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Grading local chicken sandwiches

I've had a long relationship with fast-food chicken sandwiches. There have been many winter nights when I’ve been covering a basketball game in some far-flung part of the state, and the only option for a quick dinner at 10 p.m. involves a drive-thru window or a highway rest area, and a chicken sandwich always seems like a better option than a burger.

It goes back farther than that, though. The spicy chicken sandwich was my go-to choice at the Wendy’s located halfway through the five hour drive home from my first apartment in Vermont and my parents’ house in Connecticut. And of course there was the weekend in Boston during college when my fiends and I dined exclusively on $1 chicken sandwiches during a promotion at Burger King.

While those meals were friendly on a young guy’s wallet, they never left me especially satisfied. I was thinking of this last month while driving back from a basketball game in Woodstock while balancing a McDonald's chicken sandwich in my lap. It was the first fast food meal I had eaten since the pandemic upended my work and travel schedules, and it occurred at a time when supporting local businesses had become a popular movement. Plus, the sandwich didn’t taste all that great.

So I went to my colleague Rick Koster, who is just as comfortable reviewing an upscale dining experience as he is writing about a sack of cheeseburgers. During an episode of our podcast, Leave Work Now!, I asked Rick for local alternatives to the chain restaurant crispy chicken sandwich. Several audience members also chimed in with their suggestions. Here’s what we found over the course of several take-out meals:

Mr. G’s Restaurant, New London

Fried chicken sandwich with fries, $9.95

Rick sent me down the street to Mr. G’s, where the options also include a Buffalo chicken sandwich, and chicken parm, chicken cutlet and Buffalo chicken grinders. The patty on the fried chicken sandwich was similar in form to its fast food cousin, but was bigger and crispier. The addition of a grilled bun and lettuce and tomato delivers three tiers of varying crispiness, and a splash of honey mustard adds a satisfying zing.

Olio, Groton

Crispy spicy chicken sandwich with hand-cut fries, $14.95

Deondre Bransford wrote in to suggest Olio in Groton. The texture of the breading on their thin chicken breast is the star of this sandwich. The patty extends to double the width of the lightly toasted brioche bun. Below the chicken is a generous helping of coleslaw — a cool counterpoint to the heat of the cayenne aioli on top. The side of hand-cut fries are a worthy upgrade to what you’d find in the bottom of your fast food bag.

Engine Room, Mystic

Chipotle chicken sandwich with fries (or coleslaw, potato salad or macaroni salad), $15

One anonymous submitter preferred McDonald’s and Popeyes but called the sandwich from the Engine Room “OK.” In contrast to the previous two, this sandwich features a thick chicken breast with a dense, crunchy breading. The bun, which came lightly toasted, was just OK compared to what came in between. The combination of house smoked ranch and chipotle hot sauces — a nice interplay between spicy and sweet — ensures ample flavor in every bite. I took mine without the standard pickles, but then regretted the lack of a cool crispness that a veggie topping would have provided.

Hot Rod Cafe, New London

Fried chicken sandwich with fries, $13.95

The last suggestion comes from Reid Burdick, who also praised the beer selection at Hot Rod. Their hand-battered chicken breast took up the entire width of the takeout container, and could almost have used a second bun to support it. A more civilized diner might have opted for a knife and fork, but I dug right in with both hands. Their marinade infuses the thin chicken breast with flavor and moisture that is trapped by the almost flaky coating. The presentation is no-nonsense: shredded lettuce, tomato slice, pickles and onions with a smear of mayo.

All four sandwiches were consumed straight from their take-out packaging to prevent being swayed by any one restaurant’s dining ambiance. Olio’s offering seemed to travel the best of the four, so maybe that was of the reason it rose to the top of my list. All four are sandwiches that I would happily order again, and I may need to do that sooner than later. A recent Bloomberg article warns that a worldwide shortage of feed grains coupled with a rising demand for meat has led some restaurants to run out of fried chicken.

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