. If anything, I feel like Chick-fil-A showcases their chicken brine more than the actual meat. 

Are they good? Yes. But I can live without them. Especially on Sundays. 

Popeyes chicken sandwich

Popeyes

B.C.: Today, I saw a humble and embarrassed camaraderie descend unto the dining room of a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. It was just as I imagine Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore that other Louisiana Purchase: a gathering of men (and two women including me) waiting nervously, unsure if the rough terrain traversed to get here (I waited in line for 16 minutes just to order) would reap the spoils promised. 

Today, two roads diverged in an orange wood, and sorry I could not travel both, I took the one less traveled by, which turned out to be the classic chicken sandwich combo instead of the spicy because an informal poll of the dozen or so people waiting on their food while I was in line revealed they had all ordered the spicy chicken sandwich. I do not know why that one takes longer. I also did not ask. 

“Number 56!” the clearly overworked shift manager yelled, and I elbowed through the sorry people to retrieve my sandwich and mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy.

“Congratulations!” said a guy who had been there since before I waited in line for 16 minutes to order, with an enthusiasm that surprised me, as enthusiasm always does. 

As each spicy sandwich made its way from the kitchen to a customer, a tittering of amusement went through the people remaining. Jokes about selling them on the black market. Comments about how Chick-fil-A has 400 people working the drive-thru. Nearly every person in line apologized to at least one employee for our collective stupidity. Every few minutes, someone would poke their head in the front door, see the line, utter an obscenity, and return to their car. 

The thing about Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is that, in general, it’s really good. The chicken is well-respected among even the cheffiest chefs. The origin story for this particular sandwich recipe, in fact, involves another restaurant sourcing Popeyes chicken to serve on their own menu. 

The thing about Popeyes in Oklahoma City, though, is that all the locations range from 1.5 to 2.5 stars on Yelp, and in some cases those ratings might feel generous. Before this Garbage Time feature, I was at a loss about what kind of person would have a lengthy and stressful fast food experience, then sit down and mull over the horrifying details enough to write about it online. 

Today, I am that exact kind of person. 

Even hastily assembled under what appeared to be extreme duress, the thing ascends to the upper echelons of fast food chicken sandwiches. Very crunchy, very seasoned, and while mine very only had one slice of pickle, at least that one pickle was good and tasted like the fancy, expensive grocery store pickles and not the muddy green kind you can buy in a gallon jar. Pickles you buy to impress your friends. I loathe the term “mouthfeel,” but the shiny brioche bun is hands-down a better mouthfeel-creator than a standard hamburger bun, which starts to (mouth)feel dry and crumbly about four seconds after it’s toasted. There was kind of a lot of mayonnaise, but I am known far and wide for using lots of mayonnaise on sandwiches, so that was okay by me. This sandwich tastes like what if someone who cares about you made you a fried chicken sandwich, and, critically, it is as good as or better than if you tried to make a fried chicken sandwich at home, which in this one instance may have taken less time than I spent inside Popeyes to buy it.

I would not go so far as to say that Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is transcending the medium or anything, but if you like chicken or sandwiches or both, it is absolutely worth your time on a day when 10,000 other people don’t have the same idea simultaneously. 

P.S. In case this helps you decide, Lewis and Clark received $2,324 for their expedition in the early 1800s, which, according to an internet calculator I just found, is over $35,000 in modern dollars, or 8,000 or so Popeyes chicken sandwiches including tax. 

B.L.: I’ve always loved the idea of Popeyes. It’s an absolute necessity that our nation host at least one Louisiana-influenced fast-food chicken chain. That said, I struggle to find any location in OKC limits that hits even my low standard of food acceptability. The restaurants usually seem understaffed and understocked. So though I do love the Southern spice in their chicken, I hardly ever stop there. 

BUT WAIT A MINUTE, Y’ALL! That might all need to change. Because what I was handed through the Popeye’s window was the most welcome surprise of my sadly extensive fast-food history. 

Straight out the wrapper, this thing pops eyes (please don’t kill me). It’s easily twice as tall as the basic Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and that’s not all bun either. The chicken piece is bigger and crunchier. And though Popeyes servers have historically handed me more devastatingly dry chicken tenders than I know what to do with, this fillet was probably the best piece of fast-food chicken I have ever put into my mouth. I was so surprised and thrilled with the first bite that I had to speak, even though I was alone. I had to say, “Wow!” I had to put it into the air. I needed to know it was all real. 

This sandwich lives up to what I think Popeyes should and could be. I have tried other specialty items from Popeyes in the past, and almost all of them I would categorize as failures. But Popeyes execs had to be high-fiving each other when they tried this for the first time in some board meeting. Of the three we sampled, this was the only sandwich I finished. 

We’ll see if store locations have what it takes to maintain consistency of the product down the road, but I think this is the best new fast-food menu item since Taco Bell’s original Doritos Locos Taco.

Score: 10/10

Recommended for: God Herself. 

