I love food. But I might love arguing with strangers on the internet about food even more. This series, which has taken on a life of its own, has never stopped being fun. Not for a second. But you know when it’s the most fun? When one charming, funny, super handsome person has recently dominated a round, and the dish on deck is one that we all pride ourselves on.
Enter the fried chicken sandwich. The second we decided on it, we were jostling. I’m still way behind so I need wins desperately, but I blew Zach and Vince out of the water last month and they can’t abide that. They’ve been teasing me about adding Big League Chew to my flour dredge and generally Bramucci’ing up my sandwich since the voting wrapped on fried noodles. Meanwhile, I’ve been rubbing their faces in the fact that my cumin-lamb hand-pulled noodles are the most dominant dish we’ve ever featured.
So be hyped, is my point. Because everyone brought it and everyone has a vested interest in winning. There are stakes, and the scale of both the dishes and the burns reflects that fact.
BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve
Thanksgiving Side Dish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Christmas Dessert Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Chili Cook-off Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Nacho Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Burger Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Breakfast Burrito Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Fried Noodle Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:
STEVE’S “THE FALL” CHICKEN SANDWICH
I called this dish “the fall” because I won all but one first-place votes last round so there’s no place to go but down and also… it’s autumn. I am extremely clever like that. As I’ve written before, I love fall flavors — rosemary, thyme, chicken broth, browned butter, sharp cheddar — so playing in that sandbox was fun.
My only other major directive this time was the unabating rage I feel toward Zach and Vince each month. I don’t know why we’re in this place, but we are. Somehow they have become my twin culinary archenemies and I enter the kitchen with my middle finger up and “Hit ’em Up” blaring.
Since I’ve already spoiled my chicken middle finger joke, let me explain the two elements of my sandwich in the above picture. The first thing I did was get onions reducing low and slow with thyme, beer, and a little chicken broth. I call these “beer onions” because I am wildly creative and deserve enormous success. Behind those, you’ll see a jalepeño apple jam. It’s made with a little brown sugar, shredded apples and jalepeños (seeds in), apple cider vinegar, and gelatin. As you can see here, the gelatin is coming from the chicken’s feet. That’s badass and don’t you forget it.
After the jam came off the stove I added some fresh apples and jalepeños to brighten it and then blast chilled it for an hour to let it set (that means I stuck it in the freezer).
Next, I made big ass biscuits. This is such a superb move that you should prolly just stop reading here and go vote for me. My personal brand of biscuits come with five-year aged cheddar, rosemary, thyme, a tiny splash of almond oil (for nuttiness), and browned butter rather than shortening or lard.
There were some jalepeño shavings left and I’m the avowed enemy of wasted expensive-as-shit organic produce, so I tossed those in, too. 450 for about eight minutes just about does the trick.
I had my chicken brining in the fridge because I’m not a monster (thighs, skin on). My hatred for tendon and sinew is well documented so I brine with ingredients that attack the tensile strength of those fibers — apple cider vinegar, orange, and garlic. It doesn’t need long, I did 12 hours, from 7am-7pm. Too much more might make leave the chicken a little mushy.
The brine will smell REALLY vinegar-y but I assure you that’s how it’s often done in the south and you won’t be overpowered. Not even close.
I patted the chicken dry and then — Look, I am fastidious about very few things, but chicken sinew is one of them. So once the chicken thighs were dry, I deboned them and trimmed them as if I was cooking for the queen.
For my dredge, I used flour, paprika, thyme, and Johnny’s Alaskan Salmon Seasoning, which is known to everyone in the Pacific Northwest. It has no salmon flavor — it’s just a combination of seasonings I like and which feel comforting to me.
As for the oil, I used a 50-40-10 blend of lard, expeller-pressed canola, and duck fat. Good luck finding fault with that. I did bobble here though — melting down the oil in a deep pot which wouldn’t have been great for frying. I transferred it to a pan for the actual cook.
