By: Jason Perlow
The Southern-style fried chicken sandwich is the epitome of simplicity: a boneless chicken breast, coated in seasoned breadcrumbs, deep-fried, topped with some dill pickle slices, and placed on a soft bun.
It’s a local favorite, but it seems over the last 50 years, only one restaurant chain has dominated the market: Chick-Fil-A.
The Atlanta-based company has grown from its humble beginnings in 1964 to a national franchise powerhouse, with over 2200 stores and over $10 billion in reported revenue, ranking 8th among its peers the quick-serve restaurant (QSR) industry. It ranks first in the fried chicken market in the United States, far ahead of global leader KFC which reported $4.4 billion in sales from its 4000 US locations.
It is also a company that requires its locations to close on Sundays to observe the Christian sabbath. It’s estimated that they leave $1B on the table every year in order to stand by this long-standing policy, which has been in place since its founding.
Chick-Fil-A has both its devoted fans as well as those who revile it. Its customer service and efficiency are unparalleled in the QSR space. And while it is a darling of the religious right and conservatives, the company faces boycotts and protests from the LGBTQ community and its allies because the company has donated millions of dollars to charities that promote anti-LGBTQ agendas.
For lovers of chicken sandwiches such as my wife and myself, this has been a dilemma since these issues have taken front and center. I have many LGBTQ friends, some of whom are closer to me than my family members. And while I have no desire to penalize individual franchisee holders (which represent about 1800 of Chick-Fil-A’s 2200 locations) who may not represent the company’s views, I cannot in good conscience support a company which I know promotes extreme right-wing viewpoints in such a public manner. That means no fried chicken sandwiches for me.
That is, until recently. Popeye’s, which ranks in 12th in the QSR industry and last place among its ten competitors in the chicken market, introduced its own fried chicken sandwich. A personal favorite of the late Anthony Bourdain, Popeye’s has a mostly regional presence in the Southeastern United States. It is known for its homestyle, extremely crispy New Orleans-style fried chicken.
Comparing the two products seems inevitable, so I set out with my dining companion Jonathan Arnold to see if the Popeye’s sandwich stacked up against the Atlanta juggernaut.
We decided, for logistic reasons, to eat at Popeye’s first. The Fort Lauderdale branch we visited at around noon was eerily quiet, and we were able to pull right up to the ordering window. The ordering process took about five minutes.
Popeye’s offers two versions of its sandwich, one spicy — to match the flavor profile of its famous fried chicken, and one traditional. Both are served on a steamed “brioche” bun which is soft, mushy in texture, has an eggy consistency and slightly sweet flavor. Both came with dill pickle slices. Both cost $3.99 each.
The spicy version is slathered with a kicked-up mayonnaise that is boosted by the addition of Louisiana-style cayenne pepper hot sauce, whereas the plain version has regular mayonnaise. Otherwise, the two sandwiches are identical.
We were immediately taken aback by the very crunchy coating on both sandwiches and the juicy breast of meat which, while aggressively seasoned, was not out of place for a fried chicken sandwich. I personally would have liked a sweeter-style pickle, mainly to offset the significant bite from the spicy version, but that is nitpicking. It is an excellent fried chicken sandwich, one which Tony Bourdain would have been happy to put his name on.
We then headed off to Chick-Fil-A. Immediately, the difference in chain popularity and logistics was readily apparent. A steady double lane of cars was being serviced by uniformed employees carrying mobile point-of-sale (POS) terminals, not unlike the busy drop-off lines one might find at the rental car garage at the airport. While it was extremely busy, the organization was almost martial in its efficiency. Two employees took orders, while two more took payments — and then the pick-up.
The entire process, like Popeye’s, took five minutes — this despite the massive amount of activity. One cannot leave from this experience extremely impressed with the chain’s efficiency and superb customer service, regardless of one’s feelings about the place, socially and politically.
Unlike the mayo-coated Popeye’s sandwich, the Chick-Fil-A comes unadorned by default, with just the pickle slices (a crinkle cut, sweeter type) on them. Chick-Fil-A does offer sauces, but you are supposed to ask for them and put them on your sandwich yourself. We chose not to deviate from the default, original sandwich configuration and ate it as it came — plain.
The first thing we noticed was the heft of the sandwich — the Chick-Fil-A breast was considerably lighter. So at the same $3.99, the Popeye’s sandwich already has an advantage.
The fried coating is also different. While the Popeye’s breast had significant observable nooks and crannies covering the entire portion, which created a much crispier mouthfeel, the Chick-Fil-A breast had a much finer, lighter coating, which doesn’t lend itself towards crunchiness in the mouth. The seasoning, however, was quite lovely.
But where the rubber hit the road was the meat itself. The chicken has a predominantly briny and umami-like (MSG) flavor, which lingers in the mouth long after eating it. The brine also alters the texture of the meat, which gives it an almost rubbery mouthfeel. Chick-Fil-A tastes more like fast food, whereas the Popeye’s sandwich tastes closer to a product made in small batches.
Additionally, we missed the mayo from the Popeye’s sandwich — the creaminess and fattiness seemed to act as an insulation layer from the fried chicken grease and complimented it well. Chick-Fil-A fries theirs in peanut oil, whereas Popeye’s reportedly uses a proprietary blend of beef tallow, partially hydrogenated beef tallow, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. This results in a lower trans fat level for Popeye’s but a higher saturated fat count. And beef tallow, as anyone can tell you about old-school McDonald’s french fries before the company changed its frying medium, tastes really good.
It should be noted that for this outing we did not order any sides with our comparisons — but Chick-Fil-A’s waffle-cut french fries, that are fried in canola oil (unlike their chicken which is peanut oil) are among the best in the industry. Popeye’s has a seasoned, coated style fry which tastes relatively junky and commercial in my opinion — the company could do with some reformulation of its fried taters. If you are inclined to get a side at Popeye’s, I’d get some of their excellent red beans and rice and call it a day.
Popeye’s is the clear winner here. It is a better chicken sandwich, period. We think, however, that the chain should look to its much more successful competitor not just for sandwich inspiration, but for logistics and customer service improvements as well.
Both chains have a presence throughout greater Broward County. In the Coral Springs and Tamarac area, Popeye’s has a branch on West Commercial Blvd, and Chick-Fil-A has a location on North University Drive.
POPEYE’S LOUISIANA KITCHEN
www.popeyes.com (Store Locator)
Hours: Monday-Sunday, 10:30 a.m. – 1 a.m.
www.chick-fil-a.com (Store Locator)
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. (Closed Sundays)
Jason Perlow is a long-time foodie who spent 20 years in the New York City and New Jersey metro areas reviewing restaurants for The New York Times and his personal food blog, Off The Broiler, which he started in 2006 and ran for ten years. He is also the founder of eGullet, a popular food discussion site and not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001, which was featured on Tony Bourdain's "No Reservations" cable television program.
As a technologist by profession, he writes the Tech Broiler blog for CBS's ZDNet web site. He has been a Coral Springs resident since moving to South Florida in 2012.
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