Ranking fast food's fried fish sandwiches from worst to first

In what has now become a well-worn piece of fast food legend, the birth of the drive-thru fish sandwich almost never happened. And just like the pop-top can, the hot dog, and the rubber boot, we have a small town in Ohio to thank for this rather fishy invention.

The year was 1959, and Cincinnati-area McDonald's franchisee Lou Groen had a major problem: his new business simply wasn't driving the revenue he expected. Groen suspected that the area's 87 percent Catholic population was a factor — they weren't visiting his humble hamburger stand on Fridays and during Lent, when Catholics traditionally forgo meat.

Groen had an idea for creating an alternative fish-based sandwich that would appeal to locals, and in the early days of the McDonald's corporation, franchisees could simply pick up the phone and speak to Ray Kroc directly.

According to the Smithsonian, Kroc initially hated the idea of "[stinking up his stores] with the smell of fish." In 1962, Kroc's counter offer was the ill-fated "Hula Burger," which featured a wildly undesirable slice of grilled pineapple with cheese on a bun. After testing both concepts, the newly-minted  "Filet-O-Fish" was the clear winner, and the product became a bonafide hit for McDonald's, eventually selling 300 million of the sandwiches each year.

In the nearly 60 years since the invention of the Filet-O-Fish, fast food fried fish sandwiches have become big business. But which chain does it the best? We tried every single one of them to find out.

14. Dairy Queen Crispy Fish Sandwich

No longer content to continue smashing Snickerdoodle cookie dough into soft serve, Dairy Queen keeps promoting the "Fan Food" side of their menu, with wildly mixed results. The Dairy Queen Crispy Fish Sandwich promises a "crispy fish fillet topped with fresh green leaf lettuce and tartar sauce, served on a toasted sesame seed bun."

Sounds great, right? That's because the copywriting geniuses at Dairy Queen must have had the good sense to reject the original, super-honest description of this sandwich, which probably sounded something like "A heavily breadcrumbed breadcrumb whiffed vaguely of seafood with extra crispy breadcrumby breading, freezer-burned translucent lettuce-flavored bits, and as much bargain basement tartar sauce as you've ever seen in your whole life, heaped carelessly on am old, chewy bun. Dairy Queen! We prepare every sandwich to order by stapling it to a corkboard and firing at it with blasts from a swampy tartar sauce cannon while a pimply-faced teenager sneers at you."

Thank goodness for copywriters, amirite?

13. Steak-n-Shake Fish Sandwich

If you're thinking "Hey, it's not Fish-n-Shake!" Yeah, we love that joke too. Despite the diner fare menu options, the fish sandwich isn't a regular everyday item, but one that makes an appearance during the Lenten season.  You might find a random Steak-n-Shake carrying it outside of the usual spring season, but that's pretty rare.

Steak-n-Shake's standard fish usually comes with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce.  If you order one, there's a good chance they'll ask you if you want lettuce and tomato — and if they don't, you'll end up with just fish, tartar sauce, and bun. 

There are a few problems with this sandwich. Like most places that don't specialize in fish, the presentation is odd. You will get two triangle-ish pieces of fish on a bun — the same ones from the grocery store (it seems). The bun is the standard hamburger bun, and truthfully it doesn't hold up on the fish nearly as well as it does on a burger. The big problem with the fish is the tartar sauce; Steak-n-Shake apparently thinks since they have it, they should put on enough to drown a guppie. It's almost universal that you'll get way too much tartar sauce and eating this will be a hot mess. Look, jjust because you only have tartar sauce for 40 days, it doesn't mean you need to put a metric ton on every bun.

12. Sonic Drive-In Fish Sandwich

This limited time offering seems to only be available during Lent, and we think that's probably for the best. The fish itself shares a familiar square, minced "whatever white fish is selling at low prices this season" vibe with many other fast food restaurants, though it is crispier than most. Proving that "crispier" doesn't always equal "better," however, the breading forms almost a kind of protective shell around the fish inside, and tends to break off in large, mouth-destroying shards.

