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:
- Popeyes signature fried chicken (1): If there’s a favorite to take it all, this is it. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s chicken sandwich was a bedlam-causing sensation; the biscuits are a surefire party hit. But here we’ll focus on its signature fried chicken.
- KFC original recipe fried chicken (2): The Colonel’s secret recipe is known the world over. And the brand — from its ads to its merch — is strong, but how does its fried chicken stack up in terms of taste?
- Jollibee Chickenjoy (3): The Filipino fried chicken chain made its U.S. debut in 1998 and has since developed a cult following for its chickenjoy, what the chain calls its bone-in fried chicken, as well as its meat-topped spaghetti (though that won’t be a factor for judging here).
- Church’s original fried chicken (4): Church’s started in Texas but has since grown to 890 locations in 26 states plus Washington, D.C.
- Wendy’s Spicy Nuggets (1): Wendy’s spicy nuggets have some serious fans among the Eater staff, but how will they stack up in a head-to-head?
- McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets (2): These are the chicken nuggets that are almost a proprietary eponym.
- Burger King chicken fries (3): Burger King does have chicken nuggets, but it also has chicken fries, and whether or not this is the superior shape will be determined herewith.
- White Castle Chicken Rings (4): Perhaps the most baffling of fried chicken shapes, the chicken ring is, for those unfamiliar, like a nugget but shaped like a small, flat doughnut.
- Chick-fil-A Original chicken sandwich (1): Chick-fil-A is deservedly criticized for its donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. Despite this, some people love Chick-fil-A for items like its chicken sandwich, a boneless chicken breast, breaded and fried in peanut oil, plus dill pickle chips on a buttered, toasted bun.
- Shake Shack Chick’n Shack (2): Danny Meyer’s ever-growing burger chain debuted its chicken sandwich to much fanfare in 2015. It’s still made with breast meat, lettuce, pickles, and a buttermilk herb mayo.
- Fuku chicken sandwich (3): The same year Shake Shack entered the chicken sandwich wars, David Chang launched Fuku to compete with Chick-fil-A. Fuku has since reached five states, and they happen to be states where we have staffers. Although the first Fuku sandwiches prioritized thigh meat, these days they’re made with habanero-brined chicken breasts.
- Bojangles chicken biscuit (4): Bojangles is famous for its chicken and biscuits — and was thus the natural choice as the lone biscuit sandwich contender on this list.
- Bonchon combo with half-and-half (1): This order from the Korean fried chicken chain evades any hard choices: You get both wings and drumsticks, half with soy garlic sauce and half with a spicy, gochujang-based sauce.
- Wingstop wings and sauces (2): Wingstop is all about the wings, but it is also about the sauce, of which there are 11 options. Taste testers were empowered to order based on their preferences.
- Panda Express Orange Chicken (3): Yes, the American Chinese food chain’s signature dish (and the runner-up in 2020’s Bowl Bowl) counts for this, too.
- Del Taco crispy chicken taco (4): The Mexican-ish chain puts a fried chicken strip on a soft-shell taco, topped with lettuce, cheese, and sauce.
The Final Round
We’ve made it to the final round of Eater’s fried chicken bracket. (If you need to catch up, scroll down now!) Along the way, Eater writers and editors have picked off some favorites — those titans of American fast food: Popeyes and KFC and the chicken McNugget — as well as some items that some would argue were a bit of a stretch for a fried chicken bracket to begin with (I’m looking at you, crispy chicken taco). And now we’re left with the bracket’s international contingent, dark horses from the start.
