Fried chicken may be the ultimate American comfort food. Hot, crispy, and juicy, this delightful southern dish has been around for centuries and remains one of America’s favorite foods. According to South Florida Reporter, Americans consume 8 billion chickens per year, or over 80 pounds each. In this article, we’re going to rank some of the country’s most popular fried chicken chains, to help you find the best place to get your chicken fix.
But first, let’s look at the history of fried chicken. Where did it come from? According to First We Feast, fried chicken likely originated across the ocean, in China, West Africa, and the Middle East. It’s clear that many cultures throughout history have fried chicken in hot oil. However, the American fried chicken we know today comes from the South, and was originally cooked by enslaved people (via the Atlantic). Even though American fried chicken has complicated origins, there’s no doubt that it’s a heavy hitter when it comes to American food.
Without further ado, here is our ranking of some of America’s top fried chicken chains. Please note that this ranking is completely subjective — everyone has their own tastes and preferences. Don’t be afraid to try any of these spots (unless you suffer from acid reflux), you may just find your fried chicken holy grail!
9. Kentucky Fried Chicken
Kentucky Fried Chicken may just be one of the most American franchises on the planet. They’ve been serving up hot, crispy, Kentucky-style fried chicken for decades. In fact, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in 1952. KFC is famous for their blend of 11 herbs and spices, a secret recipe coined by their founder, Colonel Harland Sanders, AKA the old man in the white suit (via University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership).
KFC’s sides are also a hit, with homestyle options that include mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese, and of course, biscuits. Their chicken definitely hits the spot, but doesn’t quite hold up to some of the other fast food fried chicken chains. Whether you go for their original recipe or extra crispy chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken takes care of a chicken craving without blowing anybody’s mind.
However, according to QSR Magazine KFC remains one of the largest fried chicken chains in the United States, with over 4,000 restaurants across the U.S. KFC tries to keep up with the times by introducing new menu items — the latest being original recipe chicken nuggets, as reported by CBS Philly — but it’s likely that they’ll never top the success of their OG fried chicken.
8. Church’s Chicken
While KFC has cornered the market on Kentucky-style fried chicken, Church’s Chicken made a name for itself serving Texas fried chicken. The original Church’s Chicken opened in San Antonio in 1952, as Church’s Fried Chicken To Go (via Church’s Chicken). Church’s has locations across the United States, and even internationally, where the chain is known as Texas Chicken (via Chron).
As far as food goes, Church’s Chicken has two options for their fried chicken: original and spicy. For a non-fried option, they also offer their signature smokehouse chicken, featuring a smoked half-chicken. Their side options are perfectly southern, including sweetcorn, fried okra, and baked mac and cheese.
In terms of chicken quality, we place Church’s a step above KFC, but not a huge step. The chicken is hot and tasty, and their spicy recipe is great if you like a little kick, but overall their birds sit in the same tier as their Kentucky fried cousin. It’s good, fast, and, according to Fast Food Menu Prices, cheap. Church’s hits the spot when you need a fried chicken fix. Their honey butter biscuits, however, are no joke.
Chick-Fil-A: the fried chicken sandwich that Americans first went nuts over. The concept is simple. A chicken breast, breaded, pressure cooked, and slapped on a bun with some pickle chips. Even though Chick-Fil-A doesn’t make fried chicken in the traditional sense, their sandwiches, nuggets, and waffle fries are wildly popular, making them the most profitable fried chicken chain in the country (via QSR Magazine). It’s not hard to find a Chick-Fil-A nearby — they even pop up in shopping mall food courts.
Part of what makes Chick-Fil-A so successful is their selection of lighter options, such as grilled chicken sandwiches, grilled nuggets, and wraps. Chick-Fil-A also finds success with their unique marketing strategies. For over 20 years, Chick-Fil-A’s mascot has been a bipedal cow who attempts to convince people to choose chicken over beef (via Chick-Fil-A). Chick-Fil-A also began selling meal kits during the height of the lockdown, for those who wanted their fried chicken with a side of social distancing.
As for quality, Chick-Fil-A’s food is solid. Their ingredients are high quality, and there’s no doubt they make a tasty sandwich. However, with the amount of hype surrounding this fried chicken franchise (Reader’s Digest reports Americans ranked it their favorite restaurant five years in a row), you’d think Gordon Ramsey were back there whipping up sandwiches. The chicken is good, but we don’t see any Michelin stars coming their way anytime soon.
Zaxby’s is relatively new to the fried chicken game when compared to older chains like KFC and Church’s. Their first location opened in 1990, but the franchise now has more than 900 locations across the country (via Zaxby’s). Even though Zaxby’s is a younger concept, they clearly know what they’re doing when cooking up crispy fried chicken.
Zaxby’s opts not to compete with the big chains like KFC with bone-in fried chicken, instead choosing to focus their attention on strips and wings. Their menu also offers a generous selection of salads and appetizers — excuse us, zalads and zappetizers.
Zaxby’s is a great place to go when looking to feed the family — their family packs of chicken fingers, crinkle-cut fries, and buttery Texas toast comes with enough food to feed a small army, and it’s hot, fresh, and crispy. They have great options for wings and sandwiches as well, but their Chicken Fingerz are where Zaxby’s really shines. When cooking boneless chicken, especially white meat, it’s easy to end up with a dried up piece of crispy rubber. Zaxby’s chicken fingers are well regarded by their customers (check out these numbers on RestaurantGuru). Their chicken is consistently tender and juicy, and really gets the job done when a strip of deep-fried chicken is all that’s on your mind.
