The Lenten season requires you to suspend your disbelief. Not sure about a skinny 33-something dude turning down a loaf of bread after fasting in the wilderness for 40 days? It’s Lent, baby! Get over it! Planning to give up sugar for six weeks? Sure, okay—Lent! A little shaky on hand-washing practices at your parish’s weekly fish fry? Shove it, man—it’s Lent, and anything’s possible!
But to a lapsed Protestant like myself, nothing feels quite so Lenten as the annual parade of the fast fish sandwiches. I’m referring to the two-month-ish period during which nearly every major fast food chain rolls out its limited-time fried fish sandwich, complete with a dollop of Catholic-friendly tartar sauce. It’s a glorious occasion, but also one that demands a certain faith in the impossible. First of all, fish products shouldn’t have right angles, and there’s no way any of that “Alaskan pollock” is actually wild-caught. And yet for as long as I can remember, I’ve continued my flirtation with the fast food world’s most dubious offerings.
Last month, when I was lucky enough to be one of the first to try the new Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich, I realized that many of you also enjoy your annual voyage on the batter-dipped, fishy seas. So I set out to try every fish sandwich on today’s fast food market over the course of 10 days or so. A feast of the seven fishes, if you will. (Quick note: Chick-fil-A’s fish sandwich isn’t coming back this year, and we only included national—or mostly national—chains in our ranking.) Below, you’ll find the sandwiches ranked in order from best to worst, with a whole lot of fishy speculation in between.
Note: As of March 12, 2021, this ranking has been updated to include the Culver’s Northwoods Walleye Sandwich at the strong urging of Associate Editor Aimee Levitt’s mother.
After publishing the Popeyes Cajun Flounder review a few weeks back, I heard from several commenters who insisted that Culver’s positively owned the fast fish sandwich market. Culver’s does everything else right, so I moseyed over to one of a few Chicago franchises to see for myself. Readers, you’re absolutely correct: you simply cannot beat this thing. According to the chain’s website, the sandwich is “hand cut, hand battered and cooked to order.” It’s also topped with a tangy tartar sauce featuring olives, capers, and sweet relish, and there’s a little Wisconsin cheddar in there as a treat. Out of all of the fish fillets I tried, this guy was the thickest by far, measuring a whopping two inches at the fillet’s thickest point. (I measured each sandwich by hand for posterity/science.) Where other fast fish patties edge into fish stick territory, the Culver’s cod fillet is tender, flaky, and downright buttery in a way that reminded me of the crispy batter you’d see at a bona fide fish fry. And the Lord said... it was good.
This one may be a bit tricky to find because Captain D’s exists solely in the south and certain parts of the Midwest. But, hey—it’s Lent, brother! We’re preparing for miracles! We got mini Cadbury eggs! The snow is melting, revealing mounds of dog shit! This is a time of chaos, and Captain D’s tastes just like sweet, sweet anarchy. Captain D’s has been on the forefront of the cutting-edge fast seafood market for as long as I’ve been alive, but the chain’s Giant Fish Sandwich actually only debuted in 2019.
This sandwich is unlike other sandwiches simply because it contains not one, but two pieces of battered-dipped fish (see above). Other fast food chains offer fish fillets or fish patties, but Captain D’s said “to hell with it” and just slapped two pieces of fish in a toasted bun. It tastes awesome, because Captain D’s batter-dipped fish pieces are... awesome. Like, they’re transcendently good. They’re generously coated in the kind of vaguely religious batter you’ll find at Culver’s, offering bite after bite of chunky, flaky fish. The only issue: you can’t eat this sandwich while driving. This is a two-hander, because there are two pieces of fish in there. To eat this thing, you have to maintain equal pressure on both sides of the bun. If you squeeze one side of the sandwich too hard, you’re gonna send at least one piece of fish shooting out of the other side. Next thing you know, you’ve put a nearby nun’s eye out and you’ve got to suffer through three weeks of self-flagellation.
You can read my full review of this sandwich here. If you’d rather not, I’ll sum it up for you: tasty sandwich. Very, very good sandwich. The Popeyes contender did have a slightly thinner flounder patty than I was expecting, and the pickle action here is flimsy at best. Still, the buttery bun, spicy seasoning, and white, flaky flounder had me praying to the patron saint of Louisiana. 10/10 would fish again.
You’ll see two Arby’s contenders on this list: the King’s Hawaiian Deluxe, which is new, and the chain’s standard Crispy Fish Sandwich. While the Crispy Fish is a pretty standard pick (more info on that below), the King’s Hawaiian Deluxe is served on a fluffy King’s Hawaiian bun. Those things are my kryptonite. The bun pairs fabulously with the crispy Alaskan pollock, which is generously breaded and big, sticking out of the bun for several inches on each side. I’m fine with that, because the fish is good enough to stand on its own without bun support. The only thing that knocked this sandwich down a few slots: it’s kind of sloppy. The sandwich is packing a slice of cheese, two slices of tomato, a big ol’ dollop of tartar sauce on both buns, and an ungodly amount of shredded lettuce. Overall, the extra fixings create a bit of a wet sandwich.
