KFC didn’t start the trend, and once a craze, for sandwiches made with chicken breasts, breaded and deep-fried and served on hamburger buns with mayonnaise and pickles, with the option for a cayenne pepper-spiced version. With the inspiration and competition from Chick-fil-A, in the summer of 2019 Popeye’s introduced its chicken sandwich, one spicy and one not, that caused a sensation, to the surprise of the company, along with occasional violence in the long queues at its restaurants. The considerable success spawned versions at other restaurants across the country, fast-food spots and otherwise. This has certainly been popular, even helping cause shortage of the chicken meat. Whataburger now has on its website home page the warning: “Due to demand, some chicken items may not be available at this time.”
The spicy version was the one that resonated me. If not quite enough to venture to a Popeye’s, or later anywhere, to check it out until nearly the summer of this year. I avoided the hype back then. I try not to eat much in the way of fast food. And chicken breasts are among the very dullest of proteins. It was tough for me to get excited about something that was centered around this. As Nashville-inspired hot chicken has spread across the country in recent years, I became more interested in the sandwich versions.
Unlike my quest to try every margherita pizza in Houston, for which I had some hopes for widespread quality – for which there is definitely not here, unfortunately – I knew that the bar would not be too high concerning spicy chicken sandwiches, which were conceived at fast food joints. So, I didn’t expect a lot of disappointment. Some indigestion, of course.
To note, the spicy chicken sandwich is a different animal – well, same animal – same cut of it, same breading and deep-frying and made with a spicy flavor, also, as the Buffalo chicken sandwich that’s been on some menus for a while, but different, as we all know. Not that much different, but different enough for me. And you, too. Bleu cheese, with its strong-tasting difference, disqualifies a sandwich in a similar fashion, of course.
I really tried to try the chicken sandwiches at every place in Houston, within reason, of course. I have to admit I missed the one from the (overly) wide-ranging menu at Woodshed in Levy Park. The chicken fried steak I had there recently is certainly one of the worst versions in the area – and I have had about every one in town in another, possibly silly, still-ongoing artery-clogging line of investigation – so I didn’t place a lot of faith in its rendition of another deep-fried offering. I didn’t sample the one at Jack the Box, either; Jack in the Box is really gross.
I tried the spicy chicken sandwiches at nearly twenty restaurants in Houston, fast-food and otherwise. A couple of the places, Howdy Hot Chicken, a small chain from Sugar Land, and Mico’s Hot Chicken, use obviously industrially produced ultra-thick, Chernobyl Farms-style chicken breasts; too much of the very boring chicken breast and necessarily less of the fried breading per bite. I did not enjoy these much at all. What I found is that a thinner cut of chicken breast makes for a much tastier sandwich, one with a closer mix of the crunchy, more flavorful breading to meat. The fast-food restaurants generally do a good job with this. But, two drawbacks of the fast food spots are the quality of the bun, pretty much just the overly processed and ingredient-ed white bread stuff, and that the chicken might be dried out a bit; the meats aren’t cooked to order at these. Other than that, the quality of the meat seems the same; it’s chicken breast, after all. Whether fast-food or not, taken to go, with a fair amount of sauce and sometime some liquid-y cole slaw, these sandwiches don’t travel particularly well.
The best version that I found was from The Hay Merchant, which does a lot of things very well. It’s $14 and comes with house-made potato chips. After that was at KFC and Popeye’s, smaller in size, but $10 less, only $3.99, and these have drive-thrus. These convenient cheapies out-performed most of the more ambitious restaurants. Then came The Burger Joint, though it does not have a spicy version. There are few others that are worth ordering, if not worth a detour: The Cookshack, Feges BBQ, Fuddruckers and even the oft-variable Whataburger. If you feel the craving for a fried chicken sandwich, I recommend one of the above. But, there is almost always better things on the menu.
The sandwich that begat the craze.