It’s the Philippines vs. South Korea as Jollibee’s Chickenjoy, originally of the Bones category, takes on the saucy Bonchon’s combo (half drumsticks and half wings with both soy garlic and spicy sauce). And who better to make the final ruling than Eater’s special projects editor, Lesley Suter, who has masterminded dozens of fried-chicken stories, and is thus now the closest thing we have to an expert. The moment we’ve all been waiting for, it’s Suter with the final word:
Bones vs. Sauced
Jollibee Chickenjoy vs. Bonchon half-and-half
Wow folks, what a matchup. A battle of two international greats right here on American soil to determine this country’s greatest offering in the realm of oil-dunked poultry. But each chain’s foreign tax status (Jollibee hails from the Philippines; Bonchon’s HQ is South Korea) might be the only thing they have in common. Chicken-wise, it’s not even apples to oranges — it’s apples to Apple Jacks. Both are great, but fundamentally different things. That being said, the trial put before me requires a judge, and I will fulfill this role.
First up was Jollibee’s Chicken Joy. I will confess I’ve lived a block away from one of the U.S.’s coveted 70 Jollibee branches for six years and have never eaten the chicken. My loss, it turns out. The subtly seasoned skin is as tectonically crunchy as advertised, if loosely attached in such a way as to be able to slide off an entire hunk with one bite. (This actually proved to be a plus, when, two hours later, I dug in with my fingers for a skin-only snack.) But the real surprise here was the chicken itself: satisfyingly light, flavorful in a “tastes like chicken” sort of way, and supremely moist. That was the aspect my kids enjoyed most, too — my 5 year old won’t eat any meat with too dry or stringy a texture, and he plowed through two drumsticks of this stuff.
Jollibee’s signature gravy is more than just an optional dunk; it completes the dish, gelatinous in a way I can only describe as naughty, while proudly showing its Filipino colors with a hefty dose of sugar. On its own, the gravy is unremarkable bordering on weird, but slathered on a bite of Chickenjoy, the sweetish gravy brings out a whole other realm of flavor — bright, tangy, rich. It’s the chicken’s perfect complement.
Now onto Bonchon. Opening the little box full of dainty chicken wings — separated by a cardboard partition according to heat level — felt deluxe and charming as hell, with the lacquered drumettes enticing in a “oooh shiny things!” kind of way. After my first bite of a soy-glazed wing, I thought it was game over: The sweet/savory/salt wallop on the tongue is an instant banger. But then comes the chewing. Just when the flavor of the sauce begins to fade like a stick of Fruit Stripe, the meat reveals itself to be a hair on the dry side, without much discernable chicken flavor. The result had me reaching back into the box for wing after wing. But was that because the wings are so good they’re addictive? Or perhaps because the waning flavor of each wing left me somehow unfulfilled, in a state of perpetual longing for another saucey hit?
Despite my personal love for heat and my childrens’ regular consumption of foods in the Flamin’ Hot category, the Bonchon spicy wings were actually our least favorite of the two — the soy version just had a stronger flavor overall. The spicy sauce also lost some of its luster when cold, while both the soy Bonchon and the Jollibee Chicken Joy seemed to get better with age and a little chill.
In the end, there can be only one winner. And while I plan to order from both Jollibee and Bonchon with more regularity than ever after this, the ultimate victor will be a new family staple due to its being two minutes from my house. That’s right, the winner of the best chain fried chicken in America is…..
JOLLIBEE CHICKEN JOY!
Congratulations to all the competitors on a worthy series. This (and every meal of fried chicken, really) calls for Champagne.
Winner: Jollibee — Lesley Suter, deputy editor
If you thought you knew how this fried chicken bracket would turn out, I’m guessing senior reporter Bettina Makalintal dashed those expectations with her ruling in Round Two, because Popeyes is officially out of the running. (If you’re not caught up on our previous rounds, scroll down now.) By the skin (literally) of its teeth Jollibee moves forward, with Makalintal favoring the Chickenjoy’s restrained crispiness over Popeyes’s more exuberantly craggy exterior. Also moving ahead: Shake Shack’s chicken sandwich, Bonchon’s half-and-half, and McNuggets.
But which of these worthy fried chicken meals will make it to the final showdown? Jaya Saxena returns to make one half of this critical ruling, and my turn has come to weigh in for the other.