After we published the original Fast Fish Power Ranking on March 3, we heard from Associate Editor Aimee Levitt’s mother about a glaring omission: the Culver’s Northwoods Walleye Sandwich. Aghast, I hopped in my slime-colored Honda Fit and cruised back to Culver’s to give it a try. Culver’s advertises the Northwoods Walleye as “mild and tender,” with each fillet hand-battered and cooked to order, then topped with tartar sauce and shredded lettuce and served on a buttery roll. I’m a sucker for a buttery roll, but I found the walleye sandwich to be way less flavorful than the cod sandwich. If you’re a newcomer to the realm of fast fish (come in, the water’s fine!), the walleye might be a milder, more approachable option. But ultimately, I think the cod fillet is much thicker, crispier, and all-around tastier.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I swing by a DQ for something other than a blizzard. It’s never top of mind, but every time I visit I’m reminded that the Queen has a serious knack for fries and dishes out some of the best chicken tenders on the fast food market. While others may balk at the idea of eating seafood peddled by dairy royalty, I’m glad I stopped by at the behest of a Takeout commenter. The Wild Alaskan Fish Sandwich offers a crunchy exterior, a flaky Alaskan Pollock fillet, and one of the tangier tartar sauces I’ve encountered during this fish quest. This sandwich didn’t crack my top five, mostly because the breadcrumb presence was a little overwhelming. But I’d probably eat it again, and it certainly packed more flavor than Burger King and Wendy’s combined. But ultimately, the best part was the lore surrounding the sandwich, which you can find on the DQ website:
“Imagine this: You wake up at the crack of dawn, grab your fishing pole and tackle box from the shed, and head to your favorite fishing hole. You spend the morning absorbing the peaceful tranquility of your surroundings as the sun floats up over the tree line. You cast and reel, cast and reel, cast and reel, but get no bites. That’s okay, though. Fishing really isn’t about catching fish for you. It’s about reconnecting with nature and reconnecting with yourself.”
Beautiful. Just beautiful.
I’ve got a soft spot for White Castle, because the sliders remind me of school lunch hamburgers. Like, they’re certainly not the best burger you’ll get on the fast food circuit, but they taste pretty good and are also orderly. White Castle’s Panko Breaded Fish Slider is no exception. The sliders are teeny little guys, served in the chain’s signature slider boxes with a slice of American cheese and crispy panko breading. This is a no-fuss sandwich, but the breading is solid, the cheese is a nice touch, and the thing’s just so dang cute. From here on out, I’ll refer to this sandwich as My Little Baby Boy.
Picture this: you’re an extraterrestrial and you’ve just landed on Earth. You’re strolling through CVS looking for a little alien snack, and you hear someone talking about fish. You’ve never seen a fish, but it sounds cool and floppy. You go across the street to a Long John Silver’s and order a fish sandwich. The sandwich arrives. Inside the bun, you see something breaded and perfectly diamond-shaped. You point to it, asking: “Fish?” The cashier nods solemnly. Your understanding of fish is ruined forever, and you go back to your home planet with a haunted look in your eyes.
This is all to say: I’m not really a fan of Long John Silver’s. Like I mentioned, the chain’s fillets are perfectly diamond-shaped, which is a weird choice in itself. I also find this sandwich to be pretty lackluster—too many pickles, not enough tartar sauce, and verging too far into fish stick territory for my taste.
Speaking of fish sticks: Takeout editor-in-chief Marnie Shure posited that Filet-O-Fish devotees love the sandwich because it reminds them of fish sticks. I actually had my first-ever Filet-O-Fish in preparation for this article, and I wasn’t impressed—until I realized that the sandwich wasn’t the problem. My expectations were the problem. I still don’t love the Filet-O-Fish, but I think it’s better to think of the sandwich as a big, flat fish stick inside two pieces of bread. That being said: I get the nostalgia factor, but this sandwich just makes it really hard for me to suspend my disbelief in how much you all love it. (This is a good time to point out that the link on the McDonald’s website inviting you to “ Learn what kind of fish is in Filet-O-Fish!” is, poetically, broken.) But damn, I do love McDonald’s buns.
Like I mentioned above, Arby’s recently upgraded its fish sandwich offerings. The Crispy Fish Sandwich has been around for a while and, like the Hawaiian Deluxe, serves up a very generous slab of fish. Unfortunately, this one’s also just a bit wet for my liking. Sea shanties aside, the sandwich also looks a bit silly to me—almost like a little man wearing a little wide-brimmed hat. How am I supposed to eat that?
The Big Fish is... a sandwich. While the bun is nice and buttery, the patty is only about half an inch thick by my measurements, and there’s way, way too much lettuce. The Big Fish also doesn’t have much crunch, so you’re forced to reckon with the generic meat inside the patty. Is it fish? Is it chicken? Is it chicken of the sea? Or fish of the land? Either way, it’s a bit of a mess.
Wendy’s really leans into the whole Meat With Right Angles thing, which makes me uneasy during the best of times. While the brand did switch from cod to “wild Alaskan pollock” from a certified sustainable fishery, this sandwich still was just not good. The Crispy Panko Fish wasn’t especially crispy; it also wasn’t especially fishy. Honestly, it didn’t taste like much of anything, forcing me to manually spread the tartar sauce out WITH MY TONGUE in an attempt to salvage a smidge of flavor. Overall, the Wendy’s contender was pretty interchangeable with The Big Fish from BK. BK’s better-than-average bun set it apart in the end, leaving Wendy’s alone at the back of the pack (or school?). Bland, bland, bland.