Vox Media

2022-06-29 13:22:08 By : Ms. yann wang

Welcome to Eater’s fast-food fried chicken bracket

It is not March, but the bracket formula transcends seasons and disciplines. We found the formula extremely helpful for declaring the best bowl food in 2020’s Bowl Bowl. And here, now and over the next few days (do check back), we’re applying it to the wide world of fast-food chain fried chicken.

Just as fried chicken crosses cuisines and countries, it is present in myriad forms as fast food. There are the dedicated fast-food fried chicken restaurants, but you’ll also find dishes that qualify as fried chicken (i.e., chicken that has been breaded and fried) at burger spots, mall food courts, and at least one taco chain.

In fact, there’s such diversity in options that we’ve divided this bracket into four abbreviated categories (our regions, if you will): Bones (regular ol’ fried chicken), No Bones (nuggets, tenders, and the like), Sandwiched (fried chicken sandwiches), and Sauced (a far-reaching category of chicken dishes with a saucy component). To ensure maximum chain diversity, each fast-food restaurant is represented by only one item. This means that, for example, you won’t find both Wendy’s spicy nuggets and Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich. We had to pick one. Yes, it was difficult.

And while we’d like to say that this is an unimpeachable list of the absolute best fast-food fried chicken that American chains have to offer, we’ll admit that we were limited by the geography of our various participating staffers. (Sadly, none of us lives near a Raising Cane’s. We hear we’re missing out.) Plus, there’s the fact that with various individuals deciding which item moves forward, given no judging criteria other than a directive to follow their hearts, we are also limited by subjective tastes. Without further ado, the players:

In the world of fast-food fried chicken, few chains have managed to earn the sort of fervent loyalty enjoyed by Popeyes. Founded in a suburb of New Orleans in 1972, the chain was originally a Southern secret that’s since grown into a global phenomenon with more than 3,000 restaurants worldwide. That has everything to do with Popeyes’s iconic fried chicken. This bone-in yardbird boasts impossibly crisp skin, a juicy and flavorful interior, and the perfect blend of Cajun spices that tie the whole package together into the absolute most perfect piece of fried chicken that didn’t come from your Southern granny’s own deep fryer. When paired with a scoop of mashed potatoes and one of those fluffy biscuits, there is no meal more appealing than a Popeyes two-piece.

Church’s Chicken is actually older than Popeyes — the first location opened in San Antonio, right across the street from the popular tourist attraction the Alamo — in 1952. The fried chicken here is also known for its thick, crunchy crust, and it is certainly an excellent place to sate a fried chicken craving in the absence of a Popeyes. But when there’s a choice between the two, the obvious favorite is Popeyes. The chicken is more flavorful, more reliably fried to perfection, and juicier. There’s absolutely no beating the classic, homestyle vibe of Popeyes fried chicken, especially not for this Louisiana native.

I was coming into this assuming KFC was going to be a disappointment. Despite harboring some nostalgia for my family’s go-to for fried chicken growing up, I figured we’ve made leaps and bounds in fried chicken innovations since then. So I was surprised to find it tasted better than expected. The famed secret seasoning was legitimately peppery and powerful, even in the original recipe order, and made for a tasty first bite. However, the seasoning couldn’t make up for everything else about it. What upon first bite felt juicy, on second bite revealed itself as just plain greasy, and the skin was soggy and quickly slipped off the chicken thigh. After about four bites, I was mostly sad for my childhood self and hoping that the largest fried chicken chain in the world might be better in other countries.

I got it delivered, so I thought maybe the soggy skin could be chalked up to the transit time. But in comparison, Jollibee’s skin stayed crispy and crunchy after making a similar trek. In fact, in a voice recording I made of me and my spouse eating, just to keep track of our in-the-minute reactions, you can hear the crunch as we bite in, like a Foley artist had swooped into our kitchen. What Jollibee’s breading lacked in seasoning it made up for in texture, and the chicken itself tasted fresher, more flavorful, more purely chicken-y than the insides of KFC’s offerings. Jollibee’s gravy also had a more subtle spice than KFC’s seasoning, but it highlighted the chicken’s sweetness. Perhaps KFC’s Extra Crispy or Spicy chicken would have fared better, but we’re here to compare the basics of what these chains have to offer. And once I bit into Jollibee, there was no comparison.