The fish inside has an unappealing, mashed texture, and manages to be surprisingly oily and greasy, without a ton of fish flavor. An avalanche of limp, watery lettuce and a squeeze of generic tartar sauce aren't doing anything to further move the needle on this sandwich, putting it firmly in our "do not recommend" category.

Sonic continues to sweat excellence in the field of fast food beverage technology, so we'll give them a pass… we're just not eating their fish sandwich. Though a POWERADE Mountain Berry Blast Slush would totally hit the spot right now.

11. Wendy's Premium Cod Fillet Sandwich

This sandwich suffered from the biggest deviation between the glamor shot featured on the menu, and the actual product we received. A glance at the product photography leads you to believe you'll be receiving a plump cod, "hand-cut from a whole fillet," lovingly coated in Panko breadcrumbs and nestled in a buttered bun.

Instead, the Premium Cod Fillet Sandwich from Wendy's couldn't have been more disappointing. While it was nice to see a fish fillet with something resembling a natural shape and appealing, mildly-flavored texture, and the coating offered plenty of crunch, the inattention to the rest of the details cost the sandwich big points. Preparation was an issue as well; the sandwich we received was served at somewhere just south of room temperature, adorned with a chilly slice of unmelted, firm, and flavorless American cheese that definitely was not requested. The slightly stale (though severely squashed) bun barely held the whole thing together, and the overall sandwich ended up feeling oddly dry, in spite of a respectable smear of tangy, flavorful tartar sauce.

10. Chick-fil-A Fish Sandwich

Naturally, during the Lenten season, quick serve restaurants will promote their fish products even more. Probably the last place you'd expect to see one is Chick-fil-A, but even they jump in with an offering available for 40 days at select locations. Don't be shocked if the one near you doesn't carry it, but it does indeed exist.

Chick-fil-A puts their triangle-shaped fish patties — usually three pieces — on their standard bun with lettuce and tomato. But here's the funny thing… it's so inconsistent from location to location that some will throw pickles on there, and some won't. And sometimes it's just two pieces of fish on your bun. Look, it's not their specialty to serve fish, and while it may be more of a courtesy to their Catholic patrons, it's obvious that it's not their thing. The fish tastes like the same kind you occasionally pick up in the frozen food aisle when it's on sale and you're feeling nostalgic about your youth. This is a fish sandwich that's strictly for the completist who wants to eat everything on the menu once or if you're stuck on a Friday in March and the only place around is a Chick-fil-A that will keep you from breaking those Lenten rules.  

9. Hardee's/Carl's Jr. Redhook Beer Battered Fish Sandwich

If Hardee's/Carl Jr. (which is the same place, basically) were a state, they'd be Texas. Everything they carry is just big, and they're proud of it. Sometimes the name is just big, like the fish sandwich, which goes by Redhook Beer Battered Fish Sandwich. If that sounds partially familiar to you, well Redhook is a real beer in the "craft" variety.  

The Hardee's/Carl's Jr. fish sandwich is the same at both locations — just like with their chicken sandwich and 99 percent of everything else on their menu. Yes, it's big, but not really in the redonkulous variety of everything else they serve, but still there is a lot of fish going on here (probably too much). The standard order should come with lettuce, tomato, and way too much tartar sauce… should because for some reason it seems like a tomato misses the order more times than it hits it. Regardless, it's actually not a bad sandwich. The fish is flaky for the most part, and tastes like it lived in the sea at some point in its existence. The problem is the bun seemingly never holds up under the weight of all that tartar and Orca-sized filet. It'll do in a pinch if you're hankering for something from the sea.

8. Burger King Big Fish

Evaluating fast food fish sandwiches can be tricky business, mostly because there are so many variables in preparation that can make even a potentially great fish sandwich wildly unpalatable. Freshness is key, and for this reason, most fast food restaurants prepare their fish sandwiches to order… but that doesn't mean there aren't a few unlucky outliers.