I also fried up bacon. Because, obviously.
I fried the thighs skin side down and — since they were relatively thin — they didn’t need too much time. Three minutes per side.
Once the sandwich was done it was all about the build. Here it is from the top down:
Kewpie mayo with an extra egg yolk and a pinch of mustard powder (see Instagram)
dusting of chives
It was the best fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever had and I’ve eaten “The Reggie” at Pine State Biscuits in Portland. Which means the statistical probability of Zach’s and Vince’s being better is… Oh I don’t know. Unlikely as fuck?
Regardless, this was my jam. It was pure umami with a few brighter and spicier notes from the jam. Plus some homegrown herbs, because you know I love that shit, and thin slices of insanely sharp cheddar. These are the rich flavors you want in a fried chicken sandwich. This is the dream, like “Word Up!” magazine.
Zach on Steve’s Sandwich: Bramucci done Bramucci’d so hard and true with this sammie. Do we really need (ahem, unmelted) cheese on the sandwich when you’ve already made cheddar biscuits? Do we need both the “beer” onions and the apple-jalapeno jam? Couldn’t those two components have been combined? This looks like a very edible sandwich BUT, did you catch Mancini’s color blindness? One of the great aspects of a good Bramucci dish is the flourish of colors always at play. This sammie plays like a monotone beige blob. Where’s that patented Bramucci flair?
And, what’s with you and Vince putting every element under the chicken? Mancini heaped his funky “pepper slaw” under instead of over and same here? Wouldn’t this rock if you had layered it: bottom biscuit, sauce, chicken, bacon, onion-apple-jalapeno mess, MELTED cheese, more sauce, top biscuit? I know that’s Monday Morning quarterbacking but that’s what I do best.
Lastly, I’m not convinced that that biscuit wasn’t crumbly as hell and the whole thing fell apart. A great biscuit needs ice cold fat, flour, and fluids to achieve greatness. I didn’t see or read that here. So, I’m dubious. Show us your crumbs!
Vince on Steve’s Sandwich:
Oh, Steve. You poor, poor son of a bitch. Once again it seems you’ve done your level best to disprove the adage “work smarter, not harder,” pointlessly tilting at windmills and pushing giant balls of, I don’t know, gelatinized chicken testes up a hill. You somehow managed to render down chicken feet for their gelatin, simply to use in an “apple-jalapeño jam” (sure, whatever, fine) and yet…
YOU LEFT UNMELTED CHEESE ON YOUR SANDWICH??
There are a lot of things here I could nitpick, but far and away this is the one that stands out. If I’m getting what looks like unmelted cheese on a sandwich it’d better be butter.
That alone should get you the L, but also, look, biscuits are great and kudos for making your own, but… in my book, biscuits ain’t sandwich bread. They’re too dense. Sandwich bread needs air. Biscuits aren’t airy. Use them shits for soppin’ up gravy.
-Bacon on a fried chicken sandwich seems like an apology.
-That sandwich is too tall and looks like the biscuit is going to fracture in half and everything’s going to fall apart as soon as you touch it (aka my personal life!).
-No starch in the dredge? Nothing on that sandwich actually looks crunchy. It looks like it will somehow be uniformly mushy yet also cut the roof of my mouth.
On the plus side, that chicken looks great by itself, and I respect your frying oil mix. Also, that extra rich mayo with mustard powder sounds pretty good. Otherwise, this is like the hardest you’ve Bramucci’d something in four or five months.
ZACH’S “TECHNICOLOR DREAM” CHICKEN SANDWICH
I rarely ever order a chicken sandwich. Mostly because I find the combination of breaded fried chicken on white buns to be a bit both boring and overdone. The white bread and then breaded chicken just doesn’t do it for me (don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily eat a well-executed one). So, I’m changing things up a bit and doing something that does appeal to me. I’m making a soufflé blue corn bun to add some depth and dimension to his otherwise boring-ass bun with the tastiest chicken. I’m also adding a nice slice of goose foie gras to add an extra layer of velvety texture.
