The fast-food fish sandwich is a contentious beast. Beloved by some, maligned by others, it forever occupies a niche spot in menus dominated by the All-American cheeseburger. As such, it is equally marginalized in serious coverage of those same national chains, leading to a situation where the hungry consumer looking for an alternative to a beef patty may not know where to turn for the best options. Almost everyone knows what chain carries their favorite burger, but the fish sandwich has more variables. What kind of fish is it? What comes on the standard sandwich? What type of bun is used? If you have answers to these questions for more than two fast-food locations, you’re far ahead of the curve.
I wrote a piece last year about how I had given up all fast food, save for the Filet-O-Fish. Since then, more than a few people have cornered me, demanding to know what’s wrong with the BK Big Fish, say, or if I had even given any other chain a chance in recent years to contest my ruling of the Filet-O-Fish as the undisputed champion. My assignment: Try five of the fish sandwiches from McDonald’s top quick-service competitors, and give them all a fair hearing (some are limited-time menu items). Perhaps one would topple my beloved Filet-O-Fish from its perch, pun fully intended. The results are below.
Fish: unknown (not listed on site)
In arguably the biggest shock of this whole process, Arby’s Crispy Fish Sandwich comes out swinging. It’s not just the sesame seed bun, which already tastes better and less soggy-chewy than the others. And it’s not just that it has retained the rough contours and consistency of a sandwich more successfully than the others. It’s that the fish is actually halfway decent. It has a rough and crunchy exterior that locks in the small hint of fish flavor, something on which all previous sandwiches wholly failed to deliver. With the added lettuce and tartar sauce (no cheese here), the first couple of bites suggest this may be the one to beat. However, it soon becomes apparent that Arby’s is trying a little too hard to deliver a burst of flavor. It layers on the lettuce well, but the tartar is too thick, such that when I get away from the edges, it overpowers everything else, dripping out the back, and generally suffering from an overabundance of itself. It’s the “too much of a good thing” rule: By trying for a sauce that tastes good in and of itself, it functions too powerfully to act as a supplement to the protein. The best fish by far, and a good bun, but the overall sandwich ends up shooting itself in the amphibious foot by trying to please oily Americans’ appetites for hardcore condiment flavor.
Chain: Dairy Queen
At first glance, it looks like a combination of the Sonic bun and the Arby’s fish, a smashed and roughed-up exterior containing a promising internal protein. The lettuce is poking out the sides, and has yet to devolve into a sodden, bedraggled pile of tendrils. The potato bun is chewy, but not punishingly so; biting into it, the softness pairs well with the rest of the sandwich. Getting to the main ingredient, there’s a flaky but crunchy fish texture far superior to most of the others I try, and actually giving a distinct fish flavor, slightly bitter and fishy, in a good way. It’s paired with lettuce that is present but barely there, more to provide a thin and veiny tearing sensation than offer much in the way of crispness. (I’ve come to accept that crisp lettuce is basically out the window roughly 30 seconds after the packaging of a fast-food fish sandwich.) Still, the fish is good; at first, it tastes savory and decent, to the point where my initial thought is that it surpasses even McDonald’s, leaping to the front of the pack. Unfortunately, toward the middle it again falls prey to what I’m starting to think of as the Bermuda Triangle of fish sandwiches—the part right in the middle where they all lose their way. Rather than an even distribution of sauce, Dairy Queen has it all bunched together in the middle, soaking into the fish, bun, and lettuce, and dragging down the entire joy of the sandwich flavor with it. It’s actually slightly repellant. (I fully accept, though, that the method of sauce application may differ from location to location.) And lo, the mighty outer edges are brought down by the lack of attention to consistency. It’s like watching a great tennis player run out of steam halfway through the match, and perhaps curling into a fetal ball in the middle of the court, weeping softly, tears falling through the holes in the catgut of the racket.
Chain: Burger King
Fish: Alaskan pollock
Though we also have the regular Burger King Big Fish awaiting judgment, I’m intrigued by the “spicy” promise of the chain’s alternative, so I turn to it first. Opening it, there’s an immediate aesthetic appeal. This ends up looking the most like a ”fish sandwich” as identifiable to humans. The brioche-style bun is inviting, dark and slightly toasted. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. I bite into it, and it is all bun. I taste nothing but bun. The lettuce and fish barely register, possibly because the former is only just there in the legal sense of the word, and the latter is comparable to Sonic in terms of purely functional protein, with no real appeal. It tries to improve by having a more solid breading, but the breading itself holds consistency even worse than Sonic’s. Worst of all, I have to get almost halfway into it before I get any “spicy” sauce, disappointing any taste buds awaiting that little kick of flavor to enhance the experience. However, I do finally get to one bite that gives me a bit of crunch and taste—as it turns out, Burger King has provided one sad little pickle chip in the middle of the Big Fish, feebly trying to bring some texture to this pile of bun. “Bun Plus Whatever” would be a better name.