The Burger King Big Fish sounds like everything a fast food fried fish sandwich should be, featuring "100 percent 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." It sounds almost perfect, but the reality can be a little different.

The sandwich we tasted was piled with limp, soggy lettuce, steam-heated by the fish fillet into an unappealing tangle of wet shreds. The sandwich was severely over-dressed in a yellowish tartar sauce that looked like it had sat out for hours, and the fish itself was mushy and over-coated. The bun was oddly chewy, and caused most of the contents of the sandwich to spill out into the oil-spattered paper it was wrapped in.

7. Long John Silver's Classic Fish Sandwich

Hang on!  Before you jump in your vehicle of choice and head down to the local Long John Silver's to try a sandwich, you better make sure they actually have a sandwich on the menu. There's a good chance that the Long John Silver's near you doesn't serve a sandwich. Does the Long John Silver's nearby also masquerade as a Taco Bell? Odds are they won't carry the sandwich. If there's a KFC/Long John Silver's combo, they might carry the sandwich. An old school, standalone Long John Silver's? They better have the sandwich.  

Let's just say that if by chance they do indeed have the sandwich… here's what you'll get. It's on a hoagie roll with lettuce, pickles, and a healthy dose of tartar sauce, and it's going to be the same diamond shaped piece of fish you get in the basket that you should be ordering — so the fish is fine and the tempura batter is still crunchy. The bread and toppings really serves as "extras" for a fish that can stand alone. If you're going to Long John Silver's you're probably not going for a sandwich, and it should stay that way. Not to mention the fact that if you want one, you're going to have to hunt for it — and it's definitely not worth the hunt.

6. Captain D's Giant Fish Sandwich

If you have a Captain D's in your area, you know the score. For those who aren't as lucky, think of it as a Long John Silver's with a southern flare — it might not be the exact same, but it's not too far off. When you think Captain D's, you're certainly going for the fish and chips, or maybe their butterfly shrimp, but they additionally feature a sandwich, because of course.  

The goodly Captain doesn't mess around with some form-fitting filet in a square or semi-square, oh no, they go big with the appropriately named Giant Fish Sandwich. It's two pieces of their signature fish plopped on a bun with lettuce, and double tartar sauce (on the top and bottom buns). Captain D's makes some mighty fine fish — if there's a drawback to it, it's that all their dishes are salty. The Giant Fish sandwich packs a… you're not going to believe this… 1940 mg of sodium in a single serving. Yeah, it comes from the ocean, but doesn't mean you have to make it that salty! If you're on a low-salt diet, this is a no-go sandwich. It is tasty, but buyer beware — that's an awful lot of salt.  

5. Culver's North Atlantic Cod Sandwich

Culver's has quite the eclectic menu; there aren't a lot of places that carry things like a pork sandwich and a pot roast sandwich. They naturally carry a fish sandwich as well — the North Atlantic Cod Sandwich. Just like Culver's builds their chicken untraditionally, the cod is laid out differently than most.  

On a buttered hoagie roll (but not super long, sort of a mini-hoagie), sits the fish with lettuce, shredded cheese, and a unique tartar sauce. That tartar sauce is very mild, and though it's advertised as having olives, capers, and sweet relish, it's more like a light mayonnaise. The beauty of Culver's is that everything is cooked to order, so you're going to get a super fresh piece of cod, and it's a nice healthy size. You can even make a strong case that the bun is the best of any fast food fish sandwich. 

Culver's fish, however, is a bit on the bland side. There's not a lot of flavor going on with the crunchy coating, and that's a big miss. There's something to be said for a fresh piece of fried fish, but with all the other things on the menu, this isn't going to be a go-to every time.

4. Arby's Crispy Fish Sandwich

The Crispy Fish Sandwich from Arby's isn't always available at every location all year long, but when this limited time offering returns, it's worth snapping up. The sandwich we sampled was cooked fresh to order, as indicated by the person working the window who invited us to "just pull up to the curb," because our order was going to be a few more minutes. For the fast food fish aficionado, this is an exciting phrase.

