We Tried 13 Fast-Food Fish Sandwiches & This Is the Best
Lent is here! And no, that exclamation point is not a typo. Because with this season comes a sea of new sandwiches from our fast-food favorites, of a particular variety I personally have a soft spot for: fish.
But let's rewind to explain the "why" of this phenomenon.
For Christians around the world, Lent means giving up meat on Fridays, turning instead to the sea for sustenance. But at the end of a long, busy week, who's not tired? A large-scale meal of large-scaled fin friends can seem daunting, so… fast food to the rescue!
Now while some chains offer fish sandwiches year-round, most only take a dip in this pond for these six weeks or so, making fish Fridays more of a special treat as you get your fillet fill-up until next year. And every year, the offerings have gotten progressively more exciting as the major players toss their nets in to see if they come back up with cleverer ways to one-up the Big Fish, the Filet-o-Fish, and others who have committed to fish 365. Plus, with fish in the forefront, there's a renewed emphasis on serving them fresh and hot, making this the best time of year to try a staid incumbent.
So which is the best fast-food fish sandwich? We've reeled them all in to see which ones sink, stink, or swim. With these rankings, hopefully, you can make the right sandwich choice to make you feel that you're not giving up meat… you're treating yourself to fish. Here's how they ranked.
Checkers Deep Sea Double
More is more, and more is better, right? Especially when it costs only 40 calories more to double your fish and add some cheese? (Yeah, we're not sure how that math works, either.) Ends up, not so much. You'd think that more meat and the addition of melted American would enhance this sandwich, but in this case, it actually detracts from it. The cheese is sweet and weird; we suspect it's a cheaper process, more oil than dairy-based, than say, our picks for Best American Cheese. So rather than enhancing and enriching the flavor of the crispy, breadcrumb-coated squares of unspecified fish, it brought out the greasiness of its retained oils.
Another thing that didn't help it was that the components were all stacked unevenly, which made it hard to get a truly satisfying bite. This became even more difficult with the dark chunks of fishier-tasting meat interspersed throughout each patty. You can pick those out along with the blue-ish veins that might also turn off a visual eater, but then you're back to a single sandwich… only now with twice the breading and an extra dose of that pervasive oil, whose chemical flavor just screams out "fast food!" and not in that good, nostalgic way.
As the "budget buy" of the bunch, I find it kind of surprising that there's enough demand for this sandwich to keep it in rotation year-round. I'm not sure about you, but I don't associate Rally's or Checkers as the place to go for fish, but here we are.
It's as generic as generic goes, made of unnamed fish cut into a uniform square, coated with breadcrumbs, and deep-fried until crunchy. It was very airy overall, in that the fillet was rather thin, and each layer of breading floated above the meat. This was placed on a soft, fluffy bun whose toasting couldn't overcome its unremarkable, cafeteria-burger white-bread construction. Complemented with shredded iceberg lettuce, a sweet tartar sauce, and a hint of overheated oil, it's generally unremarkable and unsatisfying. There's just not much to it from flavor to density to mass, making it unobjectionable but not much to write about here, much less home.
Hardee's Panko Breaded Pollock Sandwich
For those who were hoping for a beer-battered fish to make it to this year's roundup, I'm sorry. The chain that differentiated themselves with ale-based treatment has gone conventional, this year choosing to panko-bread their Alaskan pollock instead, before dressing it with nothing more than a frilly green-leaf lettuce leaf and tartar sauce before putting it on a toasted bun. I just want to point out that this is not the hugely underrated potato bun that, inexplicably, no one is talking about, that they use for premium sandwiches.
That said, onto what's relevant. The panko breading is light on this somewhat trapezoidal fillet as they take a cue from Arby's to emulate an actual fish fillet shape. This results in a narrow cut that doesn't fill out the squashy, mealy sesame bun on one side but hangs a little off the other side. This is fine; we're all adults here, and we can balance bites. But where this soft, flaky fish fails is in an odd, unnatural sweetness. It's not just on the breading, which is nicely light but unfortunately holds onto the grease of the fryer and is less crispy than its competitors. It's actually in the meat, so there was no escaping it, especially as it followed in aftertaste form and the entire sandwich—with its bland bun and generic, inconsistent iceberg leaves–was too insubstantial to counter it. In fact, the tartar on both sides was relish-forward and enhanced the sweetness, making the whole thing feel slightly off. However, a few of their (also underrated) seasoned and salty fries provided some balance.
