Review: 2021 Lenten fish sandwiches
Washington D.C. (CNA) - A lot has changed in the three years since CNA’s last ranking of fish sandwiches.
The Chick-Fil-A fish sandwich, which we at CNA crowned the winner of the 2018 fish sandwich rankings, is not on the menu anymore.
This year, as Lent is upon us once again, CNA put five fast-food restaurants head-to-head (or fin-to-fin?) to compare their fish sandwich offerings.
New to CNA’s 2021 review is Arby’s fish sandwich offering. Additionally, several other restaurants featured on the 2018 review have updated their fish sandwiches since then.
Note: This review features only fish sandwiches, defined as a piece of fried fish and other toppings and condiments in between bread. All items were ordered as specified on the menu with no modifications, and were obtained at the drive-thru and consumed at home. The ratings cover a five “?” scale, with one being the lowest ranking and five the highest ranking. A “pandering” bonus is awarded to limited-time fish sandwich offerings for the Lenten season. All prices are for Washington, D.C. area locations and may differ throughout the country.
Website description: “Put away your fishing boat and rubber fishing pants. Arby's wild-caught Alaskan Pollock is crispy-fried to golden-brown perfection. We top it with tartar sauce and shredded lettuce.?” The sandwich is also available as a “King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe” on a King’s Hawaiian roll with the addition of cheese and tomato.
First impressions: The sandwich came wrapped in a dedicated fish sandwich wrapper, and also came with a packet each of Arby’s Sauce and Horsey Sauce. The fish was decidedly more on the yellow end of golden. Arby’s has “the meats,” but could it have the fish, too? I was intrigued.
Review: I liked the sesame seed bun, which kind of elevated the experience. The iceberg lettuce would have tasted better as romaine--it was forgettable and flavorless. The fillet itself was sizable but, again, tasted rather flavorless and was neither crunchy nor crispy. There was an appropriate amount of tartar sauce. I tried the Horsey Sauce and the Arby’s Sauce on the sandwich, which simply made it taste like horseradish and...Arby’s, I guess, respectively. It didn’t enhance it, it overpowered it. There was nothing special about this sandwich, aside from the bun. It would have benefitted from pickles.
Pandering: Yes, this is a limited-time offering.
Rating: ??? and a half
Website description: “Our premium Big Fish Sandwich is 100% White Alaskan Pollock, breaded with crispy panko breading and topped with sweet tartar sauce, tangy pickles, all on top of a toasted brioche-style bun.”
First impressions: The website claims that tartar sauce goes on the sandwich, but I’m pretty sure that my sandwich came with mayonnaise instead. The sandwich was wrapped in a dedicated wrapper specifically for fish. It smelled decent. There was a lot of lettuce on the sandwich. I liked that the pickles were crinkle-cut.
Review: The Big Fish has the same problem as the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish--there’s nothing overtly wrong with it, but there’s nothing overtly good about it either. The addition of iceberg lettuce and pickles added an interesting texture to the sandwich, but I would have preferred romaine lettuce instead. While some of the other sandwiches suffered due to a relative lack of sauces, the Big Fish had a layer of “tartar sauce” (Burger King claims) spread on both the bottom bun and on top of the fillet. The overload of “tartar sauce” gave the distinct feeling of “wow, this is extremely unhealthy,” as I was eating the sandwich, which I guess is an appropriate feeling for Lent. The fish was not crunchy, and had a similar texture to a french fry. The lettuce was flavorless. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not going to go running for a Big Fish again unless I’m on the New Jersey Turnpike on a Friday. Also the Big Fish gave me a stomach ache after I ate it.
Pandering: No, this is on the permanent menu.
Website description: “This McDonald’s fish sandwich has fish sourced from sustainably managed fisheries, topped with melty American cheese and creamy McDonald’s tartar sauce, and served on a soft, steamed bun.” A link on the website for users to “learn what kind of fish is in Filet-o-Fish” leads to a 404 error.
First impressions: It looked like a standard Filet-O-Fish, and was packaged in a cardboard box. I had to wait a short time before I received the sandwich, so I assume it was freshly made.