The wait was almost worth it. Opening the bag released a fog of sweetly-scented seafood steam, enrobing a piping hot sandwich that looked almost exactly like the picture on the menu, which is a rare feat. The enormous fish fillet itself felt like real food, with a natural shape and tender layers of flaked fish that pulled apart slightly with each bite. Unfortunately, the fish wasn't uniform in flavor; some bites were mild, while others were intensely, overly fishy. The tangy dressing was a tad overpowering, causing a bit of palate burnout which you really start to notice on the "back 40" of this sandwich, and the hot iceberg lettuce was as big a problem on this fish sandwich — as with others we tried.

3. White Castle Fish Slider

Look, no one is as surprised to see this as high in the ranking as we are. After all, what could a chain made famous by steamed onion burger bites possibly know about the fried fish sandwich game?

To our surprise, White Castle's stripped-down approach to sliders translates particularly well into seafood form. The tiny pucks of minced Alaskan Pollock in the Fish Slider are crispy and flavorful, without an excessive amount of breading. That's a good thing, on a slider-sized sandwich where the bun itself tends to dominate the flavors of the rest of the sandwich. This was also one of the few fast food fish sandwiches we tasted where the junior-sized slice of American cheese peeking adorably out from the edges of the bun actually seemed to complement the overall sandwich, adding a creamy balance of flavor to the slider. Ask for yours with tartar sauce, since otherwise, the Fish Slider can be a tad on the dry side.

2. McDonald's Filet-O-Fish

After almost 60 years, could the sandwich that started it all, the one that summarily trounced Ray Kroc's visions of pineapple sandwiches way back in 1962, still hold its ground in a sea of similar fast food fried fish sandwiches?

Look, when evaluated strictly line-by-line, in a comparison of ingredient quality, innovative recipes, or preparation, the Filet-O-Fish falls short by almost every metric. Made with a minced puck of Alaskan Pollock, puzzlingly topped with a half-slice of American cheese that defies the laws of science by melting in the areas where it comes in direct contact with the fish, but remaining mysteriously solid and firm elsewhere, and drenched in what can sometimes be a veritable RIVER of creamy tartar sauce, the Filet-O-Fish is never going to win any beauty contests.

However, the Filet-o-Fish is so much more than a combination of unlikely ingredients, thanks to one important element: The steamed bun. Each bite of the soft, steamy bun fuses the sandwich into a puffy little bite of seafaring satisfaction, with none of the hot shards of lettuce endemic in other fast food fish sandwiches to stand in the way of the experience. The Filet-O-Fish doesn't hope to compete with the artisanal-sounding ingredients found at other chains, and it never forgets who it is: A taste of mild, crispy fried fish, topped with a quart of tartar sauce and served on an angel's kiss of a steamed bun. Score one that's been freshly made, and you'll end up with a diminutive little sandwich that sets you back about two bucks, and feels like a hug in your mouth. 

1. Popeyes Seafood Po'boy

Popeyes continues to change the game with its under-appreciated po' boy lineup, featuring your choice of hand-breaded chicken strips, fish fillets, or battered shrimp, dredged in the chain's signature blend of herbs and spices and crispy-fried to perfection. What sets the fish version of their seafood sandwich apart from competitors, however, is the bread. Instead of opting for another sad, stale, nondescript round bun, Popeyes serves up their fish New Orleans style, on a French-style baguette that perfectly balances a crispy outside with a fluffy, lightly chewy inside.

The fish itself is extra-crispy and pleasantly flaky, if a little over-breaded. A sprinkle of crunchy lettuce and a portion of tartar sauce that seems like something a human being would want, as opposed to a time-traveling mutant cyborg from the future that derives its strength to save all of mankind entirely from tartar sauce, is a welcome departure from the approach of competing chains.