Chili’s musters its special sauce and marches off to the chicken wars

Chili's is betting that the secret sauce is what will carry this sandwich to victory.

Chili's chicken sandwich sitting in to-go container
Photo: Dennis Lee

The other day, Chili’s made the eye-catching announcement that its new limited-time-only chicken sandwich would put all the others “to shame.” Those are some extraordinarily bold words, and considering there’s a vulgar amount of competition floating around out there these days, there’d better be a damn good product to back up those claims. Our very own Aimee Levitt aimed to discover a unified theory of fried chicken sandwiches by taking a comprehensive look at the current offerings—and, by extension, our chaotic, chickeny state of mind. Breathe deeply. Dive deep into yourselves to find your inner sandwich.

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I did my research to see if my nearest Chili’s, which is kind of far away by city standards, had the new chicken sandwich, and the website indicated that it was available. I had the option to get it delivered, but we all know that fried chicken in any form is at its absolute peak right out of the fryer. Also, I’m trying to acclimate myself to finally going back out post-vaccine. Still, if you had told me a month ago that my second post-shot meal inside a restaurant was going to be at Chili’s, I probably would have just stared at you silently for about an hour.

If you are interested in giving the new sandwich a spin, there is something very important for you to know: It’s only available online, and only for takeout. I have something very humbling to tell you. I wrote about Chili’s chicken sandwich announcement two days ago:

You can judge for yourself by ordering it in person at the restaurant (to-go orders only) or for delivery via the Chili’s app or website. It’s part of a $10 deal that includes a non-alcoholic drink, an appetizer, and an entrée.

Yes, I totally just quoted myself. Worse still, I forgot this when I was actually sitting in the restaurant. In my defense, The Takeout has been writing a whole lot about chicken sandwiches, and my memory has classified them all as one giant Chicken Sandwich. So I didn’t bother to ask if the sandwich was available until my fiancée and I had driven over to the restaurant, sat down, and ordered drinks. And then I was gently and apologetically denied my chicken sandwich. So to pretend like I wasn’t ashamed of myself, we ordered something else and put an old $25 gift card to good use. At the end of our meal, I sheepishly went online and ordered the chicken sandwich and grabbed it at the to-go counter on our way out. I 100% feel like an assclown, but at least I can now report that the fajitas still come out on a very active sizzle platter, and they’re just as reliable as they’ve ever been. And also, the Quesadilla Explosion Salad is still on the menu. Never change, Applebee’s. Wait. I meant Chili’s. Chili’s.

Menu description of the Quesadilla Explosion Salad, which costs $11.99 and has 1410 calories
Explosion
Photo: Dennis Lee

To avoid making the same mistakes I did, know that the new sandwich is only available online via the “3 For $10" menu. And to add to the confusion, if you’re not part of Chili’s loyalty program, the sandwich is a $3 upcharge on the 3 For $10 menu. This isn’t exactly a great thing to find out last second. The press release doesn’t state the stipulation and I only learned about it after I emailed a representative to find out why I’d been charged extra.

[Update: That very same Chili’s rep let me know that the sandwich is indeed available for dine-in, to-go or for delivery through the Chili’s app or on its website, and that my experience was just a one-off mistake.]

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In retrospect, it’s weird that Chili’s feels the need to compete with fast food restaurants in the chicken sandwich space. I feel like fast casual restaurants like Chili’s don’t even need to bother in this kerfuffle, since the entire Chili’s experience is so much different than counter service (or at least it was before the pandemic; they seem to want to emphasize their takeaway options now). The dish might be the same, but it’s not on the same battlefield. Still, Chili’s is marching in anyway.

Hand holding Chili's chicken sandwich
Photo: Dennis Lee
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Now that we’ve finished the embarrassing exposition... I brought the sandwich out to my car and popped it open right on the trunk of my sick ride, a 2009 Camry, to take a peek. Aside from the dents from my death grip on this thing (I paid $3 extra for it, no way was I gonna drop it), it’s an attractive sandwich. It comes with shredded lettuce, tomato, and red onion, all on a brioche bun, but its defining feature is the new secret sauce, which, according to the press release, Chili’s has been testing for more than a year.

This is a satisfactory fried chicken sandwich. The breading is crisp, the chicken breast itself is comically huge, and the toppings are just sort of there. (The chicken is also noticeably dry, unfortunately, but not a dealbreaker.) There are no pickles, but the secret sauce is flavorful enough that I didn’t miss them. The thing that makes this sauce different from a typical secret sauce is that it tastes—wait for it—smokier. It’s also sweet. Imagine mayo mixed with Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce. Yay!

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That being said, I don’t know why everyone in restaurant test kitchens seems to think that the sauce is the most important part of a chicken sandwich. Can’t it be the chicken? Please, think of the chicken. At this point I feel like I have to beg. Has anyone considered a boneless chicken thigh sandwich? Because that would be worlds better—and, just as important, more interesting.

Chili’s could add this new chicken sandwich to the menu permanently and I’m not sure anyone would really notice all that much. As I ate it, I asked myself: Would I order this over the other fun stuff on the Chili’s menu? The answer is, unfortunately for Chili’s marketing department, no.

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The menu staples like the fajitas, the ribs, the Southwestern eggrolls, and the Awesome Blossom Petals (there’s no whole onion anymore) all make Chili’s what it is. And there was already a chicken sandwich on the menu at my local Chili’s that sounds a lot more appealing, available to all customers at the same price regardless of loyalty program status. It’s called the Chicky Chicky Bleu sandwich (I can’t for the life of me imagine saying that in person). It’s got the same fried chicken breast and brioche bun, but it’s topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, red onion, avocado, blue cheese, bacon, and blue cheese dressing. Doesn’t that sound more interesting to you than the usual fast food formula? I’d rather pick something from among the old Chili’s favorites than another chicken sandwich that’s popped up for no reason except a spirit of competition.

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If more fried chicken sandwich contenders arrive on the scene, they’ll be fighting a terribly uphill battle. We’ve already had plenty of delightful chicken sandwiches, and lots of terrible ones too. The real challenge isn’t making a decent sandwich or capturing the public’s short attention span. Instead, it’s fighting the high expectations and fatigue we’re all experiencing by eating the same thing over and over now. It’s gotten to the point that the old menu items we’d grown used to before this whole arms (breast) race are becoming interesting all over again. Just because you can fry it and put it in a bun doesn’t mean it’s worth getting excited about.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

mrguacamole
anhalibut

@ Dennis,

Nando’s has a chicken thigh sandwich called the Thigh and Mighty Sandwich

https://www.nandosperiperi.com/menu