Sandwich of the Week

People always refer to “gilding the lily” as if it’s a bad thing. And look: Lilies are nice and all and I recognize that there’s not much demand to improve them. But only a fool wouldn’t trade a straight-up old school lily for a lily covered in solid gold. Gild that thing. That’s what I say.

The sandwich: Spicy Chicken Sandwich with pepper jack cheese from Chik-Fil-A, many locations, most of them (but not all) outside of New York.

The construction: Boneless, breaded white-meat chicken breast with pickles and pepper jack cheese on a buttered bun.

Important background information: Someone needs to write a book on American regional fast food. Does that already exist? If not, someone needs to pay me to write a book on American regional fast food.

Chick-Fil-A might occupy the first chapter. Though the Georgia-based chain is slowly diffusing throughout the country, in inaccessible areas it remains the stuff of legend, due mostly to the strength of its chicken sandwich. The folks at NY Mag’s Grub Street — likely the “foodie” types who turn up their noses at most chain fast food — even ranked it among the Top 101 sandwiches in New York.

Pressure cooked in peanut oil, it is crispy and tasty on the outside and moist on the inside. It far outclasses chicken sandwiches from all the major fast food chains, many of which are cardboard-dry and appear reconstituted. Better than most is the McDonald’s Southern-style chicken sandwich, a clear rip-off of the Chick-Fil-A sandwich that features exactly the same stuff but is just not quite as good in any way.

What it looks like:

How it tastes: Gilding the lily, and not in the good way.

I was hungry by the time my flight landed in West Palm Beach on Friday and downright starving by the time I secured my rental car, so I was thrilled when Matt Cerrone tipped me off that there was a Chick-Fil-A not five miles north of the airport, off I-95. I figured I’d swing through to pick up the classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich, something delicious that I haven’t eaten in some time.

When I got there I saw the sign heralding the new Spicy Chicken sandwich, and I figured if I like the regular one so much and I like spicy things in general, I should probably go for it. And then I saw that I could add cheese to the sandwich for only 30 cents more, and hell, cheese is delicious. Pepper jack that bastard up.

What I ate was still delicious, mind you — undoubtedly head and shoulders over every other fast-food chicken sandwich. The breading was still crispy and the chicken inside still moist. But the spiciness tasted somehow forced, like they just added a ton of spicy spices to the breading and robbed it of its subtlety. (Can a fast-food sandwich have subtlety?) And the pepper jack cheese, though creamy and good, just felt unnecessary.

Eating the sandwich only served to remind me how amazing the original sandwich is in its simplicity. Fried chicken, pickles, bun. Sometimes if everything’s good you don’t need to pile on ingredients for more flavor. That’s how the spicy version tasted, and it made me crave Chick-Fil-A’s OG sandwich offering.

Luckily, I stopped and got one on my way back to the airport. And lo, it was good.

What it’s worth: Cost something like $5 with a Diet Dr. Pepper — which they had on tap at this Chick-Fil-A. And it was only three or four minutes out of my way, tops. Very well worth the price.

How it rates: Hmm. If I had a separate scale for fast-food items, this might reach the upper 80s or even approach the fringes of the Fast Food Sandwich Hall of Fame. But there isn’t a separate scale, so this gets judged against the rest of them, which is kind of unfair but whatever. Truth is, it is the exceptionally rare — and perhaps non-existent — mass-produced fast food sandwich that’s going to compete in deliciousness with the upper echelon of sandwiches I’ve reviewed here.

But you know I like fast food, and obviously I recognize the benefit of enjoying incredibly convenient and reasonably priced fare, especially when it is also very tasty. I didn’t even have to get out of my car! America! 72 out of 100.

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