Bones vs. No Bones
Jollibee Chickenjoy vs. McDonald’s Chicken McNugget
My familiarity with fast-food fried chicken is admittedly limited. I grew up in a McDonald’s household, but chicken nuggets were never my order — I opted instead for the comparatively grown-up (at least to my child mind) Filet-O-Fish. But when it comes to chicken lately, my preference skews toward the chicken products least reminiscent of the animal. I’ll take a breaded chicken cutlet over a drumstick, a tender over a wing. And so I was fully expecting to give the Chicken McNugget the edge in this head-to-head.
However, after refreshing my memory with a four-piece, my belief in boneless wavered. The nuggets weren’t bad by any means. They had a not-unpleasant spongy texture; all the flavor came from the seasoning in the breading, which left a vague impression of spice that lingered at the back of the tongue. And indeed, they resembled chicken only abstractly. They were fine. But for a product essentially engineered to inspire cravings, I was expecting something approaching deliciousness.
My first-ever Jollibee experience was under less-than-ideal circumstances — coming off a bout of COVID-19, my palate still overly sensitive to salt — but Jollibee had more to offer in the way of texture and flavor. Even after a half-hour-plus in transport, the skin was still crispy, the meat juicy, not dry. In short, it tasted like fried chicken should. And when it comes down to it, this is a bracket about fried chicken, the animal not the idea.
Winner: Jollibee — Monica Burton, deputy editor
Sandwiched vs. Sauced
Shake Shack chicken sandwich vs. Bonchon combo with half-and-half
My assessment of these two meals worked less as a comparison and more as an attempt to rank each on its own merits. Yes, the quality of the fried chicken itself would be paramount, but there are bigger concerns at stake. What is the goal of a fried chicken drumstick coated in glaze? What are the intentions of a sandwich? What do they yearn for? Do they dream?
The Bonchon half-and-half combo at first seems like the more straightforward of the two, with no bun or pickles to distract from the main attraction. But two sauces competing with each other could have spelled trouble. I determined the stakes here were not just that each piece of chicken, with either a spicy or soy garlic glaze, was good on its own, but that the combined flavors of each bite somehow harmonized. Which, it turns out, they did. Eating at the restaurant so the chicken could be at its freshest and hottest, I found the skin to be perfectly crispy and thin, the chicken juicy, and each sauce flavorful and complex. I worried for a moment that, by trying the spicy sauce first, the soy garlic sauce would be automatically muted, but even without heat it shone through, at once candy sticky and deeply rich. Biting into one of these drumsticks is about as great a chicken moment as you can come by.
The sandwich, as experts note, is all about building a perfect bite. This makes the stakes higher — not only does the chicken have to be good, but the lettuce crisp, the sauce well-seasoned, the pickles firm, and the bun soft and fresh. Shake Shack’s Chicken Shack attempts a platonic ideal of a chicken sandwich, with lightly peppered breading on a piece of chicken breast, dilly buttermilk herb mayo, lettuce and pickles on a buttered and grilled potato roll. It’s all relatively simple and straightforward, and for the most part it’s done beautifully. The breading was crisp, the sharp pickles were complemented by the creamy sauce, and the bun added sweetness and another almost-creamy texture. But, sin of sins, the chicken was a tad dry! At first I thought this was unfair of me to notice, as Bonchon’s selection was dark meat, and it is notoriously harder to keep white meat moist. But then I remembered not only have I had white meat sandwiches that were juicy, but there was nothing stopping Shake Shack (well, maybe the supply chain) from making their sandwich with a juicer cut. An unforced error on Shake Shack’s part, and one that ultimately cost it.
Winner: Bonchon — Jaya Saxena, senior writer
Facing off next in the final round:
- Bonchon vs. Jollibee
Welcome to Round Two of Eater’s first (and surely last) fried chicken bracket, in which Eater writers and editors pit fast food fried chicken items against one another in highly subjective taste tests.