From there, this recipe is all about technicolor dreams. It’s a feast for the eyes and goddamn delicious. It’s not like anything you’ve ever had before (that’s a good thing, remember). Yet, it’s still familiar enough to be comforting. Let’s dive in.
So, yeah, good fried chicken lives and dies by the brine. If it’s not brined, why even bother?
I’m using deboned chicken thighs, lime leaves, buttermilk, crushed garlic, coins of fresh ginger, spring onion, and MSG for my brine.
Then there’s the sauce that goes on the bun — another crucial element.
I’m using Kewpie Japanese mayo, crushed garlic, and fresh raspberries. It’s your basic raspberry aioli and it’s amazingly spicy, tart, and smooth.
I grabbed some red beet sprouts for my crunch element here. I figured any lettuce would be way too wilted and boring on this dish so I went bold. The sprouts add a really nice briskness that has a clear freshness. It’s really good is what I’m saying.
I grabbed a tin of French goose liver from the shop. It’s a preformed round tin of foie gras that’s about four servings. I couldn’t possibly justify buying a whole lob of foie as I’ll never eat that much in a few days.
Lastly, there’s the chili sauce that’s going on the fried chicken thigh a la Nashville chicken. I’ve been using a lot of Zatarain’s lately and kind of love it. So I’m mixing that with some olive oil to coat my chicken when it’s done.
This recipe shines because of this element. A piece of fried chicken is already heavy so it’s crucial that you serve it with a light and airy bun element that accents and lightens the whole affair. So, I’m making a soufflé blue corn bun. And, yes, this shit is hard to execute and very time consuming but one-million percent worth the time.
The blue corn bun adds an element of earthiness and sweetness that’d otherwise be absent. It’s amazingly soft yet still holds together like a classic bun thanks to the addition of egg whites. Look, I get it. This will put most of you off my dish. But, know this, it’s one of those elements that’ll leave you speechless if you could try it.
I basically make a simple blue cornbread with 3/4 cups of blue corn flour, two teaspoons baking powder, a pinch of salt, and two egg yolks. I whisk that until it’s well blended.
Next, I whisk four egg whites until they peak. I then very, very gently fold the egg whites into the cornbread mix until it’s fully blended without breaking the whites. This just takes time, folks. There’s no way around it.
Finally, I heat up my little bun skillets and gently ladle in the batter. This has to cook on the lowest setting so that the bread sets and cooks through without burning the crust. I use a rubber spatula to gently lift up the sides before flipping it over after it starts to bubble up. I cover the skillet and let it cook for at least five more minutes. I then very gingerly remove the bun and set it aside. Basically, it should look exactly like any burger bun you’ll find in shape. When it comes to texture and flavor this is a whole different beast.
This part isn’t too time-consuming. The raspberry aioli is straightforward. Add the raspberries, garlic, and mayo into a mixing cup and blend until it’s smooth. That’s really all you have to do. The end result is this fabulous mayo that’s got a really sweet and tart edge underpinning the svelte mayo and spicy fresh garlic. It’s complex and earthy with a real kick.
I also slice off a large disc of foie. I heat up a small skillet with a glug of olive oil. I sear off each side until it’s golden brown. I then generously salt and pepper the foie and set it aside.
I let my chicken thighs brine over night in the fridge. I pull them out maybe two hours before I want to cook them so that they come up to room temp.
I then set up a dredging station. I’m using white bread flour spiked with smoked paprika, garlic powder, allspice, onion powder, basil, black pepper, MSG, and a little turmeric. I beat my extra two egg yolks into some more buttermilk for my wet dredge.
I use tongs to remove the thighs and brush off any debris. I then dredge into the flour then the egg and buttermilk and then the flour again. I let those rest for an hour so that the breading can set.
I grab my cast iron skillet and heat up some peanut oil to about 325F.
