A good friend of mine who is a fantastic cook and restaurateur once told me that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about fried chicken. We were talking recently and he woefully described a time in his life when he was opening a new restaurant and dealing with the stress by eating Popeyes every night after leaving the restaurant, his car littered with an assortment of Popeyes’ boxes and wrappers. When the conversation shifted to fried chicken sandwiches, I asked him if he had any favorites, and he could only list Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. I was disappointed that such a notorious Little Rock food person didn’t offer up any local contenders.
A couple of Central Arkansas’s best existed before Americans went into an unhinged fried chicken sandwich frenzy in 2019, when Popeyes launched its chicken sandwich. People crushed that sandwich so hard in the first couple of weeks that Popeyes infamously ran out of the chicken used for the sandwich for two months and had to remove it from the menu. Maybe it’s always been like this, but it seems that when the Popeyes sandwich entered the collective consciousness, fried chicken sandwiches became ubiquitous. My restaurateur friend’s lack of knowledge on the subject made me realize that I had a job to do: Compile a list of irresistible locally made fried chicken sandwiches that aren’t Chick-fil-A or Popeyes. I’ll try to schedule a full cholesterol/blood pressure work up when the mission is complete.
HOT ’N‘ HOT CHICKEN ($13)
A decade ago you might’ve been playfully teased for ordering anything but one of the many burger varieties at Big Orange. But over the years, word-of-mouth about its signature Hot Chicken Sandwich made it a must try. It’s well seasoned, artfully constructed and perhaps better than your dining companion’s burger. The spicy version of Big O’s Southern fried chicken comes with pepperjack cheese, mayo, butter leaf lettuce and dill pickles cut lengthwise.
ANGRY BIRD ($11)
A legitimate response to America’s overreaction to the Popeyes launch could’ve (and might’ve) been, “Why would I go sit in a drive-thru line extending out into the street when I could just go to North Bar and get the Angry Bird chicken sandwich and support a local business?” If I just plagiarized a Facebook post from 2019, I apologize. Let me be clear, I’m not judging anyone for freaking out about the Popeyes sandwich; it’s really good and definitely warranted hype. But in all truthfulness, North Bar’s Angry Bird had the same amount of wow factor for me when I first tried it in December 2018. The sandwich is something to behold. I asked my friend Motley, who’s an expert on the grill, if the extent to which the fried chicken extends outside of the buttery brioche bun was an inch on both sides. His response: “No way, that’s a 4-inch bun. Looks like a 2-inch extension on both sides for a total extension of 4 inches outside the bun.”
Most chicken sandwich patties are round; this one looks more like a boomerang. Another unique addition is the melted provolone, which pairs nicely with the smokey house-made chipotle sauce.
STATE BIRD SANDWICH ($12)
I had a feeling Hill Station’s fried chicken sandwich would be good because just after the Hillcrest restaurant opened in February 2020, people at my former workplace were obsessed with its Italian grinder, and for good reason. It has a minced, pureed pepperoncini spread so flavorful and fresh that it puts fast-food cold-cut sandwiches to shame. The State Bird Sandwich also has a fresh quality that gave me the false hope that I was eating healthy fried chicken. Purple onion, tomato, aioli and minced petit cornichons marry well with the seasoned patty that is crispy on the outside and perfectly plump and juicy on the inside. The sandwich comes with the option of salad, fries, chips or mac and cheese. I told myself I was going to order the salad, but my inner food desire demons took hold and ordered the mac and cheese, which was creamy and delicious. And oh, look, there’s Space Suit Session Ale from New Province Brewing on tap.
THE PRICKLY PICKLE
FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH ($10)
When I first approached The Prickly Pickle, the green food truck that looks like a pickle, I thought the simple five-item menu featuring fried pickles, okra and “toothpick” strips of jalapeno, cactus and onion were perfectly befitting the design. The only sandwich on the menu is the fried chicken sandwich, served two ways, regular or Buffalo. I ordered the regular, which comes with truck-made dill potato chips. I really enjoyed the texture of the sandwich: solid bun; a perfect thin, crispy batter; fresh iceberg lettuce; tomato; crispy, delicious pickles with a drizzle of truck-made ranch. I’m loath to admit it, but next time I’m asking for even more truck ranch on the side.
MR. CAJUN KITCHEN & CATERING
FRIED SPICY CHICKEN SANDWICH COMBO ($11.95)
When thinking about restaurants in Argenta, one might not consider Mr. Cajun Kitchen & Catering because it’s not located on the Main Street strip, but that would be a mistake. Located in a purple building at 606 N. Olive St., just a couple of blocks from Argenta Plaza, Mr. Cajun’s offers mouthwatering Cajun specials like blackened salmon, chicken or shrimp served over Cajun pasta. The spicy chicken sandwich is available daily and is one of Central Arkansas’s best. Served on a soft bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles and remoulade, the piping hot chicken is right out of the fryer and is covered in the oily orange and brown spices that confirm any questions about whether or not this sandwich means business. The spicy kick lingers after consumption, and unfortunately my drink was empty before my mouth reached a level of relief. I’ll pack an extra Diet Coke next time I get it to go.
BROOD & BARLEY
CHICKEN SAMMIE ($13)
It’s so refreshing when the first bite of something familiar surprises you with a flavor profile you weren’t expecting. The next bite is a search for the answer. My first bite of Brood & Barley’s Chicken Sammie left me wondering, “What is that sauce?” According to the menu it’s “Shush” sauce and a Facebook post from Brood & Barley says they don’t even know what’s in it. It’s a refreshing flavor with notes of dill, cucumber, maybe even bell pepper. Bonus points for the melted Asiago cheese atop the brioche bun.
K HALL & SONS
SWEET STELLA FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH ($3.99)
If you’re scanning through this piece thinking, “Yeah, but I could get a chicken sandwich at Popeyes for under $10,” well, sure, you could do that, but the best chicken sandwich deal in Little Rock for under $10 exists at K Hall and Sons Produce on Wright Avenue, for a bargain $3.99. Sweet Stella Sauce has been an option for country fried wings at K Hall & Sons’ excellent Soul Food Sunday for a while, but in early 2021 K Hall debuted the Sweet Stella Fried Chicken Sandwich served with mayo, pickle and the HallBros2go Sweet Stella Sauce on a toasted bun. It looks simple enough right out of the wrapper, but once you bite into it, it’s irresistible.
FOUR QUARTER BAR
SPICY CHICKEN SANDWICH ($12.99)
This sandwich special isn’t always on the menu at Four Quarter, so I considered myself lucky when it appeared the last week I dedicated myself to gorging for this story. One bite into the sandwich and I was certain the chicken had been brined or marinated. It has a wonderful spicy, briny flavor that is among the best I’ve sampled the last few weeks. It’s also the first of the chicken sandwiches I tried made from dark meat. The menu verified that it’s marinated chicken thigh meat, and it’s served with pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, pickle and garlic aioli.
FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH ($12)
“Diamond Bear has a fried chicken sandwich,” my co-worker told me.
Lunch was decided. Located on the northern side of the Broadway bridge from downtown, Diamond Bear makes a great spot for downtown workers to have a patio lunch and escape the horrors of the office. Its fried chicken sandwich comes with pickles, mayonnaise and a healthy drizzle of “signature chicken sauce” cascading down the side of the bun onto the wax paper. A messy sandwich with an adequate amount of the tangy, pink-hued chicken sauce is just what we needed after the last chicken sandwich we sampled from a venerable downtown restaurant came out dry and flavorless. I’d skip the fast-food options and take a Diamond Bear Fried Chicken Sandwich with a house-brewed BLU Golden Lager any day of the week.