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What’s the Best Fast-Food Fish Sandwich? We Ranked the Top 5.

Here’s how the fried fish sandwiches from Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Popeyes, Bojangles and McDonald’s stack up.

The Washington Post

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Bottom left to right: Arby’s Crispy Fish Fillet, Wendy’s Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich, Bojangles' The Bojangler fish sandwich. Top left to right: Popeyes' Classic Flounder fish sandwich, Burger King’s Fiery Big Fish. (Photos by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post) 

Every year around this time, fish sandwiches start appearing on fast-food menus across the country, as if summoned by the prayers of the faithful.

This massive catch of fried fish, of course, is designed largely to satisfy the cravings of Catholics who, prior to 1966, abstained from eating red meat every Friday, not just those during Lent. In the Cincinnati suburbs, where Roman Catholics once dominated the area, restaurateurs like Louis Groen were doomed if they tried to rely on hamburger sales, and in the early 1960s, Groen tried to rely on hamburger sales. He was a McDonald’s franchisee, back before the chain was a household name. He was getting killed on Fridays by the local Big Boy restaurants, which had a fish sandwich on the menu.

So, Groen began working with McDonald’s corporate team to develop the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, even though owner Ray Kroc was wholly resistant to the idea. “Hell no!” Kroc apparently told Groen, according to “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s,” Kroc’s 1977 book. “I don’t care if the Pope himself comes to Cincinnati. He can eat hamburgers like everybody else. We are not going to stink up our restaurants with any of your damned old fish.”

Kroc was placing his bets — literally — on a creation he called the Hulaburger. It was two slices of cheese paired with a slice of grilled pineapple, tucked into a toasted bun. Kroc loved to have one for lunch. He made a wager with Groen: The company would sell both the Filet-O-Fish and the Hulaburger on a Friday. Whichever sandwich sold the most would earn a spot on the permanent menu. It was a landslide. Hulaburgers: 6; Filet-O-Fish: 350.

“We started selling it only on Fridays in limited areas, but we got so many requests for it that in 1965 we made it available in all our stores every day, advertising it as the ‘fish that catches people,’” Kroc wrote in “Grinding It Out.”

Nearly 60 years later, all the major fast-food chains trot out a fish sandwich during Lent, if they don’t already sell one year-round. The variations between each are small but significant. They all rely on flaky white fish — Alaskan pollock is the species of choice for many chains — which essentially makes for a blank canvas for the tartar sauce, the seasoned coating, the toppings and the bun. There is a surprising amount of individuation to be conjured from this tight handful of ingredients.

Is the tartar sauce sweet or sharp? Does the chain double down on acid by including pickles on the sandwich? Is the bun brioche or potato? Is the coating thick or thin? Spiced or seasoned simply? Does it include a slice of cheese — or a half slice of cheese like the one found on the Filet-O-Fish (which is not an accident, by the way, but a deliberate choice as Kroc wrote in his book)?

This seasonal wave of sandwiches, in other words, is meticulously engineered and marketed to cater to diners during Lent. All these fried fishes are a prayer answered not by God but by corporate America.

For the ranking below, I tried 10 fish sandwiches at six national chains. You’ll notice the sandwich that started it all didn’t make the cut: The Filet-O-Fish that I sampled was greasy, bready and, oddly, chewy. Its fish was muddy and, worse, it was smothered in tartar sauce. It was the kind of lackluster bite that makes you think: Bring on the Hulaburger!

5. Arby’s Crispy Fish Sandwich

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Arby’s Crispy Fish Fillet: Pollock with shredded lettuce and tartar sauce on a sesame seed bun. CREDIT: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

The coating on this sandwich is thick, providing both crunch and a modest amount of chewiness, as if Arby’s slipped mochi rice dough into the batter. The chain relies on pollock, as many do, because the species is cheap, abundant and available in the wild, which allows operators to market their fish as “wild caught.” The mild pollock comes slathered with a tartar sauce that runs sweet, no doubt due to its generous application of high fructose corn syrup. Tucked into a sesame seed bun that holds its shape better than its squishy brioche bun competitors, the fillet is accompanied by lots of shredduce, that clever portmanteau for shredded lettuce. The sandwich feels a bit more processed than its peers. But it also just works. I devoured the thing.

