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A Charleston food writer takes up arms in the fast food chicken sandwich wars of 2019

A quest for crispy chicken on a bun

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So, you're probably aware of the current hype fest that is the Popeyes' chicken sandwich.

Social media buzz of the supposed "Chick-fil-A killer" has been unavoidable. People arguing what is better is a frequent theme on Twitter with the brands' accounts stoking the fires. It's gotten to the point where the lines at Popeyes stretch into hours and restaurants are running out of sandwiches. As of the time of this writing, the Popeyes website was "down for maintenance."

Eventually, a new bit of hype or some other thing we can all be mad or weirdly happy about will take over. But that time is not now.

This is the point where I tell you, dear reader, that I am not a smart man. I, like hundreds of other second-rate food writers across the country, had the wholly unoriginal idea to do a chicken sandwich taste test. This brilliant idea was hatched last Thursday. It was to be executed on Saturday. I, a moron, thought "I'll just head to the Rivers Avenue Popeyes when they open, pick up a few sandwiches then stop by a few other places on the way back to my house to do the taste test by 11 a.m." I roped in a few friends to help and we'd meet at my house for the chickening.



Well reader, this is not how things went.

People are out of their damn minds over this sandwich. I arrived at the Rivers Avenue location only to be quickly and mercifully told they were out, informed by a good Samaritan that they had them in Goose Creek, she said, pointing up Rivers.

Off I went to arrive at Popeyes no. 2 and be greeted with an even longer line. Thinking inside would be faster I parked and went to the still-locked entrance. This was 10:20 a.m. — 10 a.m. is their opening time. Again, they were out and they weren't opening the doors yet.

From a quick drive by the Dorchester Avenue location, it was obvious they were in the same predicament.

At almost 11 a.m., after leaving my house at 9:45 a.m., I drove to Summerville for the last possible chance to pull off this increasingly questionable taste test.

In Flowertown, the lines wrapped around the building twice and into the side street. Cones prevented line jumping, because there was line jumping.

Again assuming going inside was going to be quicker, I parked and went in. The restaurant was full. There were sandwiches in Summerville.

The 15-person line took over 30 minutes. All the while, the crowd waiting to order grew.

(I will give the three workers serious props though. None of this was their fault.)

Once I placed the order for three classic and one spicy, for science mind you, I was told it would be at least another 30 minutes before the sandwiches would be ready. A few patrons were visibly annoyed, but remained and stuck it out. A few did not.

The tension was building in the crowd of people who voluntarily subjected themselves to this situation over a damn sandwich. A few said they had had enough and wanted "their damn money back," only to change their minds when they found out their order was up soon. (It was not.)

This is where I started to reflect on my life choices and wondered how I arrived at this Summerville, South Carolina Popeyes. By the end of this self-inflicted ordeal I will have spent more time in the Summerville Popeyes than I have spent in any and all Popeyes in all my 48 years.

Around 45 minutes after I placed my order, they called my name.

With that all behind me I met up at my house with my partners in dumbassery and we set to the task of tasting six different fast food chicken sandwiches.

Our main goal was to see if Popeyes really is the new king of chicken sandwiches but having a few others to compare would set a baseline to work from. The lineup was Cookout's spicy chicken sandwich (they were out of the regular), McDonald's crispy buttermilk chicken sandwich, Bojangles' cajun filet sandwich, Wendy's homestyle chicken sandwich, the Chick-fil-A sandwich, and the Popeyes' classic chicken sandwich.

BASELINE FOUR

Cookout  is the last place you want to get your fast food chicken sandwich fix - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • Cookout is the last place you want to get your fast food chicken sandwich fix
Cookout

This sandwich looked the worst. Wrapped in a janky piece of tinfoil tucked between a flimsy bun, the chicken is surrounded by a pale, flaccid tomato and an abundance of mayonnaise and what I assume was lettuce at some point. Beginning a trend you'll see with the first four sandwiches, the chicken is pounded flat and has a dry, thin crust with little flavor other than black pepper. The tasters all agreed it was much better than expected, but still fairly middling as these chicken sandwiches go.

McDonald's gets points for their bun - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • McDonald's gets points for their bun

McDonald's

The bun is the best part of this offering. A brioche-y "artisan" roll, it has more structure than most on this list but what's contained between is a disappointment. I feel that Cookout and McDonald's share the same produce providers. The tomato was just as watery and un-flavorful and the romaine — what they call "premium" lettuce — was a sad limp memory of what lettuce could be. The crust on the chicken suffered from a weird flavor that the tasters described as "tasting and smelling just like McDonald's" that lingered long after you finished the bite. There was also an unexplainable green tint to the inside of the crust. I think we all agreed this was the worst of the sandwiches.

