For better or for worse, our diets are forever intertwined with the fried chicken sandwich. Ever since the arrival of Popeyes' record-smashing signature, fast food lovers have frenzied over the golden-brown beauties cradled in a bun -- and it's a winning formula. Breaded poultry with savory sauces and garnishes will have diners flocking to any drive-thru.
Undoubtedly clogged with contenders, it's safe to say that the drive-thru lane, in many respects, exists on a spectrum. McDonald's and Burger King certainly satiate with a plethora of crunchy chicken choices, portability and all. And while they're convenient in a pinch, they're not exactly winning awards for quality.
Our round-up will shine a spotlight on fast food restaurants that build excellent chicken sandwiches, and go the extra mile to do so. White-meat chicken breast is crucial, but equally important to determining excellence lies in how the cutlets are breaded, fried, and garnished — aspects not all establishments have in the bag. So carve out your next chicken sandwich run as we examine the fast food restaurants delivering high quality in (surprisingly) high quantities. Our full methodology is revealed in full at the end, but for now here are the fast food restaurants that serve the best chicken sandwiches.
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Some of the best fast food hamburgers come from Culver's, but the Wisconsin company doles out plenty of other splendid hand-helds. The Crispy Chicken Sandwich, stacked on a lightly browned Kaiser roll, touts terrific white meat chicken and a simple trio of lettuce, tomatoes, and sliced pickles for garnish. Springer Mountain Farms, a Georgia-based business whose practices project the best standards industrywide (this includes zero preservatives or hormones, and approval from welfare organisation, Animal Humane) has provided the restaurant's poultry for close to 15 years.
The eco-friendly aspects are just one part of what makes Culver's sandwich such a smash hit. Obviously, relying on whole breast meat ensures a farm-fresh taste which can be a rarity in modern drive-thrus. However, we also found that the chain puts a lot of effort into how it assembles its sandwiches. As the item's description attests, the breading is prepared entirely from scratch, down to the exact amalgamation of seasonings (such as cayenne, onion, and garlic) that spark heat and savory goodness once it's been in the deep fryer. Not to mention the chain's transparency on obtaining locally-grown produce -- meaning the toppings, by proxy, are quite excellent.
2. Shake Shack
A hot dog stand-turned-fast food super-power, Shake Shack unveiled its first chicken sandwich almost a decade ago. Since then, the Chick'n Shack Burger has built a positive reputation among burger fans. To no surprise, the bird-based burger is crafted with some relatively advanced techniques that blow the average takeout spot out of the water. The breast piece is first simmered in buttermilk, which is then plunged into a proprietary batter mixture and spiced flour. This two-pronged approach achieves a craggy crunch once fried while retaining the melt-in-your-mouth succulence of the meat, which is treated humanely with no unnecessary additives.
When it comes to high-quality chicken, the Big Apple franchise is beyond invested, only opting for free-range and sustainably sourced poultry. Yet the other aspects crucial to constructing a top-tier chicken sandwich aren't put on the back burner, either. Martin's-brand buns (also used for the chain's burgers) are baked with superior ingredients for that sunny-yellow hue and cloud-light texture, while the condiment, an herb-based buttermilk, is whipped up from scratch. Plenty of chains refuse to spill the beans on house secrets, yet the restaurant's website happily divulges chives and parsley among the sauce's enhancements, showcasing the crunch of the shredded lettuce and pickle chips.
In the realm of takeout chicken sandwiches, Chick-fil-A's are pretty hard to beat. Claiming one of the oldest recipes on this list, the signature sandwich is a simple affair, capping off a craggy filet with sliced pickles (two per order, specifically) on a buttery hamburger bun. The chain opts for white meat breast that's culled of artificial additives, and this superior poultry has been in circulation for about five years.
Business Insider toured a location in New York to catch how its iconic offering hits the assembly line every day, and let's just say it doesn't involve pre-frozen patties shipped in from a Sysco plant. Employees sift through the breast pieces themselves, which isn't something the average chain takes time to do. They're twice-tossed in a homemade coating and browned for four minutes in a pressure fryer. Unlike the open-air fryer baskets lining the average drive-thru kitchen, this appliance traps enough heat to form the crunchy shell without leeching moisture from the meat. The frying oil of choice is refined peanut oil, which is prized for its high heat tolerance imbuing the cutlet with a crisp, golden sheen.
Rivaling the last few restaurants is a tough feat, but a good number of franchises are leaning into the chicken sandwich chokehold with artisanal presentation and ingredients to match. BurgerFi, as evident by its Fi'ed Chicken Sandwich, seems to rule the roost with an equal fervor. Though a spicy variety was added to the lineup in 2020, the original is constructed correspondingly: an airy potato bun, housing all-natural white meat, supplied by an eco-friendly source (once again, Springer Mountain Farms) that's breaded and garnished with lettuce, tomato, and a rich mustard spread.
