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I Tried Fried Chicken From 5 Popular Fast Food Restaurants and This Is the 1 I’ll Order Again and Again

Though the real winner has yet to be invented.

<p>Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe</p>

Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe

If I didn’t know better, I’d think fried chicken was its own religion—and that’s not just because I live in the South. There is something truly magical about breaking down a whole bird and frying it to golden perfection; transcendent, if you will. So it’s understandable that people get a little heated about it; Some swear by their recipe or cooking technique, and some have such a devotion to a certain drive-thru, they wouldn’t dare go anywhere else.

Before we get to ranking said pull-up poultry stops and debating the finer points of fried fare, it’s a good idea to lay out the non-negotiables. How, exactly, are we deciding on the winner?

How I Tested

First: a note on pieces vs tenders. The goal of this experiment was not to venture into tenders or nuggets, as we already did that, but to focus on the whole pieces of the bird. You know, like the ones sold by the bucket. However, a couple tenders did sneak in here and I'm choosing to justify that by noting that these restaurants market themselves as fried chicken establishments, and offer said tenders by the family-sized pile.

Second, the parameters: I was looking for freshness, first and foremost. Chicken has a way of announcing loud and clear when it’s in less than pecking order (I can’t help myself, I’m sorry) and that’s a bonus when searching for the best fried chicken in the fast food market. Beyond being fresh, the ideal situation also calls for a crispy exterior hugging a moist and juicy interior.

Finally, let’s really get down to business: I’m talking crunchy nubbles. Not exactly the most technical term, but you know what I mean—those little morsels of extra crispy breading dotting the surface and wedged in the nooks and crannies of the piece of chicken. Is there anything better? I urge the congregation of fried chicken enthusiasts to consider that this is the coup de gras of the thing—the single element that takes good fried chicken into the realm of greatness. And I may be willing to die on this sword. You just have to have the nubbles. 

The Best Fast Food Fried Chicken, Ranked

5. Zaxby's

<p>Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe</p>

Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe

I don’t know if it was the styrofoam container (since it was the only stop to serve fried chicken in it) or what, but these tenders just didn’t smell fresh. I ordered them plain—which I never do—but this decision was due to A) trying to compare the order as fairly as possible to the others and B) because my usual purpose of patronizing a Zaxby’s is to obtain vehicles to deliver its sauce into my mouth. I’ll go ham on some soggy, likely previously-frozen crinkle fries if it means I get to guzzle that sauce—no shame. Perhaps the brand is aware of this and that pastel gold in those little black plastic condiment containers eliminates any remaining desire to try.

Biting into the tenders delivers notes of days-old fryer oil and a texture that conjures rubber. There’s a nubby or two on the ends but I’m not sure if we can really count these as nubbles, so much as the breading attempting to flee the coop (someone stop me). Forgive me, Zaxbys. I wanted better for you. I’ll still return for my standard order.

4. Slim Chickens

<p>Slim's</p>

Slim's

A couple things: Number 1, the staff was unbelievably kind. I had no idea what I wanted, because I had never been there before, and they still rattled off the options and long list of sauces like gleeful pros. Number 2, the bag was emanating an amazing smell when it entered my car. Number 3, the tenders were delicious. The outer breading was perfectly golden brown and crisp with an excellent nubble ratio and a deep, savory flavor that was black pepper-forward. Biting into it highlighted large flakes of good quality chicken meat.

This was a thing of beauty that could easily hang with the other chicken pieces. I could eat it without ketchup, without ranch, without anything. A mark of quality especially important for a tender, whose very shape is designed for dipping. Not to mention, the very idea of most chicken is that it's a blank canvas for whatever sauce you’d like to consume, but would look like an idiot delivering it into your mouth on its own. (Ever see someone downing a sauce packet? You’d look at them funny.) Pleasantly surprised here. Slim Chickens is only so far down the list because of technicalities. If the chain sold legs and thighs, it'd likely be in a higher spot.

3. KFC

<p>Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe</p>

Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe

The home of the bucket chicken offers original or crispy and I got the original because, well, it’s the original, but now I wonder if I should have gotten the crispy to more adequately compare it to places like Popeyes.

The smell of this two-piece box was disappointingly old, but the chicken was hot, if quite soggy in both appearance and bite. And speaking of the bite, it was just how I remembered it from my youth–startlingly salty yet I couldn't keep myself from going back for more and more. Don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia. It can cover all manners of evils, or in this case, sogginess. There’s just something so darn tasty about those 11 herbs and spices

2. Bojangles

<p>Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe</p>

Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe

Crispy nubbles run rampant here. All. Of. The. Nubbles. And these weren’t just dots of it, but thick ripples and ridges of breading, like crashing waves of flavor. The chicken was truly crispy all the way around. (For both Bojangles and the winner, there was an audible crunch as I bit into the chicken. Always a good sign.) It didn’t smell or taste quite as fresh as the winner, but the meat was still pretty great and far beyond what I ever expected from a drive-thru. The breading sheltered some spices, as well, though I doubt it can claim 11 like the Colonel. I’m not sure if I detected paprika, but my mouth was very warm, almost like there was a bit of hot sauce coating all the surfaces of my mouth. I wouldn’t describe it as spicy and it certainly didn’t build, but there was some delightful warming heat to it.

Bottom line: incredibly tasty. Would definitely order again. And luckily the chain announced expansion plans recently.

1. Popeyes

<p>Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe</p>

Allrecipes/Debbie Wolfe

Do I “love that chicken from Popeyes”? I sure do!

Whatever the “buttermilk process” is that the chain promises, you can see and taste it. When I first picked it up out of the container, it felt a little soggy and I was concerned it wouldn’t actually be crispy. Nope! That was just an indication of moisture in the chicken itself, no sogginess to be seen. I uttered an actual “wow” after my first (ok and my second and third) bite. The chicken itself tasted buttery.

I fully understand this craze now. The pieces had a lot less seasoning than any other place on this list, but sometimes there’s something to be said for simple salt and whatever else these people are using to create this magic. So homestyle Southern, even the chicken tasted like a biscuit. A juicy biscuit with a crust like cornflakes with nubbles resplendent. Buttery, salty, cornflake nubbles: nice.  I’ll return on purpose with purpose.

The Bottom Line

While Popeyes is currently the best on the market, you know what would really be a winner? Popeyes chicken and breading but with the KFC seasoning in it. Someone should make that recipe. Maybe I will. 

Read the original article on All Recipes.