I place about three pieces of chicken in the skillet and let it fry. After about four minutes, I use my tongs to flip over the chicken so the other side can brown evenly. In the end, I pull the chicken out after eight minutes. I set each piece on a plate with a towel to soak up the excess grease.
I then toss the chicken in a bowl with the chili/garlic sauce and a little olive oil to help the coating process. Luckily, the breading is nice and crunchy and keeps its integrity with the sauce. Once that’s nicely coated it’s time for construction.
I slice my blue corn buns in half and lightly toast them over a toaster so that the insides get a toast but the outer bun stays the same. Then I smear plenty of the raspberry aioli on each side.
I stack the chicken with the foie gras on top and then the red sprouts go on top of that. I put the top bun on and serve it in a white papered basket.
Look, I know a lot of people aren’t going to “get” this sandwich and I’m okay with that. It’s part Indigenous by way of Navajo Country and Japan, part European by way of Spain and France, and part New Orleans by way of Nashville. But it’s all me.
The blue corn soufflé bread is a fucking revelation. It’s light and airy yet still holds its integrity under the weight of the sandwich. It also adds a much needed naturally sweet element to counterpoint the heat and spices of the dressing and sauces. This is by far my favorite bun of all time. Also, there’s literally nothing like it out there. It’s wholly unique with just the slightest reminiscence of a McGriddle.
The chicken thigh is deeply pleasing with a succulent and fatty texture that’s well-rounded, crunchy, and spicy. The aioli brings a whole new dimension to the sandwich with tartness and velvet texture. And the foie is amazing because it’s fucking seared foie on a fried chicken sandwich. In the end, it’s delicious, challenging, and satisfying. And, that’s what all the best food is.
Vince on Zach’s Sandwich: Zach, this looks more like you were trying to win an art contest than make me a delicious sandwich. The raspberry aioli sounds “out there,” but okay, I’ll allow it. Red beet sprouts… again, a little odd, but mostly a fresh, watery crunch element, like my plain ol’ iceberg. Foie gras… well we both know that’s an insane waste of foie gras, but I don’t think it hurts the sandwich. I like it better than Steve’s bacon.
The buttermilk/egg yolk dredge — that one sounds legit, I kind of wish I’d thought of that. No starch, but your chicken looks crunchier than Steve’s so I barely noticed.
As for the blue corn soufflé… again, I would eat the hell out of that, but is it really fit for sandwich bread? I admit I have to plead ignorance here because I’ve never had a blue corn soufflé, but I’m dubious about the lack of a yeast agent. I have a hard time imagining a bun having the necessary airiness and tensile strength without yeast or gluten.
Lastly, that sandwich is too damn tall. That foie gras disc is sitting all awkwardly in there like a dude with a giant ass resting on some beach rocks and it’s making me a little uncomfortable. I don’t want to have to unhinge my jaws like a snake for this. I admit that it does look really pretty. But this is an eating challenge, if I just wanted to see something pretty I’d stand in front of a mirror.
Steve on Zach’s Sandwich: You have seven zillion elements so I’m going to focus on just a few. I like the bun, the purple on purple, and the chicken itself. I’m out on griping about any of those.
But holy fuck that foie. That’s congressional-budget levels of waste. Worse still, in a true rarity for you, it’s poorly executed. I eat a lot of foie and I have never heard of using oil in the pan. It’s virtually pure fat. You don’t need that oil, it’ll muddle the flavor. If someone can find one foie recipe online that uses olive oil, I’ll rescind this, but standing here as a foie lover, I’m currently offended.
Also, that’s an entree-sized serving of foie. Even in France. So this isn’t so much of a fried chicken sandwich with foie as it is a foie sandwich with fried chicken. You know that, I know that, and the goose that had to have a feeding tube stuck down his throat for six weeks so that you could bury his fatty liver deep in a sandwich knows that. Come on.
