Fancy chefs just can’t resist making fancy fried chicken sandwiches. This weekend, fancy Chicago-based chef Grant Achatz (Alinea, Roister, Next) drew his sword in the fancy fried chicken wars when he posted a photo of his new fried chicken sandwich on Instagram. In the caption, he tagged fancy NYC-based chef David Chang, who's been rolling out a line of fried chicken restaurants in New York (Fuku) for the past year and a half.
Chang responded good-naturedly, writing, “Looks good @grant_achatz.” Other commenters speculated on which sandwich is superior, and played up the rivalry between the two superstar chefs with comments like, “Shots fired” and “[David Chang] has some work to do.”
But who’s responsible for the current fried chicken sandwich trend, anyway? Chang unleashed fried chicken sandwich mania on Manhattan when he launched Fuku in June 2015; Shake Shack launched its own chicken sandwich the following month, taking it nationwide last January. This fall, the fried poultry rivalry heated up again when Shack launched a saucy Salt & Pepper Honey Chick’n sandwich; just a few weeks later, Chang unveiled a new sweet-and-spicy glazed chicken sandwich at Fuku. (Of course, everyone is really copying Chick-fil-A, the fabled progenitor of the fried chicken sandwich.)
While a Chicken Shack is priced at $6.29 and Fuku’s spicy chicken sandwich costs $8, expect to cough up considerably more to sample Achatz’s version: The chicken sandwich served at Roister — spread with fancy-sounding chamomile mayonnaise and drizzled in sunchoke hot sauce — comes as part of a $29 prix-fixe lunch menu that also includes a cucumber salad, fries garnished with bonito flakes, and a foie gras candy bar dessert. (Blessedly, it can also be had a la carte for $13 — but that’s still approximately the same price as two Chicken Shacks.)
In a fancy fried chicken sandwich death match, who would reign supreme? Fancy fried chicken sandwiches all tend to be pretty good, so the best fried chicken sandwich is perhaps the one that is most accessible when hunger strikes. Unlike with a burger where a million things can go wrong (overcooked, underseasoned, patty too compressed, et al), a fried chicken sandwich seems like a safer bet: The frying process helps keep the meat juicy, and slapped on a decent bun with some sort of mayo-esque condiment and something acidic (slaw/pickles), you’re pretty much guaranteed a slam dunk.
Who will be the next fancy chef to debut a fried chicken sandwich — can we expect a René Redzepi iteration featuring hand-raised chicken and foraged vegetables? In Battle Fancy Chicken Sandwich, the real winner is clearly the American dining public.