In Round One, the bone-in fried chicken at Church’s and KFC were eliminated from contention, as were Fuku’s fried chicken sandwich and the Bojangles chicken biscuit. In a surprising upset, Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets fell to White Castle’s chicken rings. Less surprising, Burger King’s chicken fries lost out to the Chicken McNugget. Finally, Round One spelled the end for the underdogs: Del Taco’s crispy chicken taco and Panda Express’s orange chicken. (Scroll down to read how those results came to be.)
Now, just eight contenders remain: Popeyes signature fried chicken, Jollibee Chickenjoy fried chicken, White Castle chicken rings, McDonald’s Chicken McNugget, Shake Shack’s chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwich, Wingstop’s saucy wings, and the Bonchon combo with half garlic and half spicy sauce.
Popeyes fried chicken vs. Jollibee’s fried chicken
In a bracket that includes classic heavy hitters like KFC and Church’s, I wasn’t surprised to receive such a tough pairing of two fried chicken greats. Both Popeyes and Jollibee are beloved, both are relatively affordable — though Popeyes leads in accessibility since there are, sadly, about only 70 Jollibee locations in North America as of this writing. (As Jollibee expands, people will become familiar with the bee soon enough, though.) This round is mostly about nitpicking, then, since I would happily eat from a bucket of either. As such, for me, it comes down to skin versus meat and how much weight you put on each.
Meat versus meat, Popeyes is the clear winner, offering predictably good dark meat and surprisingly juicy white meat — the result of 12-hour-minimum marination, the company has told People. Chickenjoy, what Jollibee calls its signature bone-in fried chicken, is good in this regard, though not quite as succulent. But when I’m eating fried chicken, I’m mostly in it for the skin. I love plucking off the best battered chunks and sheets of crisp coating and saving them as my final bites. It’s here that I think Chickenjoy shines: restrained in its amount of crunchy craggies compared with Popeyes’s shaggy exterior, but barely greasy and shatteringly crisp like a golden chicken skin wafer.
Winner: Jollibee, but just barely. — Bettina Makalintal, senior reporter
White Castle chicken rings vs. McDonald’s Chicken McNugget
Sorry folks, but this was a fixed fight. No amount of medieval sorcery in the White Castle kitchens could compare to the deeply embedded nostalgia I have for McNuggets. I grew up in a McDonald’s family and long ago solidified an eight-lane dopamine pathway straight from McNugget-shaped taste receptors to the reward center in my brain. The secret ingredient that forces me to choose the nugget over the ring isn’t MSG or love or pink slime; it’s that happy little neurotransmitter.
On the other hand, I never had much experience with the chicken ring, so it appears only as an imposter. The ring and nugget are cut from the same chicken product Play-Doh, but without the veil of nostalgia to protect them, the rings fall into the uncanny valley, so close to nugget fidelity and yet so fake.
I realize this argument will appeal only to other Mickey D’s kids and only repulse the wayward lot who grew up on other fast-food franchises. So let’s pretend, like I did at dinner one recent evening, that I can set aside my inherent bias and compare these transgressions against nature on their merits. In one corner, the chicken ring weighs in with a thin coating that tears like wet paper and meat that crumbles in the mouth. The flavor is high, clean, relatively unhampered by associations with earthly ingredients beyond some garlic and maybe a hint of citrus. In the other corner, the nugget, a juggernaut of rubbery chicken strands in craggly golden armor. The flavor is sweet, caramelized, with a needling tangy aftertaste that builds after each bite. It does not taste like chicken; it tastes like a nugget. The chicken ring may live at White Castle, but the throne can be found under the golden arches.
Winner: McNuggets — Nicholas Mancall-Bitel, associate editor
Shake Shack chicken sandwich vs. Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich
Though Danny Meyer’s New York City-born chain Shake Shack is mostly known for its burgers, the Chicken Shack brought a new level of finesse to the world of fast-food fried chicken sandwiches in 2015. Served on a pillowy Martin’s potato roll and slathered in buttermilk-dill sauce, the Chicken Shack boasts an exterior that is equal parts light and crisp. Thick-cut pickles, which taste fresh but probably are not, slash through the sandwich’s richness with a bright burst of acidity that brings balance to an entree that would otherwise be exceedingly rich.
