All photos by Pete Forester (@pete_forester)
In case you didn’t know, the chicken sandwich is slowly taking over. It’s a quiet coup, like the Dorians invading Ancient Greece.
A little over a month ago, David Chang opened his mega-hyped new fried-chicken restaurant, Fuku. That was swiftly followed by Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack empire introducing the ChickenShack, a crispy-poultry alternative to chain’s beloved hamburger. And it’s been reported that Chick-fil-A is set to open a massive three-story restaurant in Herald Square before the summer is out. The chicken sandwich is experiencing a renaissance in NYC at every level, so it seems only responsible to see how the key players stand up to one another.
We compared the sandwiches against one another, as they come, without flavor or ingredient edits. If the item in question comes with a sauce, the sauce goes on it. If it comes without a sauce, it’s left bare. We also tested the three very different fry options at each place, and washed everything down with Coca-Cola.
Classic Chicken Sandwich at Chick-fil-A
Real talk: the Chick-fil-A Classic Chicken Sandwich is an exemplary sandwich in its type class. It is simple—a significant hunk of white meat on a bready, buttered roll with some pickles. The chicken is pressure-fried at very high temperatures, allowing for a shorter cooking time and a lighter breading. It boasts a very fine, traditional flour breading that adds seasoning and a nominal crunch to the meat. But while the method guarantees a juicy piece, the white-meat chicken has little flavor. It becomes a textural element in the sandwich rather than the hero.
The Chick-fil-A sandwich is very much a standard fast-food chicken sandwich. It ranks highest among its peers at similar restaurants like McDonald’s or Burger King, and it should be judged on those terms. It is balanced and neatly proportioned, but no one element stands out—it’s all about the sum of the parts working in tandem. It is the king of its weight class (i.e., legitimately cheap fast food), but next to the work of David Chang or Danny Meyer, it’s no contest.
If you must get Chick-fil-A (and you should), eat it quickly. The meal doesn’t stand up past a few minutes. The chicken and fries get soggy while the bun firms up. It’s not a good look. Get it while it’s hot—otherwise, skip it altogether.
Verdict: This sandwich is meant to be tasty and unassuming. It is those things, and not much more.
Spicy Chicken Sandwich at Fuku
The first thing you need to know when approaching a David Chang’s signature Fuku sandwich is that if you’re expecting a piece of Southern fried chicken on a bun, you’re going to have your ass handed to you. This is a full, boneless, skinless chicken thigh. And though it is breaded, it is nothing like Southern fried chicken. It is a very thin, extraordinarily crispy crust. It is so crispy it is almost desiccated—as if it’s been both fried and dehydrated. The contrast to the meat, then, is almost shocking in the first few bites, which will be exclusively chicken—the thighs are so much bigger than the bun that near half of your experience is bunless. When you do get to the bun, you get the soft breadiness of the potato roll, as well as the cut of vinegar from the pickles that mellow the fat from the meat. Every bite that is unaccompanied by Momofuku Ssäm Sauce suffers for the lack. Plant your elbows on the shelf, grab a bottle of sauce, squeeze and bite, squeeze and bite. It’s the only way.
For those who only eat white meat (smh), I implore you to try this—but the risk is that you may be disappointed. The chicken is fried to just doneness, so any eaters squeamish about juicy, almost chewy dark meat might be frightened. Whereas other sandwiches find their flavor in the toppings, the Fuku sandwich tastes like real chicken. The sauce, bun, and pickles work with the chicken to enhance a full-flavored experience, but they do not mask a note of it. This is a complete sandwich. Where Chick-fil-A suffers with chicken that gets too easily masked by screaming pickles, Chang has chosen thighs that can not only match the other elements, but also satisfy on their own terms.
Chang is no stranger to stuffy plating, but it is the lowbrow presentation that makes this sandwich whole. This is his restaurant for the people. He’s not elevating the sandwich; he’s proving that when put it in the right hands, components that are normally overlooked (thighs) will have their day of justice.
Verdict: The Fuku Spicy Chicken Sandwich will forever change your idea of what a chicken sandwich is and can be. You’ll struggle to finish because of its size, then crave another within the hour.
ChickenShack at Shake Shack
This sandwich isn’t what you’re thinking. At an establishment that offers arguably one of the best burgers in the city, it’s hard to anticipate what the ChickenShack is. The white-meat chicken is impressive in its heft, breaded very generously in a traditionally Southern-fried crust and fried to a supreme crisp. The pickles are mild. The herb mayo lends aromatics without the weight of a heavy sauce. Shredded iceberg lettuce adds a hydrating element against the crunch of the coating, and it’s abundant and fresh enough that it actually provides legitimate flavor. This sandwich is about subtlety. Where David Chang solves the balance of his pickles and sauces by using dark meat, the ChickenShack turns the rest of the flavors down, letting the voice of the breast meat come through.
Even though it feels like Danny Meyer is challenging Chick-fil-A, what this sandwich really achieves is rounding out ShakeShack as a meal-time destination. Unlike larger fast-food chains, Shake Shack was offering only one kind of meal. The ChickenShack opens up the possibilities to compete with the big boys. At least one other eater I spoke to said they felt almost as if they were eating something healthy. This is no kale salad, but the bright subtleties of the flavors are a completely different experience from the food-coma–inducing burger.
Verdict: This sandwich is like a portable picnic. Some hoppy beer and good conversation makes it a meal.
Final Verdict: The Fuku sandwich and ChickenShack are just playing on a different level from Chick-fil-A. The latter is delicious, but not in contention. Fuku’s flavors are complex and haunting, but offer just too much weight for lunch, or even a summer dinner. It’s incredibly close, but this season is the season of the ChickenShack. Expect that to change as the temperature drops and tastes call out for richer flavors.
BONUS: The Fries
Not too long ago we discussed the divisiveness of Fuku’s fries. Here’s a look at how each spot’s potatoes faired in the showdown:
The waffle fries of Chick-fil-A are a bastion of grace in a sea of unpleasantries. The cut allows for maximum crispiness, with a little bit of room in the middle for a soft potato experience. Salt levels are prime, and the flavor is pure. The only shortcoming is that they cool quickly, and once they’ve reached room temperature, crispiness retreats just as fast. Eat them quickly. In fact, eat them first.
Fuku’s wedge fries are almost a statement. Wedge fries are widely panned because they’re so easy to mess up. But in the hands of the Momofuku chefs, the standards are raised. They’re delicious, but they don’t deliver total bliss. The outside is mostly crispy, but not as crunchy as a fried potato. They are seasoned well with a flavored salt, similar to Old Bay, but the interior texture is not totally silken, and there’s a lingering mealiness in the flesh that detracts from perfection (along with a somewhat soggy exterior). The wedges are a welcome addition to the meal, but they will not inspire ravenous attention. One order of fries will do just fine for three diners who each have their own sandwich.
Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack fries are pretty much as close to perfection as you can get. They’re flavored with a beefy undertone that allows them to compete with the hamburgers. Their crinkle shape means a ton of surface area that optimizes crunch. Throw them in the fridge and they’ll be crispy two days later. Who knows what demon Danny Meyer made a deal with, but Shake Shack fries remain edible far past their prime.