Last year, Twitter user @undeniablyalex indexed Yankee Candle scents based on level of abstraction, from physical object (Black Cherry) to a completely detached property bearing no relation to thing, place, or experience (“Sweet Nothings”). The White Castle Chicken Ring represents the endpoint of a similar journey. If the progression from chicken to chicken tender to chicken nugget takes us ever farther from an identifiable object, the chicken ring is chicken only in memory, resembling neither chicken, nor part, only unsavory fantasy. Who dreamed up the chicken ring and Lathe of Heaven-ed it into existence?

The ring is not great. It smells and tastes like frozen banquet nuggets. Its thinness is a blessing, keeping one from having further objections to the texture of the meat, which, such as it is, is unnaturally bouncy. But the peppery, garlicky seasoning is pleasant enough, and I would gladly use these (or anything) purely as a vehicle for the horseradish-forward Zesty Zing Sauce. In fact, the thin ring shape makes for more browned crispy edges than an average nugget. Perhaps this is a branding issue more than anything. “Chicken chip” or “Bagel thin, but it’s chicken” would have completely rearranged my expectations.

You’d think any nugget would be a shoe-in for the winner here. But as Truman Capote wrote of Holly Golightly and of the chicken ring: She may be a phony, but she’s a “real phony.” The chicken ring relishes in its artificiality, and by doing so condemns every nugget, including Wendy’s spicy chicken nugget, that attempts to disguise its true reality. The Wendy’s spicy nugget has the same rubbery, flavorless texture as the chicken ring, only in thicker quantities. Its shape, which evokes a rustic cut of meat, is similarly planned and unnatural. And its spicy flavor basically tastes like Tabasco, a one-note blast devoid of depth of flavor, overwhelming and distracting your senses from anything else. Neither the spicy nugget nor the chicken ring is good, but while I don’t like the latter, I do respect it. At least it’s honest about who it is.

Most of the time, when I crave a nugget, I go for a meatless alternative, of which there are many. I like them, despite being an omnivore, because unknown plant proteins still feel more appealing to me than the reconstituted mush of many chickens. But sometimes the golden arches beckon, and I get McNuggets. Whether meatless or McDonald’s, what makes nuggets so good is their shape and texture. The McNugget in particular is a marvel of food science, regardless of what we think about the health and industry effects of it all. Each nugget is just two equally good bites, each providing the ideal ratio of crunchy coating to chewy meat and a flavor that is basically unnaturally delicious.

To date, no major alt-meat companies seem to have released a riff on the chicken fry — not even chicken fry popularizer Burger King, which has tested plant-based nuggets. I would argue that this is because the chicken fry is inherently an inferior format and the market wouldn’t bear it. Their length means a smaller diameter and a thrown-off ratio of breading to filling, and that translates to each bite of chicken fry feeling a bit too small and a bit too soggy. Like regular fries, Burger King’s chicken fries feel designed for dipping, and with that distractor, they’re decent. But without sauce, the failures of the form make themselves clear.

I came into this battle with no clear allegiance. I have generally positive memories of the flavor of a Chick-fil-A sandwich from childhood, but we were definitely more of a nugget party platter family growing up, and I haven’t tasted one of these in at least a decade due to the company’s well-documented history of anti-gay business donations. Given that Eater decided to include it in this bracket, I felt the proper journalistic approach would be to judge the sandwich on its flavor merits alone. Meanwhile, I didn’t grow up with a Bojangles near me, and my only real experience with the Southern favorite was a harried, mediocre meal in the basement of Union Station before catching a train. It was time to give both a second chance.

Obtaining the first was a breeze — there are Chick-fil-A locations about every two feet in the D.C. area, and I avoided the comically long drive-in line by ordering a sandwich inside. This is truly an excellent fried chicken sandwich — moist with brined flavor, it tastes primarily of chicken rather than breading, with a pleasing and not overly assertive spice mix. The simple accompaniment of pickles as a topping adds just enough acidity (there’s a reason other chains have since copied this approach), and the straightforward bun doesn’t detract focus from the excellent patty. Being able to make a great chicken sandwich, though, isn’t enough to persuade me to spend my own money at a Chick-fil-A. But it did persuade me to try the famous Serious Eats’ copycat Chick-fil-A recipe. That recipe, impressively, creates a freshly made sandwich that’s both similar in taste and arguably even better than what I got from Chick-fil-A.

Meanwhile, to find a Bojangles, I had to cross state lines and head into Maryland. Ultimately, I was disappointed by the Bojangles chicken biscuit. The primary flavor profile was salt (with some heat in the background), and too much salt at that (and I have quite a high tolerance), and while the patty was crispy, it was so thin that it tasted more of coating than meat, and was overwhelmed by the large, slightly greasy, buttery biscuit that enveloped it. I would recommend the biscuit on its own with a little jam, though.

