On the heels of the 2019 uber-phenomenon that was the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich, each successive launch of a replicant menu offering by all of Popeyes’ competitors has raised the stakes. Popeyes dethroned Chick-fil-A as the best fried chicken sandwich in fast food, but no post-Popeyes offering has yet to come for that crown. Perhaps predictably, McDonald’s has come closest so far, having taken about 18 months to tinker away at the product. Burger King is arriving late to the party with its Hand-Breaded Crispy Chicken Sandwich, but that delay has been baked into the marketing surrounding its rollout: we’ve been assured that it’s “worth the wait” in a press release titled “We Won’t Half A** a New Chicken Sandwich.” Okay, BK! You have our attention. Now all you have to do is live up to the promise.
We’ve been eager to see Burger King put its money where its mouth is. The Takeout emailed representatives for the company on April 5 to check when the sandwich was slated to arrive in Chicago and were told that there was “no update yet.” But then eagle-eyed staff writer Dennis Lee spotted modest signage in the window of a Chicago location advertising the new sandwich, and a call to the restaurant confirmed that, yes, it has at last arrived. Interestingly, staff writer Allison Robicelli was told by her local Burger King in Maryland that it’s in the process of installing a whole new fryer just to accommodate the new chicken sandwiches. Clearly, BK is banking on a winner, just like its press release promised. Hopeful, I headed to the nearest location.
Quick reminder of how the BK press release described the Hand-Breaded Crispy Chicken Sandwich back in February:
Our sandwich has a thick cut white meat chicken breast that is freshly breaded by hand for a bite that is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Served on a toasty potato bun with crisp deli pickles and a savory signature sauce. Oh and you can add a little something, something like iceberg lettuce and tomato too.
You can order Spicy, whose chicken breast comes with an extra slathering of hot sauce, plus the “savory signature sauce” and 3 pickles. Or you can order Classic, either completely topping-free (besides the signature sauce) or with iceberg and tomato. One bite of each sandwich and it was clear: the Spicy is the winner here. Though we were all expecting that at this point, weren’t we?
I must first say that Burger King’s big talk about its breading really does hold up. It’s even crispier and craggier than the breading on KFC’s offering, and it hugs the chicken the entire time, without falling off into limp shreds once you bite it. That’s either a testament to the breading, or a flaw in the chicken breast itself: this thing is definitely thinner (but just slightly!) and a bit more dry inside than others we’ve tasted, so the almost saltine-like crunch of the breading helps cover some sins.
For those of us accustomed to the charms of the Popeyes chicken sandwich, the slathering of hot sauce on BK’s version is a curveball. It’s hot and sweet, to the extent that the first shatteringly crispy bite sent signals to my brain that I was eating candied chicken breast. That’s not a bad thing, either; the cinnamon notes played well with the mellow potato bun (which is not quite as buttery as other iterations we’ve tasted, but totally serviceable) and the pickles, which had an impressively vegetal crunch to them. If you like Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, you’re likely to enjoy what this hot sauce is bringing to the party. And it is decently hot, though not boldly so; I’d say it might give you slight nose sniffles, at most, if you don’t regularly eat spicy food. The mayo (or whatever the savory signature sauce is) had lemony Duke’s notes to it, which was a nice capper on the whole thing, even if it left the center of the sandwich tasting gummy after several minutes. Decent flavor, but no one would miss it if it weren’t there.
If Burger King wants its Hand-Breaded Crispy Chicken Sandwich to truly stand apart, it needs to change the way it’s assembled. The hot sauce needs to cover the whole chicken breast, not just some random quadrant of it. Most of the delicious outer crags were left entirely undressed, as well as half the interior; after I nibbled away all the portions covered in hot sauce, that sandwich could have been from pretty much anywhere. The cinnamon-sugar heat is the differentiator here, and BK should lean on that element as much as possible. Its unique flavor profile didn’t even make it into the press release!
Whereas McDonald’s Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich lost marks for its spicy pepper sauce, whose flavor drowned out its other tasty components, Burger King’s sauce simply leaves me wanting more sauce—an insufficiency that can be easily remedied by a heavier hand, or by straight up requesting extra sauce when you order, maybe? And since the sauce is just so enjoyable and fun to taste on the chicken, the Burger King Hand-Breaded Crispy Chicken Sandwich earns a B+, right on par with McDonald’s (whose bun and mayo applications are superior to BK’s). It’s no Popeyes, but it has found an interesting way to set itself apart from the competition nonetheless. KFC’s sandwich has featured the best quality poultry so far, but I come to fast food seeking interesting flavors rather than unrivaled quality. Thus, BK edges out KFC in the chicken sandwich rankings.
You’ll notice I haven’t discussed the Classic Hand-Breaded Crispy Chicken Sandwich yet. Here’s a summary: get the Spicy instead. The Classic sure does look pretty, with all those unobstructed crunchy crags, but under that thick robe of breading its flavor is minimal and perfunctory, unless you’re an absolute fiend for mayo-dipped iceberg ribs. If you’re ordering this one because you can’t handle spice, get the non-spicy chicken sandwich from KFC instead, which offers juicier, more flavorful chicken under a comparable amount of breading.
So, did Burger King make good on its promise not to “half a**” its new chicken sandwich? Well, the ideas and flavors bound up in that wrapper are indeed worth the wait, just like we were told they would be—so as long as the execution of this sandwich improves with a nationwide rollout (better sauce application, slightly less overcooked chicken), we’re happy to welcome it to the neighborhood.