Chain: Burger King
Fish: Alaskan pollock
Much like its spicy counterpart, the Burger King Big Fish Sandwich remains the most aesthetically appealing of all the fast-food sandwiches. (The Filet-O-Fish more accurately matches its mug shot, but it doesn’t resemble food so much as artfully arranged Play-Doh.) From the exterior, it is inviting and smelling of oceanic deliciousness, albeit with lettuce that is comically unlike the thick slabs of leafy greens advertised. But my experience with its faux-spicy counterpart has left me gun-shy. And when I bite into it, dear God, it’s worse than I anticipated. It’s clammy and unpleasant. The whole thing seems to have been genetically engineered like a house of cards—disturb it slightly, say, by waiting more than 30 seconds to consume it, thus allowing the congealing process to begin—and the whole sandwich edifice comes crashing down. It doesn’t even have the succor of a faint kick of spice provided by the other one for those two fleeting but not awful middle bites. And given the only thing separating them is the pitiful squirt of spicy sauce that made it onto the other one, this sandwich has even more to answer for. It’s repellant. I’ve consumed many a BK Big Fish in my life, but having been away from them for more than a decade, I can now see that I was living in a fool’s world. This is not a fish sandwich you should be eating, not when Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, and God help me, Arby’s, have superior alternatives. Do the right thing—if you don’t have a craving for a whopper or some other meat-based option, stay away from this. You come at the King, you best not order a Big Fish.
Fish: Alaskan pollock
I open the box, and already it looks happy to see me, my old friend—teacher, mother, secret lover. Aesthetically, it’s cardboard-cutout flawless, a real-life model of the image on the ordering menu. But as I pick it up to begin savoring those first bites, something interesting happens: Because of the nature of this project, this is the first time I’ve waited more than two minutes after receiving my order to begin eating it. (Honestly, even if I go through the drive-though, I pull over immediately to begin gorging.) It’s a very minor delay, between 5-10 minutes, no more than the time it takes most people ordering drive-through to putter back home, but it significantly alters the flavor. I bite into it, and the bun has toughened, becoming less spongy and more leathery, such that it requires tearing it with my teeth to sever the first mouthful from the rest. Still, it’s overall a minor quibble. All three of the remaining ingredients are there, perfectly proportioned and doing their part (near-tasteless cheese acting as a separating agent, crispy protein with tender center, superlatively watered-down tartar sauce). I really enjoy it. Still, the bloom is off the delectable rose: Now that I’ve experienced a chink in the flavor combination’s armor, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
Chain: Sonic Drive-In
Fish: unknown (not listed on website)
First off, it doesn’t look appetizing. It looks flat and squished, with a faint aura of sadness hanging over it. There’s a semi-wet potato bun serving as the container for the ingredients; there’s the distinct whiff of sweetness. As my teeth sink into it, they cut through soggy, limp lettuce. I wasn’t expecting the crisp vegetable pop advertised by the menu imagery, but still, this is more like stringy seaweed than strips of iceberg lettuce. From there, I hit the protein—an already-congealing piece of fish. It may have been faintly crisp when it first came off the assembly line, but it took almost no time at all to fade into a drooping pile of desultory breading, too thin to retain any firmness after spending time in the sealed wrapper, the victim of steamy moisture permeating every aspect of the sandwich. The sauce, which would usually help support such lack of taste, is weak, barely mayo, let alone tartar sauce. It tastes like nothing, and not in the acceptable way you expect from standard-issue fast food. It’s as disposable as its wrapper; I feel nothing consuming it. It’s the definition of a bland sandwich, food that you would consume to stay alive (an arguable point, depending how frequently you eat them), but certainly not enjoy, albeit not actively dislike, as that would require a stronger response. It is fish sandwich purgatory.
Yes, my beloved Filet-O-Fish survived the attacks on its crown, but only just barely, by sheer dint of a TKO via consistency—outlasting the other sandwiches through dedication to the same taste with every bite. I hate to admit it, but a few bites of the Dairy Queen fish sandwich were superior in terms of flavor. For those first couple of bites before hitting the Bermuda triangle of sauce overload, the DQ sandwich does everything right. If it could figure out an automated sandwich process that doesn’t cause a chain reaction of taste failure from the inside out, Dairy Queen could take the championship someday. But for now, McDonald’s is still tops in consistency—it is the same thing, every time, no variation, delivering its predictably addictive if hollow flavor combination without fail. But this victory is pyrrhic, now that I’ve had a Filet-O-Fish that suffered from a surfeit of bun chewiness. It’s the Achilles heel of the sandwich, and I hope to never encounter it again. Back to side-of-the-road devouring of my guilty pleasure, thank you very much.