When a new Chick-fil-A opened near USC last month, people seemed to get pretty excited about it. Part of it may have been the company's flair for self-promotion, but another part felt like something more. People, it seemed, had either eaten Chick-fil-A in their youth, or were eager to try the chicken sandwiches and waffle fries they'd heard so much about.
But it is still fast food, right? It is still the second biggest chicken chain in the country after KFC, isn't it? So we decided that this was the ideal time to try it ourselves, to see how good it really is. Is it fast food, or something more?
In terms of restaurant hierarchy, fast food is ranked pretty close to the bottom. So if we wanted to find out if Chick-fil-A was above its classification, we had to compare it against a restaurant slightly higher on the chain. Honey's Kettle's original location in Compton is that, a decently sized shop where you order through a window, pick it up at another window, then grab a seat in a worn-out booth. Of course, we quickly discovered that this location doesn't serve a chicken sandwich -- "We only serve that in Culver City" -- and decided to take a look at their chicken strips, also offered at Chick-fil-A.
Honey's Kettle's strips were better than any versions we've had at fast food restaurants, with thick, crisp, bubbly breading. It's not the hyper-seasoned stuff you find at McDonald's or Jack in the Box, but it is certainly a piece of chicken, breaded and deep-fried. The one problem is that the breast strips could have been cooked a tad less. On the other hand, a fried piece of thigh from Honey's Kettle is delightfully moist, juicy, and flavorful, even if it is an unfair comparison. The french fries, meanwhile, were fairly pedestrian.
Walking into the new location of Chick-fil-A, it quickly became clear that this was indeed fast food: There's the look of the menu, the employee outfits, the plethora of packaged sauces, and the fact that your food is handed to you within moments of ordering it. We sat outside and first opened our box of chicken strips. These were very different from Honey's Kettle. First, they had been sitting in a box for far too long and had steamed to the point of being damp and limp. There is a much stronger taste of salt and pepper, and they had that unmistakable quality of all fast food chicken -- a seemingly unnatural softness. It isn't tender and juicy like a perfectly cooked breast; it is simply soft, as if it could be easily cut through by the back of a plastic butter knife. But the waffle fries are better than the ordinary fries at Honey's Kettle, if only because interesting shape trumps mediocrity.
The Culver City Honey's Kettle is a bit more expensive than the one in Compton, which pushes it a little further from fast food, but not too much. The sandwich is much larger, a hefty mass of far crispier chicken, topped with melted orange cheese, lettuce and tomato, and nestled inside a soft, toasted bun (perhaps a little closer to the Chick-fil-A deluxe sandwich). The chicken itself is better, but it is also, in a way, simpler. It tastes comparable to food you might have at someone's house. You can look at the sandwich and see what goes into it, and you can, with a little work, probably re-create it. It is sloppier, less refined, but also more tangible.
So Chick-fil-A is, unquestionably, nothing more than fast food. Do they make the best fast-food chicken sandwich out there? Maybe -- though that question is too taxing to research fully.
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Which sandwich is actually better? As it often does, the answer comes down to preference and price. Honey's Kettle's larger sandwich, with fries, costs $7.50, while a Chick-fil-A sandwich with fries and a soda is just $5.89. However, if you go to Honey's Kettle, you're probably a lot better off avoiding the sandwich and going for the actual pieces of fried chicken, just as you should avoid the strips at Chick-fil-A.
Looked at from that standpoint, and based purely on the sandwich and its price, Chick-fil-A is the winner. But we'd take a piece of fried thigh over either sandwich every single time.