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Chick-fil-A’s pimento cheese chicken sandwich is a detour worth taking

The new pimento cheese chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A is a limited time offering.  (Rey Lopez/Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

Chick-fil-A is no Taco Bell. Obviously, fast food chains offer vastly different menus, but their marketing playbooks are a study in contrasts, too. Taco Bell is forever churning out new, sometimes wacky, menu items. Novelty is its calling card.

Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, is that friend who hasn’t changed her hairstyle since 9th grade. She’s a cautious gal, not one to chase trends or experiment. Aside from a February foray into plant-based sandwiches, the chain rarely plays around with innovations to its sandwiches-and-nuggets lineup. And that’s with good reason: Chick-fil-A’s classic sandwich has propelled the chain’s massive growth, and it is so beloved that after industry-dominating McDonald’s spent years creating its own “premium” chicken sandwich to rival it, the Golden Arches basically flat-out copied its competitor. And Chick-fil-A’s straightforward menu has helped it maintain its position as America’s favorite restaurant for nine years in a row, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, even amid boycotts and complaints about the company’s anti-LGBTQ+ stances.

So when Chick-fil-A heralded the arrival of a limited-time offering – a chicken sandwich dressed with a dollop of pimento cheese, pickled jalapeño peppers and a drizzle of honey – it merited attention.

I was intrigued by the mere description of the concoction. In one sense, the new riff is true to the chain’s Southern roots. Pimento cheese dip, after all, is a Southerner’s standby at gatherings from tailgates to funerals. But at the same time, the sandwich seems like a risk to roll out on the mass market: No other major fast food chain is serving anything like it – and not everyone is familiar with pimento cheese (the chain even has a quiz on its website to help people understand the regional delicacy). There’s also a lot going on, flavorwise, with the new item, which is quite a departure from the simplicity of the sandwich that made the chain famous. Even Chick-fil-A seemed to acknowledge that the recipe was a little … edgy, at least relatively speaking. “It’s not an obvious combination to a lot of people,” Chick-fil-A chef Stuart Tracy says in a video introducing the item.

I was nervous when unwrapping my purchase, not because I’m a pimento-cheese newbie (I love the stuff), but because I had seen images on social media of sandwiches that were either heaped with unappealingly large mounds of it or woefully tiny dabs. But when I peeked under the soft bun, I was relieved to find a portion that Goldilocks would approve of – just enough to spread out and cover the chicken patty, but not so much that it would ooze out at every bite.

The pimento cheese itself would seem at home on a Southern hostess’s table (alongside some Ritz crackers, of course), with pronounced strands of cheddar and bits of sweet red pepper. I liked the creaminess that it imparted, and it had some oomph, thanks to discernible bits of green chile peppers and a dose of what I suspect is paprika. And I liked the puckery edge that the not-too-hot jalapeños brought to the potluck of flavors.

The one element that seemed off to me was the honey, which wasn’t visible but definitely registered on my palate. While I like the idea of sweetness to counter the vinegary bite of the jalapeños, the brine in the chicken and the tang of the cheese, the honey skewed the sandwich’s overall flavor profile a bit too sugary for my taste. But on the advice of colleagues who had tried it and had the same reaction, I also ordered the version of the sandwich that incorporates Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken patty, whose craggy breaded surface is brick-red with spice. Aha, I thought, as I sampled that one, now that’s a sandwich that has achieved just the right balance.

The new Honey Pepper Pimento Chicken Sandwich (that’s a mouthful of a name) might be a welcome diversion for people bored with the usual lineup of fast-food birds. It’s definitely richer than its plain sibling (it has 570 calories compared with the original’s 420) and more expensive ($10.49, compared with $7.89 at my location). And it’s proof that Chick-fil-A can pull off a novelty act, after all. Who says you can’t teach an old chicken new tricks?