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I ate spicy chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and Wendy's, and Popeyes' was majorly disappointing

The spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy's is something of a legend in this category — a precursor to all those that came after it. It came in a foil wrapper like a burger, which was not an encouraging first sign. It was $5.79 in New York.

The spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy's is something of a legend in this category — a precursor to all those that came after it. It came in a foil wrapper like a burger, which was not an encouraging first sign. It was $5.79 in New York.
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Unwrapping it, it's clear the sandwich has changed from my youth. Gone is the normal hamburger bun, replaced with a shiny brioche that plays like a fancy upscale sandwich.

Unwrapping it, it's clear the sandwich has changed from my youth. Gone is the normal hamburger bun, replaced with a shiny brioche that plays like a fancy upscale sandwich.
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But this sandwich is not fancy. It is dressed with the most limp of green lettuce, an anemic tomato, and absolute gobs of mayo.

But this sandwich is not fancy. It is dressed with the most limp of green lettuce, an anemic tomato, and absolute gobs of mayo.
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On the other hand, Wendy's chicken's spiciness is immediately apparent. The orange tinge in the breading of the chicken gives it away immediately.

On the other hand, Wendy's chicken's spiciness is immediately apparent. The orange tinge in the breading of the chicken gives it away immediately.
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One bite and my suspicions are confirmed. The chicken is definitely spicy, but a little dry, like it had been defrosted recently. The sweet bun is nice.

One bite and my suspicions are confirmed. The chicken is definitely spicy, but a little dry, like it had been defrosted recently. The sweet bun is nice.
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But man, those accoutrements are a total letdown. Just soggy and sad. They lend to a balanced sandwich, sure, but they also don't hold up at all.

But man, those accoutrements are a total letdown. Just soggy and sad. They lend to a balanced sandwich, sure, but they also don't hold up at all.
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Wendy's may be a first mover in the spicy chicken sandwich category, but it hasn't kept up with the times. And it shows. This is a fuddy-duddy of a chicken sandwich dressed to look hip and cool. It isn't.

Wendy's may be a first mover in the spicy chicken sandwich category, but it hasn't kept up with the times. And it shows. This is a fuddy-duddy of a chicken sandwich dressed to look hip and cool. It isn't.
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Popeyes' new sandwich has caused something of a sensation since it was released this month. It comes in both "classic" and "spicy" versions, so it naturally lends itself to this taste test. It was $3.99 in NYC.

Popeyes' new sandwich has caused something of a sensation since it was released this month. It comes in both "classic" and "spicy" versions, so it naturally lends itself to this taste test. It was $3.99 in NYC.
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Pulling it out of its foil sheath, it is ... familiar. Huh? This looks exactly like the classic sandwich.

Pulling it out of its foil sheath, it is ... familiar. Huh? This looks exactly like the classic sandwich.
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Turns out, the only difference between the two sandwiches is the smear of mayo. On the classic sandwich it's regular, while on the spicy one it's a "Cajun spread."

Turns out, the only difference between the two sandwiches is the smear of mayo. On the classic sandwich it's regular, while on the spicy one it's a "Cajun spread."
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The primary flavor of the sandwich is hot oil. That's not to say it doesn't taste good. The sandwich is great — a greasy triumph of crispy fried chicken paired with a sweet brioche bun, tart pickles, and mayo-based sauce.

The primary flavor of the sandwich is hot oil. That's not to say it doesn't taste good. The sandwich is great — a greasy triumph of crispy fried chicken paired with a sweet brioche bun, tart pickles, and mayo-based sauce.
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Unfortunately, as for spice, there is none. Since the spice is in the sauce, not the breading, the spiciness of the sandwich is entirely at the creator's will. This example definitely left me wanting, and I would go so far as to call it not spicy.

Unfortunately, as for spice, there is none. Since the spice is in the sauce, not the breading, the spiciness of the sandwich is entirely at the creator's will. This example definitely left me wanting, and I would go so far as to call it not spicy.
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Chick-fil-A's spicy chicken sandwich comes in its own foil pouch to differentiate it from the normal chicken sandwich. Instead of white, it's red like fire. It cost $5.39 in NYC.

Chick-fil-A's spicy chicken sandwich comes in its own foil pouch to differentiate it from the normal chicken sandwich. Instead of white, it's red like fire. It cost $5.39 in NYC.
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It's immediately apparent that this is no mere chicken sandwich. The red-orange hue of the chicken is just a hint at what is in store.

It's immediately apparent that this is no mere chicken sandwich. The red-orange hue of the chicken is just a hint at what is in store.
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The chicken seems fresh and juicy, and the heft of the sandwich is not insignificant.

The chicken seems fresh and juicy, and the heft of the sandwich is not insignificant.
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Oh, yeah. That's the stuff. The chicken is juicy and tastes freshly cooked. The spice is there — it's an undercurrent that never dominates, but complements the fatty chicken, briny pickle, and soft (non-brioche) bun.

Oh, yeah. That's the stuff. The chicken is juicy and tastes freshly cooked. The spice is there — it's an undercurrent that never dominates, but complements the fatty chicken, briny pickle, and soft (non-brioche) bun.
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Overall, the spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A hits all the right notes. It's fresh but not too heavy, unlike some of its decadent competitors.

Overall, the spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A hits all the right notes. It's fresh but not too heavy, unlike some of its decadent competitors.
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Wendy's may have the history, but it hasn't kept it up. Popeyes had a good go at it for its recent foray. But for my money, I'm going to Chick-fil-A every time.

Wendy's may have the history, but it hasn't kept it up. Popeyes had a good go at it for its recent foray. But for my money, I'm going to Chick-fil-A every time.

Irene Jiang contributed reporting and photography to this article.

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