$5.49 per sandwich, but prices vary by location.

4. Bojangles’ Bojangler Fish Sandwich

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 Bojangles’ The Bojangler Fish Sandwich: An Alaskan pollock filet dusted in Bo’s seasoning, with a slice of American cheese and tartar sauce on a toasted bun. CREDIT: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post 

The tips of my fried triangle of Alaskan pollock poked out of both ends of its toasted bun, looking as if Giannis Antetokounmpo tried to tuck himself into a kid-size futon for the night. The presentation had its designed effect: to signal a kind of generosity that cannot be contained within a single bun. The fillet arrived hot and fresh, showing no signs of oil even though it was clearly plucked from the fryer just seconds earlier. The sandwich is low-frills: just a fried fillet, slice of American cheese, tartar sauce and bun. But the elements are in harmony. The heat of the fish against the cool creaminess of the tartar; the black-pepper bite of the batter against the sweetness of the sauce; the softness of the bun against the crackle of the fillet. A fine specimen of the fast-food craft.

$5.49 per sandwich, but prices vary by location.

3. Wendy’s Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich

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 Wendy’s Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich: Wild-caught Alaska pollock fillet coated in panko breading, topped with lettuce, a slice of American cheese, pickles and dill tartar sauce. CREDIT: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post 

Wendy’s wins the sandwich-naming sweepstakes with its seasonal fish offering. If the Bojangler conjures up images of horror-flick serial killers, the Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich does the opposite: It suggests a workhorse chef who has labored for days to create a coating that amplifies the crunch that attracts many of us to fried foods in the first place. True to form, this sandwich crackles under tooth, down to the very last bite. The crunch is a pleasure all its own. The fillet itself is formed from “wild caught Alaskan pollock” — Wendy’s is quick to point out the sustainability of this fishery — and paired with tartar sauce, pickles, American cheese and a single leaf of romaine. The tartar sauce isn’t afraid of acidity, which does what it’s supposed to do: contain the fishiness of the fillet while emphasizing its sweet oceanic flavors.

$6.16 per sandwich, but prices vary by location.

2. Burger King’s Fiery Big Fish

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 Burger King’s Fiery Big Fish: Pollock covered in panko breading and spicy glaze, with lettuce, pickles, and tartar sauce served on a brioche bun. CREDIT: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post 

The King decided to do its best Popeyes impression this Lent by introducing the Fiery Big Fish, a spicy interpretation of its regular seafood sandwich. Which means that BK, like Popeyes, now offers customers two ways to get their fish fix: one with heat, one without. The newbie is the superior offering. Burger King brushes a triple-pepper glaze on both sides of its Alaskan pollock fillet. The glaze sort of looks like hot pepper jelly, and as such, its heat is more of a creeper than a palate crusher. You may get lulled into complacency by the sweet tartar sauce or by the crunch of the panko-crusted fillet or even by the pillowy potato bun. But then, out of nowhere, the chile peppers will catch you unawares and land a solid uppercut to the kisser. The Fiery Big Fish may be an instant fast-food classic.

$3.99 per sandwich, but prices vary by location.

1. Popeyes’ Classic Flounder Fish Sandwich

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 Popeyes' Classic Flounder Fish Sandwich: Flounder, marinated in Louisiana herbs & spices, served on a brioche bun with pickles and tartar sauce. CREDIT: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post 

Let me get this out of the way: The spicy version of the Flounder Fish Sandwich packs a wallop. Too much of one, in fact, for the generally mellow nature of white fish. The sauce is far better suited to Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, the one that launched 1,000 imitators. But the standard Flounder Fish Sandwich may be fast-food perfection. The breading that entombs the flounder is thick and crackly — and spiced enough to provide the targeted hot-pepper punch that every piece of flaky white fish is just asking for. The flounder also stands out among its competitors: When you peel back the breading on the fish, you’ll find intact fillets, not just random clumps of fish. Its flavor is more pronounced, too: The flounder has a distinct brininess, which stands up better to the richness of the brioche bun and the acidity of the pickles and tartar sauce. It all just clicks into place with this sandwich. Now, how do we persuade Popeyes to keep it on the menu full time?

$5.99 per sandwich, but prices vary by location.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published February 28, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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