You know that phrase, "trendy as a chicken sandwich?" Probably not, because I just invented it right now. Chicken hasn't exactly been the most glamorous of foods until very recently, when the world woke up to spicy/sweet styles like Nashville hot chicken and Korean Fried Chicken (KFC). It's finger lickin' good!
Instagrammers are having a field day with hot chicken sandwiches right now. The Southern delicacy has hit Arizona hard, with two new restaurants opening in Phoenix just this year. (I got the chance to try Monroe's Hot Chicken before a baseball game recently, and I definitely recommend seeking it out.) Down in Tucson, Pops Hot Chicken has found instant success with a Southwestern take on the Nashville specialty.
This all got me thinking. Who else is doing fried chicken sandwiches? What happens when Pops runs out or his truck breaks down? Well my friends, I have a solution for you! Five of them exactly ... I spent all week exploring this emerging trend and singling out the restaurants that do it the best.
The chicken sandwiches I found in Tucson aren't exactly Southern style; They seem equally indebted to Bakesale Betty in Oakland, which brought fresh ingredients and a touch of Bay Area hipster to the fried chicken game. As the hot chicken craze plays out, I expect more restaurants to add a "spicy" option to their menu. We'll see if it becomes more than an afterthought.
For this list, I'm sticking with fried chicken sandwiches rather than opening it up to the world of chicken salad, chicken parm, chicken Caesar and the beloved honey mustard grilled chicken sandwich, child of the '90s. This is the first of many sandwich deep-dives I plan to do, so lemme know what sandwich you think I should focus on next!
History: Chicken originally comes from Southeast Asia, but the fried chicken sandwich has roots in the American South. Chick-fil-A claims it invented the fried chicken sandwich in the early 1960s in Atlanta, but that's a dubious claim as African American restaurants were serving it decades earlier.
Nevertheless I decided to hit up a local Chick-Fil-A to use as the control group in my research. I noted that the bun had an artificial smell like a warm McDonald's hamburger, and the patty tasted like one of those rolling chicken logs you see at Quick Trip. I would rank it last among any of these sandwiches here. But then again, I was sitting in my car outside the Tucson Mall.
My favorite chicken sandwiches:
Pops Hot Chicken
follow @popshotchicken_ on Instagram for their latest location
I ranked every sandwich I ate this week against Pops, and unfortunately none of them came out ahead. There is nothing like getting a Pops hot chicken sandwich right from the fryer. The chicken itself is simply much juicier than the others, because he uses thigh rather than breast.
He's also the only person in this list to put avocado in his sandwich, which makes it better because "duh." 🥑 I didn't get a chance to hit him up this week and had to go from memory, but fortunately I've been thinking about it a lot lately! Read more about Pops here.
902 E. Broadway, 520-622-5100
This was a surprise. I have eaten the fried chicken sandwiches at Welcome Diner many times, but took a break after getting burnt out. This sandwich reminded me why Welcome Diner has become such a successful concept here and in Phoenix.
Yeah it's messy, just look at it. But the chicken itself was just about as good as you can make it. The crust stuck to the meat instead of falling off, and the breast from Red Bird Farms was more flavorful than the average chicken. The whole thing was smothered in a light floral honey that got all over my hands and face in the best way. And guess what, it comes with a salad now?
Other yummy sandwiches I tried:
1021 N. Wilmot Road, 520-203-8884
This gourmet burger spot has made a name for itself since it opened in February. Divine Bovine easily makes some of the best burgers in town, but it was the chicken sandwich that Angela and I recently fought over. It was most definitely the heftiest sandwich on this list, with an excellent brioche bun that held it all together.
The ingredients were also very simple: lettuce, tomato, onion, Swiss cheese, buffalo, ranch and delicious housemade pickles. But if you wanna get fancy, they'll also substitute any burger on the menu for a chicken breast. Eat more chikin!
444 E. University Blvd., 520-622-0761
Time Market's chicken sandwich comes up on just about everyone's list of best in town. Comparing it to the others on this list, I think it's definitely the lightest and most "healthy-tasting" of the bunch. The chicken patty itself is a little thinner, allowing the stringy coleslaw to dominate. The pickles are also on the fresher side, almost like raw cucumber.
Time Market's sandwich is a good alternative for lunch, when you don't necessarily want to ruin yourself on oily thighs. It's also important to note that you can make yours "Tucson hot" with housemade sauce for an extra 25 cents. This gave the crusty breading a little more flavor, but wasn't super spicy by any means.
Union Public House
4340 N. Campbell Ave., Suite 103, 520-329-8575
I did give out several audible "mmms" while eating this one yesterday, and it was my third chicken sandwich of the day! (Although it was right after the Chick-fil-A sadness, so maybe it tasted better by comparison?)
I appreciated this sandwich for two major reasons: A, the breast itself was perfectly cooked. Although it was thinner than the breast at Welcome Diner, I appreciated how juicy it was. And B, it had honey mustard on it which gave me a nostalgic feeling for Red Robin. I swear it's not a complidiss, I really enjoyed it. I would have ranked this sandwich as one of my favorites, but part of the bread fell apart under a watery tomato.
Rollies Mexican Patio
4573 S. 12th Ave., 520-300-6289
The south side has a few places to get a decent chicken sandwich. On a recent visit I very much enjoyed the chicken cordon bleu at Sunny Daze Cafe, where it comes with ham and pepper jack cheese. Rollies Mexican Patio also does a real good one, which is weird because the place is known for making gourmet taquitos.
The Picoso Torta gets the award for best toppings, with a creamy habanero coleslaw that's offset by brillantly pickled pink onions. The patty on this sandwich was more like a milanesa though, pounded flat and unfortunately fried for just a little too long this time. I really enjoyed the crispy bacon on top though, so make sure to ask for it "cochi style." Oink!