How Popeyes' spicy chicken sandwich ignited a fast food war
The most important dish on any fast food chain’s menu is the chicken sandwich. It is an item that inspires passion, anger, and above all loyalty, hence the never-ending spicy chicken sandwich wars. Stalwarts like Chick–fil–A , Wendy’s, and KFC have been producing sandwiches for some time. But now, Popeyes has entered the ring with a glorious new sandwich — the brand’s first foray into sandwich territory in its 47-year existence. The question of who makes the best spicy chicken sandwich is a discussion that ponders the crucial intersection of crunch, spice, and politics. And even in the face of increasing global crises, it is a discussion that has gripped the nation.
I grew up in the Panhandle of Florida, and there were few benefits to living there. (The official Urban Dictionary entry for “Redneck Riviera,” is a description of my hometown, Panama City Beach, Florida.) But for all it lacked, we had a surplus of one thing I couldn’t deny: Chick–fil–A. Closed on Sundays and offering up God-tier fried chicken every other day of the week, I had their spicy chicken sandwich nearly every time I snuck off campus for lunch in high school. The slightly crispy, peanut-oil-fried chicken, just spicy enough to need a sip of sweet tea, encased in a buttery soft bun, was perfection. Until very recently, it was one of the only fast food items I thought merited culinary reverence.
But Chick–fil–A's politics are bad. The vocally Christian company continues to donate money to anti-LGBTQ organizations, even after promising customers they’d stay out of social issues. I’d be okay with my chicken being religiously affiliated, but knowing that I was directly contributing to homophobia every time I spent six dollars on a spicy chicken sandwich left a bad taste in my mouth. Also, as a New York transplant, I wasn’t going to commute to Times Square for the experience. It’s one thing to live a two-minute drive from a Chick–fil–A, it’s another to wait in line for it. So I gave up the spicy chicken sandwich, accepting that I would never indulge in the speedy, convenient and flavorful experience it had to offer me.
Then, on August 12, something revelatory happened: Popeyes, the humble king of fast food fried chicken, debuted their own spicy chicken sandwich. The sandwich is pretty standard fare, as far as chicken sandwiches go. Brioche bun, fried chicken, pickles, and for that spicy kick, cajun sauce. I managed to wait an entire two days before trying it. The woman behind the counter was visibly confused by my giddiness.
“Do you have the spicy chicken sandwich here?” I asked.
“Yeah, of course,” the cashier answered.
“Okay great. I’ll have that. Just that. Wow, I’m so excited for this.”
“Your order number is 473.”
Excellent. In four minutes, the sandwich was in my hands. It was just as good as the early hours of internet hype said it would be. Not too spicy, and it had actual flavor. The meat was cooked all the way through, and perfectly crunchy: an overall 8/10 culinary experience. But to be honest, I couldn’t definitively say that it was better than Chick–fil–A’s. And for some reason, this really matters to me; I need to pledge allegiance to a fast food kingdom. And I’m not alone in that, not even close.
The news of the Popeyes Spicy Chicken Sandwich shook the internet. The chicken sandwich wars, after a years-long détente, finally got spicy. If you ate chicken, it seemed necessary to declare a team (read: massive corporation) to cheer for.
All factors would be taken into account: crunchiness, spiciness, location, politics. But why is the spicy chicken sandwich such a definitive menu item? Why is it the hill we’re all so ready to die on?
“It’s vital on a menu for me because I don’t eat burgers,” explains Zoe Haylock, a writer for the website Vulture. “I already don’t eat pork or beef (for health reasons — don’t come for me, carnivores!), but I particularly don’t like burgers. So, a fast food chicken sandwich is what I typically go for.”
This seems to be the general consensus: “It’s important if you’re not an avid burger person,” Braxton Brown, a writer from Brooklyn explains. “It provides the most solid alternative to a burger if you want a sandwich.”
That tracks. For some reason, I’m way more trusting of fast food chicken than I am of fast food beef, maybe because of all those documentaries on Netflix. And the spicy chicken sandwich has more flavor than anything else on the standard menu. And as nearly everyone interviewed for this piece pointed out, chicken sandwiches are filling in a way that other fast food isn’t.
