Think about the best fried chicken you’ve ever had in your life. You probably started drooling involuntarily, and I don’t blame you one bit.
OK, now throw away that thought. This is a story about the best fast food fried chicken.
So while it’s not going to be the best you’ve ever had, when you need a quick fix around various parts of the country, this fried chicken will be there for you.
For the purposes of this story, I ate fried chicken from five chains that do it well ― Church’s Chicken, Popeye’s, Shake Shack, Chick-fil-A and KFC ― and ranked them. I selected these chains in particular because they’re in most areas of the country (sorry, regional chains like Bojangles).
Why did I include outliers like Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A, even though they don’t make traditional fried chicken? First of all, they might not offer chicken as part of a two-piece meal, but they do serve fried chicken, which makes them eligible. And secondly, I judged their chicken on its own merit and not the sandwich as a whole. I didn’t want certain elements of the sandwich like a fantastic bun (hello, Chick-fil-A!) to distract from the main event: the chicken. And this is all about the fried chicken.
If you think that’s unfair or stupid, you’ve probably not read this sentence, and have already skipped to writing about how unfair and stupid this article is in the comments.
Here is America’s best (fast food) fried chicken, from good to great.
Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen" />
Trust me, I’m as surprised as you that Popeye’s didn’t fare so well. It’s a beloved chain (even beloved by respected chefs
) born and raised in Louisiana that grew so popular it got snapped up
by the company that owns Burger King.
Their following is due, in part, to their spicy chicken. And because of the completely arbitrary rules I set for this ranking, I couldn’t order the spicy chicken, because that’d be unfair to the other non-spicy chicken from everywhere else. It’s like comparing fried apples to fried oranges! I judged all the fried chicken on the “fried” and the “chicken” parts. And Popeye’s really let me down.
I ordered a two-piece with wings and was served... three wings. I wasn't complaining about the extra wing. I also ordered a soda with a side of cajun rice because as the saying goes, "When in Popeye's!"
While the meat was well-seasoned, the chicken was barely warm. Even if it came directly out of the fryer and was served hot, I don’t think it would take higher than fifth place in this ranking. The chicken was uninviting and dry. But that buttery biscuit? I’d eat it a million times. Can they make biscuits in the shape of fried chicken?! I’d come back for that.
I hadn’t stepped foot in a KFC in a year or two, and was surprised by the decidedly farm-to-table touches in the location I visited in the Denver suburbs. There was a blackboard telling me where my chicken came from today (Cassville, Missouri) and who made my chicken (shoutout to Mike, Pam and Skyler!). Oh, and a huge light fixture was in the shape of a bucket of chicken! But all of those fun touches are nothing if the chicken sucks. And this chicken decidedly did not suck.
The two-piece ran me about five bucks, which meant I got a decent serving of chicken, mashed potatoes, a Mountain Dew and a biscuit that tasted way better than it looked, all for very little dough. As for the chicken, my drumstick was meaty, albeit a little dry, and the breading had a decent crunch.
Do I think that’s because the chicken was free-range on that Cassville farm? This entire meal cost me about $5, so you can probably figure out the answer!
Even though the Original Recipe chicken has those famous 11 herbs and spices
, I was more impressed by the crisp outer layer of the drumstick than any of the flavors from it. Still, at $5, this fried chicken meal is quite a steal. KFC has been in the franchise fried chicken game since the ’50s for a reason.
Church's Chicken" />
I’ve been to church maybe two times in my life, but after going to Church’s for the first time, I’m technically up to three. And this was quite an unexpected and pleasant surprise!
A friend warned me that as delicious as Church’s is, it’s basically a poor man’s Bojangles. But if you don’t live in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Tennessee ― where Bojangles outlets are primarily located ― this will have to be a fine substitute.
In order to keep the offerings similar to what I ordered at the other restaurants, I ordered the white meat, which cost a bit more (but not too much ― it was $8 for a two-piece). One of the wings was so enormous, I asked two employees if this was unusual. The teenage guys behind the counter laughed and said it wasn’t. After devouring a few bites, all I could write in my notes was, “So much chicken. Meaty!” Even better, the chicken was juicy, the crunch from the breading was satisfying, and while the seasoning didn’t add much, you get so much chicken in every bite that it’s tough to complain about anything.
No matter how you feel about the Georgia-based chicken chain for reasons that have nothing to do with fowl
, it’s an undeniable powerhouse in fast food. I’m sitting in my local outpost at 4 p.m. on a Saturday, and everyone is here getting in their last bites of chicken before the company’s day of rest on Sunday.
I order the #1, since that comes with the original chicken sandwich, waffle fries and a sweet tea (or soda, if you’re boring). Though I like the sandwich bun and the pickles, I dutifully take the patty out and get to work/eating.
A woman is definitely giving me a weird look for grabbing the patty in one hand and shoving it into my mouth, but I was too focused on the chicken to care. It’s a perfectly breaded, hot, juicy piece of chicken. There’s not as much of a crunch from the breading as there is at Church’s, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. I love its distinct, peppery bite. This is a special piece of fried chicken. But it’s not my favorite.
Shake Shack" />
I’ve been to the original Shake Shack in NYC plenty of times. My old job had an office down the street from the park where it was based, and we’d watch on the Shake Shack webcam to gauge when the line short enough to get a shake or burger. We always had to wait for it to rain to get food in a reasonable period of time. It wasn’t raining when I went to the one in Denver, and there still wasn’t much of a line at 5 p.m. Still, the place was busy.
I ordered the Chick’n Shack and crinkle cut fries. It took some time for the buzzer they handed me to ring and for my sandwich to be ready -- it’s made to order. Even though the restaurant was half full, it took at least five minutes. But I didn’t mind the wait -- the cashier told me it was the best thing on the menu. I would have to see if she was right.
The chicken came hot out of the fryer and had a beautiful crunch to it. It was well-seasoned with pepper. And it’s a thick patty -- if you eat it with the bun and lettuce, you may need to unhinge your jaw like, umm, one of those animals that unhinges their jaw to eat. Like a snake! Well, call me a cobra because I could chomp on this fried chicken all night. It’s juicy, crunchy, and did I mention super hot? That’s a critical reason for why this is so damn good. This fried chicken is everything you want out of a slab of meat. And if you have room in your stomach and/or budget, get the crinkle cut fries, too.