Also, I find the fact that you tossed your chicken in hot sauce to be way off brand for this dish. It just seems like a bad call that doesn’t fit with the other flavors you’ve cultivated. Feels like a different thing completely. I would write more/ funnier about this element, but I’m mad about the poor dead goose and can’t focus.
VINCE’S SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN TORTA
I absolutely love a fried chicken sandwich, and would happily eat one every day. I took some inspiration from a Nashville hot chicken-style sandwich, which never disappoints. I love the heat and simplicity of it, but I thought I could add a little freshness to it, and maybe get the same heat without dunking the chicken in a wet sauce and muting that beautiful dry crunch. Probably I just created an abomination and everyone on the internet will be mad, but such is life.
Anyway, the main components seem to be crunch, heat, and pickle-y acidity so that was what I was going for here.
As the O.G. chicken breast hater, you better believe I’m using a thigh. There are a few beliefs that are central to my being and one of them is that white meat is for suckers. Boneless, skinless, chicken breast? You’re eating Chardonnay mom-ass chicken. Anyway, I went with a nice, organic, free range, college-educated chicken thigh, de-boned (duh) and with the thickest part butterflied so it lays flat, with the skin on.
Everyone says it, but they’re right: you gotta brine. For my brine, I used half dill pickle juice, half bread and butter pickle juice (a little sweet, but not too sweet), spiked with about a tablespoon of dark soy sauce and a pinch of MSG (MSG and chicken make beautiful music together, go to any Japanese or Korean fried chicken joint for evidence). I left that for about two days.
Every chef I’ve talked to about chicken agrees on two things: you have to start with chicken that’s room temperature, and dry. So yeah, I wasted a fair amount of paper towels.
I used a dry-wet-dry process, which seems to be standard for Southern-style fried chicken.
1. Heavily-spiced flour. I used an einkorn flour I saw at Whole Foods (I’d never used it before, though it does have a nice golden color that worked well for this), mixed with a Cajun spice blend, heavy on the spice (probably 50/50 ratio). Popeye’s is my favorite chicken chain, so I tried to do a Louisiana-inspired spice blend, admittedly without really knowing what the hell I was doing. I kind of just looked up some Cajun spice blends and mixed until I liked the taste. Heavy on Cayenne because I like-a da spice.
2. Egg wash
3. A mix of corn starch and potato starch. There’s something to be said for both corn starch (big in Chinese fried stuff, often listed as an ingredient when people try to recreate KFC extra crispy) and potato starch (big in karaage). I like them both so I split the difference.
Shallow fry in a cast iron pan. I didn’t get a picture, but it looked just like Zach’s.
Between 330 and 340. Shout out to Adam Hirbod at Mumford Brewing who happened to be making fried chicken at a house party the week I was prepping for this, who I watched and stole much from. I believe he said “between 330 and 340” was the ideal chicken frying temperature, so I went with that and the chicken turned out pretty ideal in goldeness/crunch/doneness.
A mix of chicken and duck fat. I would’ve used all chicken fat, but the store didn’t have enough. Who doesn’t like stuff fried in animal fat? It also splatters less and doesn’t produce scary aldehydes. There’s even a fair amount of evidence that it might be healthier (“His research also suggests that when it comes to cooking, frying in saturate-rich animal fats or butter may be preferable to frying in sunflower or corn oil. ‘If I had a choice,’ Prof. Grootveld says, ‘between lard and polyunsaturates, I’d use lard every time.‘”)
I also believe in flavoring the oil, so before I add the chicken, I fry up some garlic cloves (take them out before they brown too much) and add butter to the mix. Mmm.
The bun is low-key the most important part of a fried chicken sandwich. It’s very easy to get one too tall, too bready, too dry, etc. Unfortunately, I’m not a skilled baker. I wanted to find a nice potato roll, which seems to work best with fried chicken (brioche gets too flaky), but came up empty at all the bakeries and supermarkets. Zach suggested I search the local Mexican bakeries for a good roll. I came up empty on potato rolls, but I happened to walk in just as the guy was pulling a big batch of bolillo rolls (that’s what they make tortas with) fresh from the oven.