“A chicken sandwich has to be crunchy for me,” Haylock explains. “I don’t like panko crust because it reminds me of school lunch. Spicy is always better than regular because unfortunately spicy often just means seasoned at fast food restaurants — specifically throwing shade at Wendy’s. Love a pickle. Love a crunch slice of lettuce or a slaw! A slaw shows they care.”
Haylock was the only person I interviewed who mentioned slaw as an ingredient to look out for, but everyone had thoughts on the special touches that could define a sandwich for them. “When I'm purchasing a spicy chicken sandwich, I am ultimately looking for a gentle numbing warmth, a good crunch, and a tasty interaction with other ingredients, whether it be a Monterey Jack cheese combo or a nice onion crunch,” Izzie Ramirez, a student at NYU says.
Is it just the texture that we care about? Just flavor? In a world where everything we buy inherently says something about who we are, is there more to championing a spicy chicken sandwich? Justin Charity, a writer for the website The Ringer, who says he loves Chick–fil–A, but crowns Popeyes the best in fried chicken, thinks it’s fine to think critically about your fast food consumption, or anything else you’re spending money on.
“I canceled my Equinox membership last week, but not because I mean to take any vigorous stand against the gym or Stephen Ross,” Charity says. “But the Ross backlash just happened to get me thinking about the product, the cost, and other ways I might choose to spend my money instead. I feel kind of the same way about Chick–fil–A. If the politics of Chick Fil A management get you thinking more critically about your purchasing decisions and your modest power as a consumer, good.”
In a phone call, Trey Smith, a regular participant and thought leader in great food discourse, acknowledged that just about any large fast food chain is going to be owned by somebody with bad politics. “Companies behind anything usually suck,” Smith says. “But Chick–fil–A is strangely extremely open about their shitty politics,” Smith says that in all likelihood, Popeyes could also possibly be owned by someone whose politics aren’t desirable, but at least until Popeyes' politics become public knowledge, he can eat their fried chicken in peace. “It’s nice to be able to eat a really good chicken sandwich, and not to worry too hard about ‘what am I contributing to?’”
When it comes down to which sandwich tastes the best, the Popeyes insurgency is strong.
“The Popeyes one right now is where it’s at,” says the writer Shea Serrano. Charity and Smith are also in that camp. Smith has long been waiting for the arrival of the Popeyes sandwich; he used to make them himself before they offered the option. “First of all, it’s Popeyes' chicken," he says. "So, there. You get Popeyes chicken and you finally get it on a sandwich [so] that you don’t have to go home and get your own bread.”
Others, like myself and Ramirez, believe that the Chick Fil’ A sandwich, with all its political baggage, still tastes the best. “I can’t dock down the flavor, but I will dock down the business,” Ramirez says. I still can’t bring myself to spend money at CFA – because even though ethical consumption in the fast food industry is practically impossible, there’s no joy to be had in a sandwich that might be contributing to the coffers of Mike Pence.
There were quite a few Wendy’s stans out there too, like Brown, who says it's his go-to, and New York-based creative Isshani Desai, who said via Twitter DMs that “Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich drizzled in Awesome Sauce is the best spicy chicken sandwich,” and is a lifesaver on hangover days. But there were also quite a few unexpected submissions for the best spicy chicken sandwich. Haylock says that the Shake Shack version is the best, and Ismail Ibrahim suggests that before a supreme chicken sandwich is determined, we go international and try the one from the fast food chain Sea Shell in Abu Dhabi.
Cookbook author and Serious Eats editor Elazar Sontag, who has total neutrality in the wars as someone who has never tried any of the spicy chicken sandwiches, gets to the point about why this matters so much to us: “I think it’s a way for people to communicate with each other in a way that feels fun and playful, but actually speaks to more deeply rooted feelings or emotional connections we may have to certain foods and food memories.”
It may be impossible to declare a decisive winner of the spicy chicken wars, but it’s a delight to participate in them. A spicy chicken sandwich can’t define who you are, but it is a place many of us call home — a meal you turn to when you’re looking for comfort and satisfaction.
“Even though we often think of fast food as this detached, emotionless business model, it really connects a lot of people to home," Sontag continues. So when folks compare and contrast and rank fast food, I think in large part that’s a way for them to share their own taste memories, and argue in favor of the foods they love."