Arby's Crispy Fish Sandwich
There are mixed reports as to when Arby's decided to get into "ocean meat," as a former executive for the brand dubbed it. I personally don't remember them offering a fish sandwich until the spring after Wendy's came out with theirs, but either way, they've come out to play every year since. Used to be that they'd advertise the use of Alaskan pollock; this year it's not specified. But their constantly expanding menu has three editions this season, and this now-classic is the foundational sandwich upon which the new spicy and the returning King's Hawaiian Deluxe is based. And a foundation feels exactly like what it is. If it were a house, it'd be categorized as builder grade.
It's a solid hunk of fish that's longer but not wider than the toasted sesame seeded bun it's nestled between. It comes with plenty of fresh shredded lettuce and their interesting tartar sauce, which seems to have flecks of carrot in it as well as the standard sweet relish. Gone is the old Fish n' Cheddar, but nothing's stopping you from adding that on by request. After all, this very simple, minimal, and frankly underdressed sandwich could use a little zhuzhing, random (mistaken?) pieces of red onion aside.
The fish is crunchy with a balanced amount of breadcrumb breading, with some dark flecks that taste more strongly than others and a texture that starts to pull firmly (and not that pleasantly) like surimi if you let it cool. Otherwise, it's just generally neutral, as basic as a pair of black leggings.
Burger King Big Fish
The last time I had this sandwich, it came on a sesame-seeded round bun with lettuce and tartar sauce only. Needless to say, whoa, has it changed since then! The King has had to step their components up, joining the legions of fast-food purveyors that have made brioche-esque buns their boos and gussying up their all-year fish just as accordingly. Gone is the crumbly breadcrumb breading; they took a cue from Wendy's to introduce panko. Their tartar has gone the sweet route, countered by tangy pickles … er, pickle. Just one very thick-cut pickle chip, as Exhibit A of how the Big Fish is really just "big" in name only these days.
The sandwich itself has the best aesthetic of all of them: an absolutely pristine, shiny-topped golden bun and an equally golden fish fillet assembled evenly with square cuts of iceberg and slightly coagulant tartar peeking out.
But Exhibit B is how dramatically the fish has shrunken; the bun is premium-sized, sure, but not the giant of yore, yet there's a lot of extra bread left meatless. At least it's toasted and oversauced, as BK is wont to do with their specialty sandwiches, but the dense, heaviness that makes the bun come out of the bag picture-perfect also means that it doesn't toast long enough to heat all the way through. Without the steam, it's dry in the middle.
On the other hand, the fish suffers the opposite in that its edges are dry, despite retaining a lot of the frying oil with the aid of bulky layers of breading that absorb grease like a sponge. In fact, the thickness of the actual fish is barely more than the generous pickle. At 2 for $5–just 50 cents more than a single sandwich–it's at least a better value than Wendy's, but pretty on par.
Wendy's Crispy Panko Fish Sandwich
When Wendy's came out with their premium fish sandwich, they came out hot, changing the game with cod, panko, and a buttered premium bun. It was a game-changer. Today, while they've stuck to the formula of that same breading material, trimmed lettuce leaf, thick-cut pickles, American cheese, and herbaceous tartar, they've taken a step back on the main event. They've since switched over to more sustainable (*ahem* cheaper) pollock instead, breading it more thickly than any of their other competitors besides Burger King, presumably to protect crispiness but ostensibly to protect their bottom line.
Like most folks, I love a good crunch, but there's a fine line between that and hard, and congratulations! Wendy's found it … and crossed it. The corners were mostly bready filling, fried to inedibleness, and the meat was bereft of moisture. Really, it's such a shame, since this was the most assertively seasoned fillet in the game, with hints of allium in the breading, plenty of salt, and bold accompaniments. There's so much to love about the rest of the sandwich: excellent dill-speckled tartar sauce that tasted like fresh herbs, fat half-sour pickle chips, enough melted cheese, and a toasted-on-the-outside but steamy-on-the-inside sweet premium bun that held its photo-ready form. It's ironic that their sandwich from the sea went down for being too dry; if they didn't cut (hard, square) corners on this fish, it could have scored much higher.
Ah, the fish that launched a thousand fish… or so it feels. This all-year classic was the first non-burger option to be added to McDonald's original menu back in 1965, and it hasn't changed much since. I mean, aside from cutting its formerly American now nuked-looking "processed cheddar" slice into a half that more often limps dejectedly off the block of fish, sadly wasted on the box it comes in.
This move was said by spokes folks to be intentional to allow one to better taste the fish, but I'm not alone in saying it feels miserly. And that's not the only way you might feel gypped by Mickey D's take. Next to the behemoths of Culver's, Popeyes, and Arby's, it's hard not to feel let down by this little guy in the fancy package. Especially when you buy only one—you can get the 2 Filet-o-Fish for $5, but if you get one, you're only paying a few cents less than the bigger boys.