G.E.: Here’s what I’ll say about Popeyes new chicken sandwich: it is a fried chicken sandwich. And if you think that’s being blase about it, you must understand how different this is from other chicken sandwiches. It’s not just chicken strips on a sandwich. It’s not just a big chicken patty on a sandwich. This is as if the workers were frying chicken, as per the norm, and then, magically wishing the bone away. 

The volume of the crust is, perhaps, the most important factor for me. The bun provides a buttery buffer, but that’s just the beginning of the Rube Goldberg mechanics of eating this sandwich. The bun compresses slightly as it reaches the breading, which in turn compresses the underlying chicken until it cannot take it and suddenly you’re shooting through layers of varying textures, with tender, juicy chicken at the center. The release of a bite causes a bit of reinflation, which just means you’re enjoying that cycle again and again. 

While I enjoy Popeyes' chicken, I don’t know that it’s particularly magical. I cannot help but think that these fast food sandwiches may be enjoying a greater reception in the north where good fried chicken is much harder to come by. Oklahoma might not be the No. 1 state for fried chicken, but we’ve got our fair share of excellent chicken sandwiches without relying on fast food.

Much like Wendy’s (see below) Popeyes chicken sandwich comes in both spicy and regular, but the spice on Popeyes is hidden in the mayo, rather than in the chicken’s crust. I still prefer the Popeyes sandwich to Wendy’s, by a large margin, but it does seem like a missed opportunity for more spice. There’s no lettuce or tomato, but there are pickles, which brings to mind...

If you don’t like Chick-Fil-A for any number of reasons, Popeyes has a sandwich that is different, but still very good. I don’t think my kids are going to be begging for Popeyes anytime soon, but I’m glad to have the option for my own peace of mind.

Wendy's chicken sandwich

Wendy’s

B.C.: I have had this sandwich, many times, because I used to work at an office in Mustang, Oklahoma, which at the time did not have very many other quick places to eat lunch, and I remember enough to know that I don’t need to eat it again because it is not in league with the other two sandwiches in question. It is an afterthought menu item at a fast food chain that serves SQUARE HAMBURGERS for God knows what reason, and also cups of chili. Spicy nuggets and a Frosty or GTFO. Nice try, Wendy, if that is even your real name.

B.L.: I think the first fast-food combo I ordered for myself outside the kids menu (at an embarrassingly young age in a pre-nutrition era), was Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich. And I would come back to that same first love time and time again. This is how I learned to love fast-food. This is where I would lay the nostalgia-taste groundwork that would screw me over as an adult. It’s also where I learned to love the special adrenaline rush that only spice can bring.

Though I’m still probably ordering a spicy chicken sandwich if I ever find myself inside a godforsaken Wendy’s, nostalgia is really the only thing this contender has going for it. The chicken itself is the least impressive of the three restaurants in question. While the largest in circumference, it’s not special in flavor. The spice doesn’t do anything other than upset my stomach 10 out of 10 times I eat it. And the tomato, lettuce, and half-pint of mayo Wendy puts on almost all her sandwiches only makes a mess.

Despite more flavor elements than Chick-Fil-A’s selection, Wendy’s fails miserably in the execution department. And I’d sooner throw a rock through my bedroom window than compare this chaotic cluster to Popeye’s golden clucker.

Score: 4/10

Recommended for: Kids ordering off the adult menu at an embarrassingly young age. 

G.E.: Oh, Wendy’s...why did you jump into a fracas with restaurants whose business *is* chicken? Some bored social media intern no doubt thought it would be a fun way to spend a Monday, but then I had to spend part of my Tuesday in a Wendy’s line that had no business being as long as it was.

Wendy’s has a homestyle chicken sandwich and a spicy chicken sandwich. Only one of these is not garbage and, you guessed it, it’s the spicy one. The homestyle chicken sandwich legit reminds me of school cafeteria chicken fingers, except bigger, which is the exact opposite of what I want a school cafeteria chicken finger to be.  

Each sandwich is functionally the same—a decent buttery bun, a couple of pieces of roughly torn lettuce, a slice of tomato, a dollop of mayo, and a fried chicken breast—except the spicy version seems to be dipping its toe ever-so-gently into having flavor. Spicy is a relative term, I suppose, but for anyone who has tried something exotic like pepper or Tabasco sauce, it will elicit little more than a tickle of heat. But at least that heat covers up an otherwise stale flavor that’s showcased in the homestyle sandwich. 

Seriously, Wendy’s...why? Stick to your RTs for nuggets and let the rest of the crew handle chicken sandwiches from here on out.

Popeyes (left) and Chick-fil-A size comparison

Final Thoughts

There you have it. Wendy's is lukewarm garbage. Chick-fil-A is tasty, but problematic for some. Popeyes tastes great and you can get it all week and it's actually made of fried chicken, so...

WINNER: Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

Now go to Off The Hook or Chick-n-Beer or Rococo or Mary Eddy's or any of the other places doing a great chicken sandwich that actually comes from Oklahoma.

About the Author

Ben Luschen. Becky Carman. Greg Elwell. Three nearly human beings gathered together for one purpose: Eating the bizarre, limited-time-only dishes served by national fast food chains.

Will we survive? 

No.

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