Review: There was nothing bad about this sandwich, but there was not a whole lot exemplary about it either. The fish wasn’t soggy, but wasn’t super crispy either. The tartar sauce tasted like...tartar sauce. I’m unclear as to why there was half a slice of American cheese on the sandwich, as it was impossible to discern the taste under the tartar sauce. It would have been nice to have pickles or some other vegetable topping as well to add texture and nutritional value to the sandwich. I’m not mad I ate a Filet-O-Fish, but I’m not going to rush back for another one anytime soon.
Pandering: No, this is on the permanent menu, but there must be consideration given to the fact that this was the original “hey, I want Catholics to eat at my restaurant on Fridays” menu item. (We will ignore the Hula Burger.)
Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Website description: “Our all new Flounder Fish Fillet, served on a warm and toasted buttery brioche bun, with crisp barrel cured pickles and tartar sauce.”
First impressions: The sandwich I received was wrapped in a foil bag, and had a paper wrapper on the sandwich itself--which I assume was to preserve the structural integrity of the sandwich. The fillet itself spilled out from the bun and was not, contra the sandwiches at Wendy’s, Arby’s, and McDonald’s, a square, making it feel less-processed.
Review: This thing is good. There was a level of spice that was not overpowering, but was an interesting contrast to the brioche and condiments. The bread was able to hold up to the sizable flounder fillet, and the flounder had more of a “meatier” taste to it than the pollock sandwiches of other fast food chains. The pickles were delicious, but my sandwich could have benefited from a bit more tartar sauce. If you live near a Popeyes, this is definitely worth getting--although it is significantly more calorie-dense than other options.
Pandering: Yes, this is limited time only and was introduced the week before Lent.
Wild Caught Alaskan Fish Sandwich
Website description: “Wild caught Alaskan pollock fillet, crunchy panko breading, topped with creamy dill tartar sauce, pickles, lettuce, and American cheese. Proof that ice fishing is actually totally worth it.”
First impressions: The sandwich was exactly as the website described it, and it came wrapped in foil. A helpful sticker reading “fish” was placed over the “chicken” print on the foil. I noted that unlike McDonald’s, Wendy’s puts a whole slice of cheese on their sandwich.
Review: After my first bite I said, out loud, “Well done, Wendy.” I did not have super high hopes for Wendy’s after my 2017 review (which was, not coincidentally, the last time I had a fish sandwich at Wendy’s), but this was actually a pretty solid sandwich. The fish was crispy--there was an audible “crunch” sound when I bit into it. The cheese was not doing much for me, but the pickles and romaine lettuce were a nice touch. The pickles were thick cut and flavorful. I thought the sandwich could have used a smidge more tartar sauce, but this was a solid fish sandwich.
Pandering: Yes, this is a limited time offering and replaced the previous Wild Caught North Pacific Cod Sandwich of years past.
Rating: ???? and a half
While I was disappointed to see the Chick-Fil-A fish sandwich go, I must say that I was overall fairly impressed with this year’s slate of fried fish in between buns. Wendy’s and Popeyes, who had fairly strong showings in 2018, both improved their offerings--which was no easy task. It was interesting to see the embrace of food trends--both Burger King and Wendy’s boast about panko breading their sandwiches. (But only Wendy’s fillet actually tasted crunchy.) It was also interesting to see how the fish products have shifted over the years--Alaskan pollock seems to be the go-to fish now, as opposed to cod. And I still have no idea what was actually in the Filet-O-Fish.
The improvements in the limited-time offerings showed the glaring deficiencies of the tried-and-true standby at McDonald’s. It wouldn’t hurt McDonald’s to toss on some lettuce or pickles to their Filet-O-Fish, or perhaps add a flavor to the tartar sauce. It would greatly enhance the experience. McDonald’s could previously rest on its laurels as the original Catholic-pandering restaurant for Lenten Fridays, but those days may be numbered now.
Best fillet: Wendy’s Wild Caught Alaskan Fish Sandwich
Worst fillet: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish
Best bread: Wendy’s Wild Caught Alaskan Fish Sandwich
Cheapest option: Arby’s Crispy Fish
Priciest option: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish
Fewest calories: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish
Most calories: Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich
Best overall: Popeyes Cajun Flounder Sandwich
By Christine Rousselle, Catholic News Agency