In Search of the Best Fast-Food Fish Sandwich
McDonalds, Burger King, Arby's and Wendy's battle for fish sandwich supremacy
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
During the summer when I was a kid, the other children in the neighborhood and I would gather every morning to play these marathon games of baseball which had to last about 20 innings each.
The games consisted of us playing with high fervor as if chilled champagne was waiting for us in a locker room and the World Series championship was on the line.
Afterward, we'd all walk a mile or so to the local McDonald's to fill up on whatever we could buy with the few bucks we begged our parents for, and while we gorged on Chicken McNuggets, Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, our buddy Steven would always get the Filet-O-Fish, which we thought was way too adult-like and weird.
You have to remember — in the world of 11-year olds — doing anything remotely adult-like could easily get you ostracized.
For that very reason I never told my friends that I secretly liked the Filet-O-Fish sandwich too, and to this day I occasionally enjoy a fish sandwich from a fast-food place or two. It usually happens when I'm taking a small vacation from being health-conscious.
So today I went on a hunt to see which fast-food fish sandwich is best.
So here we go fight fans: In one corner we have Wendy's Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich. In the other corner we have Burger King's Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich, and in the other two corners we have Arby's Fish Sandwich and of course McDonald's Filet-o-Fish.
Right off the bat I noticed this sandwich was crispier than I remember it being. Many fast food fish sandwiches look crispy since most of them are breaded, but a lot of times the fried shell is merely a facade and the patty is really soggy in texture.
Although the fish itself wasn't too greasy or salty, the bun of the sandwich was completely disfigured and did absolutely nothing to add to the overall taste or appearance.
Unless you request otherwise, the sandwich only comes with a no-taste tartar sauce that really serves no purpose. It also comes with a piece of withered lettuce that has hopefully seen kinder days.
But a good thing about the sandwich was its lack of that cheap fast-food taste. A lot of fish sandwiches in this category are seemingly melted together almost deactivating the palette's ability to separate flavors.
In many of these cases, it's challenging to determine the meat from the condiment, and the condiment from the topping. It can be quite sad.
However, Wendy's Alaskan Fish Sandwich had a slightly fresh taste. And although it’s anything but fresh, it was pretty substantial having a good amount of hearty bite for such a small sandwich.
The inside flaky part — which actually wasn't all that flaky— was a greyish white color that did sort of resemble actual fish despite the cloudy hue. Overall, Wendy's sandwich scored points for its fish-store sandwich appeal, though it could use a little makeover in the area of appearance and proper form.
But it’s still the early rounds and we'll see if Wendy's has enough to deliver in order to trump the competition.
Now Arby's isn't known for its fish sandwiches, but I figured if the company's marketing angle is about freshness maybe the concept would be carried over to its seafood option. Wrong.
The fried meat, which resembles Long John Silver’s fish filets, might as well have been steamed, as the only crispness of the sandwich was its thick white piece of lettuce. Why restaurants choose to lay the worst part of the lettuce head on your sandwich is another story entirely.
The thickness of the bun made up for the sandwich's lack of manpower, as it was truly the meal's only positive feature.
To its benefit however, the Arby's sandwich is one of the biggest among those we tested, and at an only $2.49 maybe the company figures the overall density of the sandwich will compensate for its subpar taste.
Another plus for the Arby's sandwich was its tartar sauce having a little more flavor than the Wendy's sauce, which is possibly another way of the company masking the sandwich's lack of flavor.
Burger King says its fish burgers are made of cold-water whitefish, and at 4.3 ounces it could easily be compared to the Whopper in terms of its ability to fill you up, mainly due to its Kaiser Roll-inspired bun.
You have to give a little credit to the second-most successful fast-food chain in the world for attempting to make its fish sandwich look like an actual sandwich.
Somehow the franchise is able to keep it from looking compressed, like the others we tested which look as if each staff member jumped from the counter and landed directly on the bun
The patty itself, a colossal brown square, was a bit saltier than the other patties and the tartar sauce seemed to be the tastiest of the group. I mean it wasn't wonderfully flavored or anything, but the sauce did add a bit of needed tang to the salty taste of the sandwich.
But the lack of crispiness was a disappointment, as it was the only thing that kept the Burger King sandwich from scoring as high as it could have. Although the fish burger performed well, it just didn't provide the knockout.
Next up to duke it out was McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, which is the smallest of the tested sandwiches.
What's most interesting about this fish sandwich is that it doesn't taste like fish at all. Just like most of the restaurant's menu items, it has that odd chemical taste the franchise is notorious for, which is probably why I liked it as a kid.
But as an adult the chemical taste isn't first on my palate list. In fact, it's about fourth or fifth for the times I feel like having a little nostalgia along with my fish sandwich.
In addition, the shiny almost perfectly round bun only added to the uniformity of the sandwich, making the Filet-o-Fish nearly resemble the McDonald's hamburger in both size and texture -- not really a good thing.
It's also the only sandwich of the group that comes with cheese, which is a shameful no-no when it comes to seafood enthusiasts. Although using the term seafood for any of these sandwiches is a ridiculously long stretch.
The Filet-O-Fish is one of those sandwiches where most of the tastes blend together, and the only distinguishable flavor is cooked oil that bears a hint of newly-cooked French fries.
There's also that special-sauce kind of taste that seemingly marries the flavors of ketchup, French dressing and mayonnaise, which locks in that familiar fast-food taste children all over the globe drive their parents crazy over.
But even though the quality of the sandwich wasn't the best in terms of shape, texture and separation of taste, it somehow worked on a mindless level.
Meaning, the taste and smell of the overall brand of McDonald's is so familiar, it kind of tricks the mind into thinking you’re getting something better than you actually are.
The winner: Wendy's
So which sandwich is the victor? Or a better question — especially for those who usually stay away from fast food — which sandwich is most tolerable?
Well, Wendy's fish sandwich wins the gold for its crispiness, slight taste of freshness and balanced flavor. Although the company could certainly make improvements on the bun, shape and overall pretty factor, Wendy's Premium Fish Fillet is your best bet when you’re in the mood for fast food and want to deviate from beef or chicken.
Wendy's was able to make their offering taste the closest to an actual fish sandwich, making it the best option if you're not getting a sandwich directly from the fish market.
Burger King's Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich got the silver in the fight for its sheer size, presentation and more-bang-for-your-buck appeal.
The actual taste of the patty was the saltiest of the bunch, but its bun was the best, as the chain does a good job of dressing the sandwich up, as well as dulling the slightly over-salted patty.
This sandwich is also a two-hander, which makes up for the rest of its fast-food shortcomings. I would definitely grab a Burger King fish burger over a McDonald's sandwich anyday.
As far as the Filet-O-Fish, it gets points for its memory-lane factor, but not for its slapped-together look and taste. For some reason this sandwich hasn't evolved over the years.
But don't get me wrong, it still suits the taste buds in a I-just-want-something-familiar kind of way, but compared to the other sandwiches tested, the Filet-O-Fish wasn't able to make it onto the podium, which surprised me because it used to be my go-to fish sandwich. I guess it shows that palettes eventually do grow up.