However, it does look adorable with its smooth, supple steamed McDonald's bun, all sweet and familiar. And for better or worse, there's no mistaking this sandwich for anybody else's; every component has a distinctive signature to it. The sponginess of the bread, is lovely and doughy when fresh. The tartar sauce is the absolute best on the market. It's thick, sour, acidic, and assertive–bold and pronounced against the meek and sugar-skewing versions everyone else seems to lean toward. The very light, un-greasy square of crunchy, golden-fried fish stick-tasting Alaskan pollock. While many competing fillets are made of pollock as well, this has its own flavor from the oil they use to fry it, with traces of that comforting McDonald's fries fragrance embedded into the patty. Sure, once it cools, it has a compressed, processed, and grayish look to it that dulls next to walleye, cod, and flounder, but small as it is, it'll be gone before you reach that point.
You may ask, with this simplicity, how it ranked above the superior ingredients of the Wendy's and Burger King sandwiches. The answer is a weird addictiveness of its flavors. There's something about this sandwich that while not objectively nor technically good, inspires a lasting craving we can't explain. It's that Mickey D's magic, because how can something be worse than another if you want it more?
Arby's King's Hawaiian Fish Deluxe
This fish sandwich is a case where the bun does the heavy lifting… but we're definitely not mad about it. As you'd rightly infer from the name, this Deluxe version of the Arby's trifecta of fish is all about the oversized, toasted King's Hawaiian roll, whose soft sweetness is so delightful that it forces the many other ingredients into the background.
That's not to say the large, fillet-shaped piece of fish disappears into it. It's nice–firm, mild, and without too many chunks of stagnant fishiness. It has shredded lettuce and slices of tomato as refreshing palate-cleansers. While I appreciated the thought of them, they did leave disappointing wet circles on the otherwise crispy fish and didn't add much to the sandwich. Surprisingly, neither did the thick slice of cheddar, purported to be sharp but in actuality, rubbery and barely detectable, especially since it never quite melted. To tie it all together, there's tartar on top and the bottom. Yet with all of that said and as a whole quite good, it was still all about that bun, hon.
Popeyes Spicy Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Arby's isn't the only one that wants to keep the spice train going, and the chicken sandwich kings are applying their exact same method to the new spicy version of their seasonal special. And like its humble inspiration, it came out of its packaging not looking like much: very big but super squashed and greasy looking, on a bun that looks over browned with a cracking top that frays off dry.
But mmm, that first bite and you remember what your mama told you about not judging books by their covers, because this is a dream come true for spicy chicken sandwich addicts looking to observe Lent. You won't feel you're missing out on it at all with this newcomer. Just like Popeyes runaway hit, it's breaded beautifully with a hard, crispy, flaky shell that delivers a slow, consistent heat. It's dressed with a remoulade-adjacent spicy sauce instead of the usual tartar, and two big pickle chips jump in to keep things cool.
The meat itself is fresh and high quality on its own, but kind of fades into nothingness against its accompaniments. This lack of identity is what brought it to this ranking, but it's a mere technicality because let's be honest—if you're getting this sandwich, you're not here for the fish. And that's just fine, too.
Culver's Northwoods Walleye
I'd never been to a Culver's and I'd never had walleye, so when this limited-time menu item popped up, I realized I had to double my sample size for this chain. For those not in the know, Northwoods walleye is a freshwater fish that—specifically for Culver's—is line-caught from Canadian waters, and available only through mid-spring to ensure sustainability. But more importantly (for this article), it tastes clean, bright, and has the texture of ultra-fresh lake fish dipped in a big poof of lightweight, ultra-crispy batter, fried golden with the perfect amount of air in between the two elements.
They sell it in a dinner platter, but in sandwich form, it's impressive. It's immediately clear that it's a real fillet of a real fish; you can see through the batter the darker surface patches where the skin was separated from the meat, and their website notes that you may find small bones in these fresh cuts.
It's also immediately clear that you're getting your money's worth in quantity as well as quality. The fish portion is bigger than the already larger-than-average toasted oval "hoagie" roll, which is buttery and tastes like milk bread, shapely firm exterior and all. This texture is perfect for soaking up the extra grease that may remain in the crags of the fillet, which is also countered by crisp lettuce. However, the tartar sauce was minimal and therefore undiscernible in this sandwich, the whole of which would have been vastly improved by a bit of acid. A spritz of lemon juice, perhaps, before digging in, or a bit more sauce? But for ranking purposes, doctoring an advantage is a no-no, so here it sits.