While KFC sells Kentucky-style fried chicken, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen found its success selling fast food straight from the bayou. The main difference between Popeyes and KFC is the Cajun twist that Popeyes puts on its whole menu. They feature traditional Louisiana sides like red beans and rice and cajun rice, and their chicken is spiced with a Cajun seasoning blend.
Their chicken and shrimp are perfectly spiced and delicious, but they changed the game with their chicken sandwich. Popeyes emerged as one of the first competitors to Chick-Fil-A’s stranglehold on the chicken sandwich market, and the country went nuts for it (via Food & Wine). Shortly after its release, the sandwich was so hard to get a hold of that a man was stabbed to death for cutting in line to get one (via NBC). Eventually, supply and demand came to a working agreement and the chicken sandwich once again became readily available.
We ranked Popeyes higher than KFC, Church’s, and even Chick-Fil-A because even though their food is affordable (as of July 2022, their three piece chicken combo sits at $7.99 according to Fast Food Menu Prices), it’s seriously good — as you can see by its rankings on Influenster. Their fried chicken is crispier, juicier, and better-seasoned than KFC, and the same can be said about their sandwich when compared to Chick-Fil-A (via Reader’s Digest). Popeyes can be found across the country, and even though making fried chicken at home is relatively simple, sometimes you just need Louisiana, fast.
4. Slim Chickens
Another newcomer to the fried chicken market, Slim Chicken’s opened the doors to their first location in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2003 (via Fayetteville Flyer). Just like Zaxby’s, the restaurant is more focused on their never-frozen chicken strips, and doesn’t offer bone-in fried chicken on their menu. Slim Chickens also offers salads, wraps, and even chicken and waffles to keep everyone in the family happy. To top it off, their tender and wing meals come with a side of Texas toast for an extra punch of carby goodness.
At Slim Chickens, the name of the game is "fry it up." Aside from their deep-fried chicken tenders and wings, their menu features a solid lineup of fried sides including fried okra, fried mushrooms, and fried pickles. Slim Chickens also offers a fresh take on desserts, with several options for milkshakes as well as their "Jar Desserts," a parfait-like concoction that’s served in a Slim Chickens branded mason jar.
Make no mistake: Slim Chickens is fast food. They can crank out orders quickly, and many of their restaurants have drive-throughs. That being said, their chicken tenders are hand breaded and made with all-natural chicken, and their sides and desserts really take the cake (no pun intended).
While all the other fried chicken chains on this list are cooking up southern-style food, Jollibee is doing things a bit different. Jollibee serves delicious Filipino food, including fried chicken, spaghetti, and their original best seller, the Yumburger. Their bone-in fried chicken is only available in legs and thighs (and always comes with a side of gravy), but white meat connoisseurs fear not: the chain also makes chicken strips and sandwiches that feature breast meat.
With over 1,500 restaurants across the world, but just 70 locations in North America, Jollibee is a bit of a rarity in the United States, but if you can find one it’s worth a visit. If you’re unfamiliar with Filipino food, Jollibee will be a unique experience. The burger steak, one of their signature dishes, will likely remind you of a Salisbury steak. Their Jolly spaghetti, on the other hand, is nothing like your mom’s spaghetti. As explained by Thrillist, Jolly Spaghetti is topped with a sauce made from banana ketchup, mixed with various bits of meat, including hot dogs. It’s probably a little different than what you’re used to, but we promise, don’t knock it until you try it.
Overall, the chicken is good, the sides are great, and Jollibee takes you on a taste journey that’s hard to find, and hard to beat.
2. Raising Cane’s
Raising Cane’s has perfected the art of chicken fingers. When it comes down to it, Zaxby’s walked so Raising Cane’s could run. As reported by RestaurantNews.com, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers is the fastest-growing chicken restaurant in the country, and for good reason. Their tender chicken fingers are crispy, juicy, and perfectly seasoned. But the chicken isn’t their only heavy hitter. The best part about Raising Cane’s? Their Cane sauce — a tangy, creamy concoction that tastes amazing on their chicken, fries, and even the bread.
The beauty of Raising Cane’s menu is its simplicity. They don’t need six different kinds of chicken and 12 sides — Raising Cane’s does a few things, and they do them well. Their food options consist of chicken fingers, crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw, and Texas toast. That’s it. Their small menu allows them to focus on what’s important: the quality. Customers know this, and they keep coming back for it.
According to Business Insider, Raising Cane’s holds a similar level of hype to Chick-Fil-A — people won’t stop talking about it. But the difference is: Raising Cane’s deserves every bit of that hype. For fast food fried chicken, Raising Cane’s can’t be beat.
1. Gus’s Fried Chicken
And the winner of best bone-in fried chicken is … Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken! This Memphis-style chicken joint has used the same recipe since 1953 and it shows (via Gus’s Fried Chicken). Their chicken is perfectly juicy, crispy, and spiced — it’s the kind of fried chicken that leaves the bag soaked in oil, but is still somehow perfectly crispy when you get it home. Gus’s fried chicken is highly regarded by customers: one user wrote, "The chicken is spicy, crispy, juicy & just perfect," (via Restaurantji).
Besides the chicken, Gus’s serves other traditional southern staples like fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and chess pie. They’re not messing around with chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, or even wings — their menu is as straightforward as it gets.
Part of what makes Gus’s Fried chicken so successful is the atmosphere. The photos alongside stellar Yelp reviews feature neon signs, checkered tablecloths, and the paper plates they serve the food on, which make Gus’s feel like a trip back to the 1950s.
Gus’s Fried Chicken is currently only available in 14 states, so if you happen to live close to one, or even if you’re just driving through, make a stop. If you’re a fried chicken nut, a foodie, or just plain hungry, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is a spot you won’t want to miss.