Besides the casual eatery's squeaky-clean credentials, how else does this chicken sandwich disrupt the pecking order? Writing about the Spicy Fi'ed Sandwich, as an example, Restaurant Business lets on that the chain goes to the trouble of brining its filets in advance. Though the tactic is time-consuming, diners will be rewarded with craggy poultry that's not only well-seasoned, but rife with a juicy tenderness.
Keeping the flames at bay or running straight towards the heat, this fast food chicken sandwich gets two clucks up for high quality. One customer spoke favorably of the heat-filled version, vouching "I think that might be the best chicken sandwich in town."
A departure from Jollibee's dark meat lineup, the Chickenwich arrived in 2021 as a post-Popeyes attempt to hone in on the competition. The breast filet is twice-coated, fried to a golden brown, and sits between a brioche roll with pickles and a hearty slick of umami mayo. Although our review pinpointed some areas for improvement, we feel the Philippines franchise offers something comparably premium. And customers know it. For example, one diner described the Spicy Chickenwich (the sweat-inducing alternative heaped with jalapeno peppers and sriracha mayonnaise) as "hands down the best fast food chicken sandwich I've ever had."
Most chains shroud their cooking methods under a veil of secrecy. Unfortunately for diners, Jollibee applies a tight-lipped approach to preparing its chicken. Yet the chain, to its credit, does divulge a few details on how its bone-in fare is prepared, which might tell us a bit about the chicken sandwich. On the subject of the Chickenjoy, the website states that the poultry gets steeped in a marinade before rolling it in the coating that crisps in the fryer. This is an important step to achieving an ideal interior that's seasoned adequately and doesn't sacrifice the moistness of the poultry. The honeyed tinge of the bun brings out the acidity from the pickles and signature spread.
Earth-shattering is what the year 2019 was for fast food chicken in a bun. Popeyes lent credibility to the notion that fast food restaurants can confidently compete with "real" restaurants on quality, and this goes for its high-quality chicken sandwich which is more than worth lining up for.
To achieve that thunderous crunch, the Louisiana kitchen prepares the breast meat in buttermilk to amplify tenderness. Then, it coats the filets in a blend of flours. Activating these two starches results in a flakier shell, leading to breading that browns nicely in the fryer.
Predictably, the sandwich fixings were sourced from smaller brands, leagues ahead of the generic, no-name toppings commonly seen in fast food. Per Restaurant Business, this covered Midwestern pickle chips and mayo from Blue Plate, a Louisana condiment-maker that, according to its website, prizes itself for its "time-honored" savory spread.
Another indication that Popeyes' sandwich is difficult to out-shine in execution is that they have engineered the sandwich to resist sogginess. Greasiness is just a part of the bargain when devouring fried chicken on bread, but to our amazement, the franchise concocted every component to intentionally withstand staleness, at least for up to 60 minutes.
7. Raising Cane's
Isn't Raising Cane's all about the fried chicken strips? Well, yes, but customers can also order a chicken sandwich if they'd like, albeit composed of three breaded fingers (not whole filets) topped with lettuce on a sesame seed bun. If you do, you'll have made a great choice. The Louisiana chain embraces some of the leanest poultry on the market, rejects batch cooking, and only fuels up the deep-fryers when orders are punched in. Altogether, this leads to a crisper, hotter, and higher-grade sandwich than the typical convenience chain.
Let's get one thing out of the way -- by proxy of the strips being fresh and never seeing a freezer, so too will the strips tucked into your sandwich. For all the industrialized pink slime seen in frozen tenders, Raising Cane's slings quality poultry — breast tenderloin, to be exact. Besides this particular cut being extremely tender, the texture is even more desirable since the chicken strips are steeped for a nice long time in their juices. Another aspect of Raising Cane's success is how the kitchen batters and coats each piece of poultry manually. For a fast food place concerned with cranking out large quantities, it's refreshing to know that any sandwich or tenders basket will have gone through human hands before arriving on your plate, ready to eat.
Considering the Crispy Colonel was a longtime staple at KFC, axing it in 2021 in favor of a new-and-improved chicken sandwich could have been a gamble. Seems like that fear was unfounded. The replacement, which consists of breaded chicken, pickles, and mayo, doesn't appear to differ much from the original hand-held it got rid of. But employing some necessary tweaks, as the spice-attuned chain did, undoubtedly changed it for the better. One customer called it "a great sandwich," and was almost in disbelief at its high-quality taste. "I'd honestly put it at the top of the pile, blew my mind something that good came out of KFC."
Maybe the biggest selling point here is the white meat, which the Kentucky franchise coats twice in its generously seasoned flouring. The breast piece is also noticeably larger than in the past, which amps up the classic crunch and that magical blend of spices that defines any trip to Colonel Sanders' house. Limp, leaky pickles might be the norm, but the dill chips here are thick and snappy. Serving the whole thing on a brioche roll tackles that juxtaposition of sweetness and tanginess that wouldn't be the same on a plain white bun.
9. Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Nostalgia-tinged diner food is the typical beat covered by Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. Since opening its doors over 20 years ago, the chain has consistently assembled comfortingly familiar burgers and fries, all from scratch. No doubt the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, once a special and now a mainstay, is on par with those picks, quality-wise. It was initially launched in 2017, and the breaded sandwich is all tender chicken breast, encased in a hearty spiced breading. It's festooned on a plain bun with deli pickles and a peppery jalapeno spread.
It's a pricier option for the drive-thru at the current going rate of $7.49. Yet crafting it by hand, and without any shortcuts, surely gives Freddy's the upper hand in terms of higher standards. Generally, fast food restaurants are adamant about picking up the pace, which means heat lamps and microwaves are to be expected. Not so at Freddy's. Asking for around seven minutes to prepare orders will translate to a longer wait, but in the end, it translates to a hotter, tastier sandwich. Toasted buns will be crisp, not soggy, and the fried chicken will crackle alongside the luscious interior of grilled white meat. Even the toppings -- as classic as can be -- possess a deli-style freshness that's difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
Go to any takeout window in America, and many of the poultry offerings will look bleak, gray, and mushy. But there's no need to throw in the towel as there's a great option now served behind the counter at Zaxby's. On the surface, the poultry-centric chain follows in line with the trends, serving a variant heavy on acidity and richness. But once again, skeptics will be dazzled with the upgraded flourishes accompanying the familiar template.
The Signature Sandwich is composed at its core of crispy white meat, except in this case it's adorned with a trio of pickles at the bottom and Spicy Zax Sauce, essentially blending cayenne and jalapeno for an angry-looking mayonnaise. No flimsy burger bun will be found here; the Georgia company fancies things up with a glossy potato variety, embossed with a split center that's appealing in its artisanal vibe.
On a strategic level, this sandwich was indeed invented to compete with Popeyes. However, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then on that token, Zaxby's rendition is equally promising. With most chicken patties taking on a cafeteria-grade taste, Zaxby's pulls off a hand-held that's much grander in its execution.
11. Church's Chicken
Mouthwatering, bone-in bird is a given at Church's Chicken, and it has been for seven decades and counting. As a result, we can trust the poultry purveyor to craft a chicken sandwich far superior to the norm. Most takeout spaces wrangle one that's just good enough, but looking at the Texas-born chain, going the extra mile is the feature, not the bug. To prepare the sandwich, employees soak white meat in creamy buttermilk before manually coating the pieces in a spicy flour mixture, brown it in the fryer, and finish building it with pickles and mayo.
As is standard with Church's down-home comfort fare, some indulgent touches level up this chicken sandwich in quality. To add a bit of sweetness to the cutlet, the brand skips the basic bun in favor of a fluffy brioche round -- already a good choice for balancing out the salt and grease. Only, there's an extra enhancement that regular patrons probably had the foresight to predict, and that's slicking the roll in its honey butter -- the same butter icing its iconic honey butter biscuits. Opt for mild or tongue-tingling (the heat level is distinguished by the mayonnaise spread), and either way, it's heaped with only the good stuff.
12. Golden Chick
If Golden Chick hasn't been on your dining radar yet, then it might be time. That's because the Big & Golden Chicken Sandwich, having hit the menu in the summer of 2020, is constructed with an almost chef-like gusto. Besides the poultry itself being brined and double-rolled in starch, the Texan eatery embraces house-made bread buns to support its hand-battered filets. Another demonstration of this fact is the placement of the toppings. Each side of the sandwich lays claim to generously slathered Lotta Zing spread, with five pickles (no more, no less) lining the bun's bottom. The logical construction, quite frankly, makes digging in all the more enjoyable -- and seeing as the toppers aren't slapped on without rhyme or reason, signals quality.
If there's anything better than a chain chicken sandwich exhibiting a restaurant's level of precision, it's a sandwich that offers its partakers much more to go around. The franchise went about plumping up the portion an extra 20%, and that was only a year after it officially launched in its 200+ dining rooms. Bigger and better, without sacrificing the elements that make it impressive? We'll take it.
Despite the subjectivity associated with terms like "high quality," we aimed to focus on fast food restaurants that offer premium flourishes to their chicken sandwiches. Our criteria prioritized all-white breast meat, hand-battered breading, and filets preferably prepared to order that we felt represented peak freshness and taste. Buns and topping choices played a part in our assessment, considering those components can make or break this highly-coveted menu item. Although we favored chicken chains first and foremost, any major franchise displaying an affinity for scratch-cooking was included for our consideration.
Read the original article on Mashed.