New Popeyes, Burger King chicken sandwiches reinforce pecking order

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Just when you thought there wasn’t a new frontier to be found in the ongoing Great Chicken Sandwich Wars, two fast-food chains opened a couple of novel flanks: Popeyes this week began selling an un-breaded, “blackened” version of its wildly popular chicken sandwich that started the whole thing to begin with, while Burger King is now offering a new marinara-topped chicken sandwich that doubles down on Team Crunch.

It might feel like we’ve reached peak chicken, but the trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Brands keep rolling out new birds, and the National Restaurant Association this week named “chicken sandwiches 3.0” — that is, versions amped up with heat and fusion flavors — as its number 2 trend for 2023.

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Of this week’s new entrants, the Popeyes offering is the better of the pair. It’s a riff on its smash hit fried chicken sandwich — it has the same glossy brioche bun, pickles and mayo (a spicy version is available) as the original, but the key difference is in the chicken patty itself: rather than being breaded, this one goes naked. Or nearly so — according to the company, it’s brined for 12 hours then dredged in a Cajun-spice blend. (It’s no secret recipe — Popeyes’ ad campaign playfully mocks the reaction to its original chicken sandwich, daring others to “copy this” and listing the ingredients, black pepper, cumin, red pepper, garlic, onion, paprika, white pepper and salt.)

As a fan of the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich, I had high hopes for its new cousin, and its good looks had me even more optimistic. The patty was reddish-brown from the spices, and crisp from what looked like a turn in the fryer. Biting into it confirmed my hunch — it was juicy on the outside, pleasantly salty from the brine, and the Cajun seasoning delivered a punch you might not expect to find from a mass-market sandwich. I liked the spicy version best, whose kicked-up mayonnaise delivered an extra burn. (“My lips are still tingling!” said one colleague, minutes after sampling it.) I didn’t miss the breading — and the lightened-up version clocks in at 550 calories, compared to the 700 in the original.

Burger King’s “BK Italian Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich,” by contrast, doesn’t feel like an innovation in the sandwich space as much as a retread. The chain, which is struggling to reinvent itself, had an Italian-style chicken sandwich on its menu for decades, but pulled it off and then relaunched it last year. The old version was served on an elongated, sub-style bun, but this one is basically the brand’s regular chicken sandwich (formerly and confusingly called the Ch’King) given an Italian accent via a dab of marinara and a slice of mozzarella.

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Clearly, this guy wants to be a chicken parm sub, one of the true gems of Italian American cuisine. But the skimpy toppings (a mere dab of red sauce certainly didn’t feel worthy of royalty) aren’t enough to give it the cheesy, saucy qualities of the dish it aspires to be. But if you take it at face value, rather than trying to compare it to its spiritual predecessor, it’s … well, it’s just okay. The only thing truly objectionable about this sandwich was the bun. BK described it in a news release as “savory,” but to my palate, it tasted sweet enough to land in a pastry case, and it was a distraction to an otherwise serviceable sandwich.

If neither appeals to a diner seeking another chicken-sandwich innovation, just wait a minute — while these chicken pucks might be the newest birds on the block, they’re hardly going to be the last.

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