As a food writer, the one remark I hear almost without fail when people find out what I do for a living is some variation on the following: “It must be so awesome to get paid to eat at restaurants!”
Yeah, I bet that would be awesome. I wouldn’t know.
As an independent community newspaper, Xpress doesn’t have the budget for a restaurant critic. But people love reviews. And I love to give our readers what they want. So I decided to find a way.
There were several factors to consider. First, menu price points had to suit my personal budget (i.e., as close to free as possible). Second, I wanted to visit restaurants I’d never tried before. And finally, I desired an element of timeliness.
The perfect answer presented itself (as so many revelations do) via social media in the form of the single most pressing and divisive issue facing our nation right now — the #ChickenSandwichWars.
Pitting Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s new, panic-inducing chicken sandwich against its competitor at Chick-fil-A, arguably America’s OG fast-food poultry sandwich, met my timeliness criteria. And fast food is indisputably one of the cheapest meal options out there next to dumpster diving.
Furthermore, I’ve never eaten one of these sandwiches or even been to either one of these restaurants. As a 50-something quinoa enthusiast who shops at tailgate markets with upcycled cloth tote bags, my fast-food experience over the past 30 years has been confined to semi-annual stops at Taco Bell on road trips to Florida.
Also, there’s this: I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my adult life. (I currently define myself as a “situational omnivore” due to the demands of my job in Asheville’s pork belly-saturated food scene.)
I’m an utterly blank canvas, the perfect person to evaluate these contenders.
To create a level playing field, I decided to sample a classic version of each sandwich, consuming them immediately inside the respective dining rooms. I had some concern that my personal views on LGBTQ issues might trigger some kind of gay-dar alarm when I entered Chick-fil-A, but I was committed to forging ahead nonetheless.
The first week of December, I ventured forth to the Tunnel Road Chick-fil-A across from the Asheville Mall to begin the challenge. When I finally emerged, half-starved and vibrating with road rage, from the gridlock of holiday traffic and pulled up to the restaurant, it came as a shock to learn that the location is drive-thru only.
So, no dining room. But also — less possibility of a gay-dar alarm! I inched into one of two long car lines full of hungry Chick-fil-A devotees, eventually placed my order, then crept up to the tiny, brightly lit cubicle where I paid for and almost instantly received my sandwich from one of eight cheerful but bored-looking teenagers.
Mysteriously, no kitchen was discernible. It’s possible that the food is made by certified heterosexuals in a church-sanctioned production facility somewhere in Georgia then delivered by drones. But really, I have no idea.
Dazed by the speed and enigma of it all, I pulled away and parked in front of the nearby TJ Maxx to enjoy my dinner in the cozy ambience of my Kia Soul.
The first thing that struck me about this sandwich was its austerity. I’m a toppings person — the more the merrier — so I was a little disappointed that the only embellishments were three pale pickle slices huddled together like terrified refugees.
I took my first bite, and it…wasn’t bad. In fact, it was maybe even…good? I wanted more. Hunched in my car over this greasy, animal-based morsel, I felt a kind of sweet guilt reminiscent of sneaking a beer in your parents’ house when you’re a teenager (not that I ever actually did that, Mom and Dad).
An unavoidable problem, however, was that the bulk of the sandwich was meat — a hefty chunk of juicy chicken breast (thankfully not the processed stuff that looks suspiciously like industrial polyurethane foam). The prevailing flavor was salt, but the breading had a pleasing crunch. The bun was sort of flat and unimpressive, but it tasted OK and wasn’t as gummy as it looked.
As it turned out, the sad little pickles were the heroes of the day, adding a much-needed tang of acidity. After my second bite, the secret guilt rush was gone, and I yearned for some sauce or even a perky leaf of iceberg lettuce to liven things up.
I allowed my digestive and nervous systems a couple of days to recover then headed out to the traffic combat zone of Airport Road to check out Asheville’s brand, spankin’ new Popeyes. This restaurant has an actual dining room complete with zippy zydeco music, and from the dire news reports, I figured it would harbor a desperate crowd of chicken sandwich addicts fighting each other with sharpened straws. But I must have picked an off day. No aggression was evident among the mellow assortment of construction workers and retirees quietly waiting for their lunch.
The kitchen here was readily visible and seemed to be running like a well-oiled (pardon the deep-fryer pun) machine. But, like at Chick-fil-A, the ordering experience was disconcertingly speedy. When you’re used to waiting an hour for your hand-crafted, locally sourced meals, these fast-food turnaround times make your head spin.
This sandwich proved a little more substantial. The brioche bun had loft and gloss, and an oversized slab of breaded chicken protruded significantly from one side. Happily, the pillowy bun hid a schmear of mayonnaise, and there were pickles — only two, but sturdy, fat, vivacious slices.
The first bite tasted good. And so did the second. And the third.
Like the Chick-fil-A version, the meat was very salty — I could feel the inside of my mouth shriveling. But the monolith of chicken was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, accented perfectly by the tart, crunchy pickles and creamy mayonnaise.
After the third bite, though, I found myself wondering: Why so much chicken, Popeyes? Is this really what meat eaters want? (Answer: Yes, Gina. Yes, it is.)
In the end, I preferred the Popeyes sandwich, despite the fact that it contained chicken. I would actually eat it again if I found myself stranded on a desert island equipped with a Popeyes and no quinoa, artisan vegetable ferments or avocado toast in sight (provided there was a generous supply of fresh water to wash it down with).
My next review: Burger King’s Impossible Whopper.
Note: My deepest apologies to the innocent chickens and pickles that gave their lives for this review.