Holy shit, have you ever smelled a freshly baked bolillo roll? They’re incredible. I bought four and ate two on the walk home. They also turned out to be sort of perfect for my sandwich. The slightly elongated shape fit my chicken thigh, and they were exactly what I was looking for, in terms of not too tall, not too dense but sturdy enough for a sandwich, and take nicely to toasting.
Like I said, I wanted hot, but I didn’t want to drench my chicken in a sauce. Instead, I made a little slaw out of sauteed hot peppers (those are Fresno chiles and serranos, plus a little red pepper and carrots) and garlic. I mixed in some mustard and vinegar at the end. The fried garlic emulsifies with the vinegar to keep it from being too wet.
Clockwise from top:
Aioli, heavy on the pickles. Pickles are one of the most important ingredients, but I hate how they have a tendency to fall out of a sandwich, so I mixed them up with an aioli. I added more MSG in there for that Kewpie mayo-style taste and tang.
Cheese. I wrestled with whether or not to put cheese on here. I’d never order a fried chicken sandwich with cheese, but I feel like I get dinged in every one of these challenges for not having enough cheese to please the ignorant masses. In the end I figured some aged gruyere couldn’t hurt, melted and grilled, like a French onion soup top.
Iceberg lettuce, pickled onions. Just wanted a fresh watery crunch without too many added flavors.
From bottom to top I went bun, pickle aioli, pepper slaw, chicken, lettuce/onions, grilled gruyere, top bun.
That bun squishes down to perfect sandwich size when you hold it. It’s so gooey, spicy, crunchy, tangy, and delicious. Is it the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever eaten? I don’t know, I’ve eaten a lot of them. But it’s pretty damned good. The duck fat/crunchy gruyere combination turned out way better than I even expected — cut with lots of spice and heavy on pickles.
Steve on Vince’s Sandwich: First off, I love how Vince acts like using dark meat for his chicken is a revelatory food take. Really bro, dark meat tastes better? That’s wild, fam. Tell me more! Is bacon good? Are well-done steaks less flavorful? Did you used to like ranch dressing in high school and now you don’t? INCENDIARY!
Yeah, dark meat is better. Fucking duh. Moving on: That sandwich looks fantastic and I’m not going to bother talking about the mayo or the bun or the chicken itself. It all looks good. But I will say this: That pepper mix does nothing for me. Like slightly less than nothing. It’s kinda sauteed, kinda pickled, not particularly spicy (I can’t see a single seed), and feels like it delivers too much pepper taste for the sandwich to balance out.
Okay, so now that I’ve written that, I realize that it has a negative net effect.
Straw poll: Is there anyone who would order a fried chicken sandwich quicker — assuming it ALREADY HAD pickles, plus mayo, dope-ass gruyere, a nice bun, and was beautifully fried — once they were presented with the option of ordering it with a random pepper melange stolen from the Philly Cheesesteak place down the block?
Take it away Bishop Bullwinkle!
Zach on Vince’s Sandwich:
I’d just like to point out that during the last round I was basically disqualified for not making my own noodles when Steve and Vince did. So let me start by saying Steve and I made our own bread here.
That being said, I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of fault with this dish. I dig the pickle in the aioli a la tartare sauce. The chicken looks legit, albeit, maybe a little over-brined. It feels that with a brine that strong, 12 hours would have been enough and things look a little too sodium-heavy. I love salt but it needs balance with acid here. You may have overdone it, bro.
The pepper toppings look pretty dope. I’m not sure the iceberg adds anything here besides a chance to wilt and water things down. That then hinders your construction. Bread, tartare, chicken, peppers slaw, done.
Look, you didn’t make a bun and Steve and I did. Automatic third place?
VOTE! COMMENT! TEASE! GRIPE!