Bojangles' puts out some decent produce on their sandwich - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • Bojangles' puts out some decent produce on their sandwich

Bojangles'

Bojangles' gets a lot of praise for their hangover helping Cajun filet biscuits. It's almost as cultish as the cult of Chick-fil-A. Almost. The sandwich version shares the same Cajun spiced chicken filet. Pounded thin, it's dry, with a light thin crust that lacks the overly saltiness of the biscuits. The seeded bun helps this one stand out. Buttered and toasted, the bun has more structure than most. The lettuce and tomato were surprisingly not terrible (we have a high bar here) and the Cajun spices that Bojangles' makes sure you are aware of via their marketing are in full force. The mayo saved the sandwich because without it, it would be unbearably dry.

Wendy's may have been good in high school, but she's since fallen a bit flat - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • Wendy's may have been good in high school, but she's since fallen a bit flat

Wendy's

Wendy's has been in the chicken sandwich game since the late 1970s. My fond memories of high school chicken sandwiches from Wendy's must have been clouded by the fog of teenage hormones. The sandwich we tasted was a dry facsimile of my memories. The crust is better than some of the others we tested but it still was pale and thin. There's some flavor there but the chewy chicken and weird texture takes away from any spices used in the crust. Procuring their lettuce and pale paper thin tomato seemingly from the same place as McDonald's and Cookout didn't help. The dry chicken was unbothered by the glop of mayo centered on the top bun, until you took that one bite.

Top Two

They didn't invent the chicken, they say - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • They didn't invent the chicken, they say

Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A is the darling of Southerners both in the South and those who have moved elsewhere. It's a cult. Any mention of Chick-fil-A not sitting on the throne of chicken sandwiches is met with a backlash charged with the ferocity of an inquisitor questioning a heretic. And there's good reason. The unconfirmed (but highly rumored) preparation method involves brining the chicken in pickle juice, hand breading, and pressure cooking in peanut oil. There's some debate on if this is actually true or if it's just a nice big dose of MSG with sugar and salt. Either way the chicken has the most flavor of any of the sandwiches. The simple presentation of bun, pickle, and chicken works. However, there are some issues. The crust is almost as a rule a rubbery thin approximation of crust. There's no crunch. It has a lot of spices and flavor but the texture is lacking. The buns are flimsy, though not as bad as some others. There's no mayo or other sauce and the chicken can be a bit dry. It's also the smallest of the sandwiches we tested, weighing in at 164g vs Popeye's at 267g. The pickles are thin and floppy with no bite to them, but they do add a welcome highlight to the chicken.

Popeyes has the biggest chicken, but is it the best? - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • Popeyes has the biggest chicken, but is it the best?

Popeyes

The Popeyes sandwich is a beast. It is by far the most visually impressive out of the bag. The chicken breast is huge by comparison and has a crust that looks like it came off your grandmother's best fried chicken. Lots of peaks and valleys of crunch with good color and a nice spicy flavor. The chicken was the juiciest and thickest of all tested. The pickles are thick with great flavor and crispness. Dare I say the texture and taste is almost homemade? They do not suffer from the one note flavor and thin floppiness of other fast food pickles. The buttered brioche bun has structure to handle the largest cut of chicken we tasted and is coated with a layer of mayonnaise for flavor and redundant moisture. The only major drawback we all came to is that the sandwich could use a little more salt. Having to say that about a fast food sandwich says something. But it wasn't so much that it took a lot away from the overall experience.

The Conclusion

The hype is real, though not as much as some would have you think.

The Popeyes sandwich won on all accounts except for the particular flavor that Chick-fil-A creates with the brining, or MSG or whatever it is they use. Everything puts a checkmark in Popeye's column. But the flavor of the Chick-fil-A is a strong positive for them.

The truth is that even though Chick-fil-A tastes good and Popeyes has a lot going for it, there are better sandwiches in Charleston.


You'd be better off going to Boxcar Betty's, KinFolk, or food truck Chicken Fats to get your chicken sandwich fix. Every one of those sandwiches is better than all that we tested, has better ingredients, and you're supporting a local business. Plus I think the Popeyes people need a break.

If you have to choose one of the above, Popeyes is the  best overall fast food chicken sandwich. If you prefer your sandwich with a side of waffle fries and questionable business practices, Chick-fil-A is your jam.

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