Per Fuku’s website, the Dave Chang chain was built on the concept of a “really delicious thigh-meat spicy fried chicken sandwich.” Fuku is ambitious, from its original conception (thigh-meat sandwiches, with Asian and American influences) to its roll out (popping up unannounced in multiple cities via virtual kitchens) to its spicy O.G. Sando (habanero-brined and drizzled with spicy mayo). But with ambition comes risk, and risk doesn’t always pay off. Fuku backtracked on the thigh thing, for one. When I had the O.G. Sando recently, the chicken was dry and overshadowed by its too-thick coating, which felt more crusty than crispy — but maybe it was just an off day, since the company has faced plenty of operational problems.

Basically ubiquitous in New York and increasingly present in other cities, Shake Shack is reliable, if overly familiar. While I’d still always rather have one of its burgers, the Chicken Shack is a sandwich that takes no risks — a fried chicken breast, thick crunchy pickles, herby mayo, and a squishy bun — but one that comes with the feeling of being trustworthy and predictable. Shake Shack promises you a decent chicken sandwich that isn’t trying to reinvent anything, and it delivers.

I feel obliged to start this off by noting that this is not a fair fight. First of all, Del Taco is cheap. I mean really cheap. I spent less than five bucks and ended up with three tacos and a Diet Coke from the drive-thru. At Bonchon, a 15-piece combo costs $30 (I split it with a friend, so call it $15 for one), and there’s waiter service. We’re not talking apples to apples. We are, however, talking chain fried chicken.

The Del Taco crispy chicken taco has so much to live up to, simply because of the nomenclature. Tacos are just so good. What Del Taco offers, though, has more in common with an airport cafe wrap than it does with anything you could find at one of LA’s many actual taquerias and stands. The tortilla is gummy, the “sauce” tastes mostly like mayonnaise — and it’s less sauce than a spread, anyway. Worst of all, the chicken’s not even crispy. Inside the Del Taco-branded wax paper the only thing that has any crunch are the shreds of iceberg lettuce that didn’t happen to steam in the time between when I was handed the bag of tacos and when I ate them.

Speaking of crispy, let’s talk about Korean fried chicken for a minute. The promise of Korean-style double-frying is that it allows for a skin that has a powerful snap, even when covered in a sauce. At Bonchon, those sauces are genuinely flavorful: The spicy sauce packs a truly fiery wallop, while the soy-garlic is a total umami bomb. Those big flavors help make up for the fact that Bonchon is not serving high-quality chicken; the actual chicken is probably the most disappointing part. The best part is the craggy fried chicken skin, with its pleasing, undeniable crunch. Bonus: You can (and should) order sides of kimchi and rice. Yes, it’s not a fair comparison. Yes, it costs more. Yes, of course Bonchon wins.

Look, I love mall Chinese food. There’s a place in my heart for these dishes that fall squarely in the Chinese American canon; the ones that are chain restaurants’ slightly off-center interpretation of the local takeout spot I grew up with. So in my memory, I have a deep appreciation for Panda Express, particularly its famous orange chicken and its wok-sealed citrusy sauce, best eaten with a veggie spring roll and chow mein while surrounded by bags from Claire’s and Forever 21.

That teenage memory, though, does not sync up with present reality (you didn’t think I was currently collecting trinkets from Claire’s, did you?). When I recently picked up the orange chicken for this bracket, secure in Panda’s prowess in this realm, it arrived with an acrid citrus scent. It was unpleasantly acidic to the nose but oddly devoid of orangey flavor in terms of taste; texture was nonexistent. The lesson: Nostalgia leads you astray.

For the closest comparison in this saucy fried chicken matchup, I opted to try the orange chicken against Wingstop’s boneless wings doused in two vaguely Asian sauces — a similarly sweet and slightly citrus “Hawaiian,” and the Spicy Korean BBQ. Wingstop’s Korean boneless wings were the clear victor, with a pleasantly crisp crunch in the breading and nicely cooked (i.e., not overcooked) chicken: The crags in the breading gripped the sweet-and-spicy notes in the sauce well. Wingstop’s Hawaiian flavor would be the runner-up. I wouldn’t necessarily order them again, but they at least tasted somewhat like citrus, even if their thicker sauce leaned toward an artificial sweetness and overwhelmed the breading. What further clinched it: the order of Wingstop cheese fries that had come along for the ride, my preferred starchy side over the chow mein (still like those spring rolls, though).

Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein

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