Arby's Spicy Fish Sandwich
Arby's has the meats, but they're really digging their heels into bringing the heat as well. For the first time ever, their fish sandwich gets spicy and we're totally here for it. Using some of the best components from the Diablo Dare sandwiches whose flame flickered for too short a while, they've reimagined an average fish sandwich and turned it into a star.
First of all, this sandwich is as loaded with ingredients as it is with flavor. It greets you on first bite with a sense of warm, sweet heat, thanks to a spicy dust they call "fiery seasoning" and diced roasted jalapenos held in place by a generous swipe of tartar sauce. There's shredded iceberg lettuce and tomato to cut the mild heat, although their benefit is perhaps only a token since the juices can cause sogginess.
To protect the sesame-seed bun at least, if not the fish, the heel also has a big dollop of tartar—enough so that it's easy enough to forget that the one thing this sandwich is missing is the cheese. The sauciness and spiciness of it all are enough to make you wonder for a second if it's not just very light chicken you're eating, as the oversized fillet-shaped breaded fish is mild and firm.
While I did wish the bread and fish were of better quality, the result was greater than the sum of its parts and a unique, refreshing take on blending a classic and a trend. Plus, as part of their 2 for $6 menu, it's worth taking the risk—you can always get the original as a backup. Or, pro-tip over here, ask to upgrade the bun to the Hawaiian. (You're welcome.)
Popeyes Classic Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Well, the chicken champs have done it again. Masters of the air, they've also conquered the sea, and what's probably most impressive is that they did it with one of the most unassertive and unmeaty of fish. Somehow, they've managed to wild-catch behemoth flounders and cut them generously enough to extend out of the boundaries of their already big, squishable brioche bun.
While the size and obviously fresh and real flounder cuts are big pluses, again, it's their 'hand-battered then hand-breaded' technique that makes this sandwich another winner. You can actually see the line of orange Louisiana spices that seep into the white meat, jazzing up a normally innocuous fish from silky smooth inside to distinctly Southern-style outside. It's not over-breaded, either, so what you see is what you get—they're not wasting your time on filler over at Popeyes, even if some of us (*ahem*) will scrape for bottom-of-the-bag crunchies.
Then there's the tart and tangy tartar sauce that hugs each extra crackly bite in a creamy, luxurious coat to soften the crags. The salty, sour flavors of it are further enhanced by the thick-cut barrel-cured pickles that really leap out in this sandwich, making every bite a flavor bomb and textural joy. The fact that the weakest link is actually the cult favorite soft brioche bun (it's a bit dry and crumbly; a firmer or spongier recipe would hold up better against the bold texture of Popeyes breading) should give you a proper idea of what a good job they did with this seasonal special.
Culver's North Atlantic Cod
There aren't a lot of Culver's and more's the shame. This Wisconsin-based chain, famous for their "butter burgers" and frozen custard showed in this sandwich that they're not just a Dairyland specialist. Along with butterfly shrimp baskets, they offer their fried cod sandwich every day of the year, and I will now be driving 23 minutes out of my way the next time the craving for fried fish hits because the other year-round offerings have now been ruined for me.
I didn't expect much based on their marketing pictures, but the Irish chipper-thick cut of cod wrapped in a slightly sweet, mildly seasoned, puffy, and shatter-ready batter made the sandwich a veritable tower. Like the walleye, their cod is delivered fresh filleted and hand-battered in the store, and boy do you taste the freshness. In spite of the ride home, it stayed piping hot and crunchy, the chewy, meaty cut bursting with juice–not grease–underneath a sweet, generously buttered roll that they loosely interpret as a hoagie. The only similarity I see is that there are slits across the oval shape and it's well structured on the outside while soft on the inside, but I'm just being persnickety to temper your expectations.
Anyway, this did better with the tartar sauce spread than the walleye; while you can't really taste the brine of the olives and capers added to the standard sweet relish, there was at least enough of the sauce to give you the acid pop needed. The shreds of Wisconsin cheddar mixed into the shredded lettuce, also provided a delightfully sharp jolt against the cool greens, melting slightly onto the fish.
For the most part, it was pretty much gill to gill in this tight competition for dominance over the Lenten seas. Arby's took some risks this year, Popeyes made its (spicy version) taste like chicken, and Wendy's and Burger King have cast away with hopes that their superior condiments can carry their fish. There were some sleeper wows since I've last had fish sandwiches—such as Culver's ingenious battered thick cod—and surprising re-rankings, like McDonald's perplexingly haunting cravability. All in all, though, it was a rather good season with more winners than losers, and proof that it's not at all a bad thing to have plenty of fish in the sea.