The same cannot be said for Chick-fil-A’s classic chicken sandwich, which has earned a cult following across the country. The chicken is pickle-brined, which imparts a decent amount of flavor into the thick, often rubbery chicken breast. The breading is reportedly spiked with a bit of sugar, which makes it a little more complex than other fried chicken sandwiches. At Chick-fil-A, the real problem lies in execution. Too often the sandwich is under-fried, leading to a mealy, unevenly crisp crust, and the only accouterments on offer are a slice of American cheese and two measly dill pickle chips. Sure, the Chicken Shack is a little bit pricier than the Chick-fil-A sandwich, but it’s worth the couple extra bucks to spring for a sandwich that is both not-soggy and doesn’t put money in the pockets of an unrepentant homophobe.
Winner: Shake Shack — Amy McCarthy, staff writer
Wingstop wings vs. Bonchon half-and-half
I came into this round with a slight allegiance, but also with an open mind. Bonchon has a pretty steady presence in my life. It’s a go-to choice if I’m planning any sort of picnic or outdoor activity where I need to bring lunch, and it’s also a steady source of sustenance for my husband’s hockey team. Meanwhile, my only knowledge of Wingstop is from its omnipresent commercials. If I’m going to order Buffalo wings (or more likely in my case, some sort of dry rub wing), it’s probably going to be at a bar rather than from a fast-food outlet.
I decided to get both for takeout so I could compare them side by side, and I also made sure to taste one of each immediately upon pickup, since wings are likely to deteriorate quickly. I was pleased to discover that Wingstop makes a pretty formidable chicken wing. Both the original hot and the Cajun varieties had nice (if not intense) levels of heat, and the sauces both offered actual flavor beyond the spiciness. But while I wouldn’t call either wing soggy, I couldn’t categorize either as particularly crispy either, particularly the flats. And sure enough, once I actually made it home, the wings were already softening further.
Meanwhile, Bonchon wings impressively can sit around to the point that they’re room temperature and still remain crispy. They also were slightly larger and meatier than their Wingstop counterparts. And that flavor — Bonchon’s spicy wings are very hot, even to those comfortable with spice, so the half-and-half order is truly the Move, as the soy garlic ones can help balance the assault of heat. They both have that indescribable quality that makes you want to keep eating them, even after you’re full. Both varieties have a hint of sweetness to them, so if that’s a deal breaker, Wingstop is probably the better bet (though I think the sweetness here just adds further complexity). In basically every other judging criteria, Bonchon reigns supreme. Winner: Bonchon —Missy Frederick, cities director
Winner: Bonchon — Missy Frederick, cities director
Facing off next in Round 3:
- Bonchon vs. Shake Shack
- Jollibee vs. McDonald’s
Popeyes vs. Church’s
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.
Winner: Popeyes — Amy McCarthy, staff writer
Jollibee vs. KFC
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.
Winner: Jollibee — Jaya Saxena, senior writer
Wendy’s Spicy Nuggets vs. White Castle Chicken Rings
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.
Winner: White Castle Chicken Rings — JS
McDonald’s McNuggets vs. Burger King Chicken Fries
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.
Winner: McNuggets, which are perfect all on their own — Bettina Makalintal, senior reporter
Chick-fil-A Original chicken sandwich vs. Bojangles chicken biscuit
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.
Winner: Chick-fil-A — Missy Frederick, cities director
Fuku O.G. Sando vs. Shake Shack Chicken Shack
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.
Winner: Shake Shack — Bettina Makalintal, senior reporter
Bonchon vs. Del Taco
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.
Winner: Bonchon — Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor
Wingstop vs. Panda Express orange chicken
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).
Winner: Wingstop — Erin DeJesus, Eater.com editor
Facing off next in Round 2:
- Popeyes vs. Jollibee
- White Castle vs. McDonalds
- Chick-fil-A vs. Shake Shack
- Bonchon vs. Wingstop
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein