Underrated Chicken Chains You'll Wish You Knew About Sooner

There was once a time when the burger was top dog (or cow) of the fast food world, but in recent years it seems that chicken sandwiches have come to rule the roost. While there was never any definitive winner in the Chicken Sandwich Wars, nor are we even sure that a ceasefire was ever really declared, chicken lovers everywhere have benefited from the fallout as fast food chains old and new have stepped up their poultry game.

If you'd like to "eat mor chikin," as Chick-fil-A's spelling champion cows have been urging for years, you now have no shortage of choices available to you. In addition to the usual suspects –- CFA, KFC, and Popeye's -– there are a number of regional or international chicken chains that are now looking to spread their wings. Not just their wings, but also their chicken sandwiches, tenders, nuggets, fingers, chicken salad, and super-spicy grilled chicken! It looks like the fast food industry may be in for an extended spell of "fowl weather," and we're all here for it.

1. Atomic Wings

Atomic Wings is, as its name implies, a chicken chain that specializes in wings –- hot ones, at that. They are currently located only in the mid-Atlantic region, mostly in New York with a few stores in Maryland and one in West Virginia. 1851 Franchise says they are really poised to take off right now due to one thing they can offer that few other wing chains provide: a quick-cooking technique that allows them to have an order ready in just four minutes, as opposed to the 16 to 20 minutes that wings usually take to cook. In a nod to our ever-growing need to get food fast, the chain is planning a drive-thru for their Hagerstown, Maryland location.

Wings aren't the only thing on Atomic Wings' menu. They've got the usual sides, of course: waffle fries, tater tots, jalapeno poppers, that sort of thing. They also have burgers and gyros as well as chicken sandwiches, chicken-topped salads, chicken and rice, and chicken and waffles. Still, at a chain with this name, obviously the wing's the thing, be it boneless or bone-in. They offer 14 different sauces, including lemon pepper, mango habanero, several different types of BBQ, and ever-increasing levels of the standard hot sauce. Interestingly enough, "atomic" wings aren't the most incendiary flavor they offer, as the "nuclear" wings seem to be even hotter.

2. Champs Chicken

Champs Chicken, unlike most of the other chicken chains on this list, doesn't consist of mostly stand-alone stores. Instead, they tend to distribute their product through convenience stores and gas stations. According to CStore Decisions, the last two years have seen a significant expansion of Champs' partnership with the Circle K gas chain in particular.

While gas station food has a reputation for being unappealing, Champs, it seems, may be an exception to this rule. As one Facebook user put it, "The chicken was so much better than 'you know who,'" while another described their chicken as "SOOOO GOOD! They cooked it just right." While Champs' specialty is chicken tenders, their menu also offers chicken sandwiches, chicken dippers (small tenders), and a chicken dipper bowl that's 1000 calories of pure, unadulterated road trip fuel: mashed potatoes, corn, chicken, white gravy, and cheese. 

Champs Chicken also offers a selection of non-chicken (but still deliciously fried) foods including fish, shrimp, and pork loin. (Chicken-fried pork ... kind of a Midwestern thing). Early risers or late-night road warriors will also appreciate the fact that they also offer a breakfast menu that features an egg, cheese, and chicken biscuit sandwich.

3. Chick N Max

If you live in Wichita, Kansas, you are no doubt familiar with Chick N Max. If you're anywhere else in the U.S., though, give them a little time to show up in your area. They have big plans, and they're growing as quickly as they can! Well, ok, they're actually not going as fast as all that, but Fast Casual says they are currently looking to open three new locations in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And that move is only the beginning for Chick N Max, as their plans for the future include opening up to five more restaurants each year.

So what does Chick N Max have to offer that makes them worth seeking out the next time you find yourself near one of their locations? Smoked chicken, that's what! Their wings, their pulled chicken sandwiches, and their quarter or half chickens are all smoked over almond wood. In addition to smoked chicken, though, they do the fried kind, as well, available as tenders or popcorn chicken, and in sandwiches. Seems like all Chick N Max needs is a better atlas, and they're poised to take over the world, or at least the upper Midwest.

4. Chicken Express

Chicken Express is a regional chicken chain that's based in the south. They started off in Texas, and now have over 250 locations not only in that state, but also in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Just about everything they offer on their menu seems to be deep-fried — well, apart from the sweet tea, that is.

Even though Chicken Express specializes in just the one method of food prep, they do offer a surprising variety of chicken parts. Sure, they do tenders, of course, as those are pretty much the official food of picky eaters everywhere. They also have fried breasts, thighs, and wings. Interestingly, though, the menu also features fried livers and gizzards. While organ meats are not to everyone's taste, they do have their fans — but few fast food chains are so bold as to venture into serving up these out-of-the-bucket chicken parts. In case you're not into chicken, Chicken Express also utilizes their fryer for fish fillets, although they do not specify the type of fish.

5. Chicken Salad Chick

When you think of a fast food chicken sandwich, it's likely to be the kind made familiar by Chick-fil-A and "improved" upon (or not) by Popeyes and numerous other imitators. While this sandwich is a vast improvement over the sad McChicken of yore, it's not the only chicken sandwich worth eating. At Chicken Salad Chick, they're serving up a nostalgic favorite: chicken salad sandwiches. Old-fashioned they may be, but people are really eating them up! According to Fast Casual, Chicken Salad Chick had one heck of a 2021, opening 30 new locations and experiencing sales almost 50% higher than in the previous year. To date they have over 200 restaurants in 17 different states, and there's no reason to expect they'll be slowing their roll anytime soon.

If you're not all that excited by the thought of chicken salad and consider it to be on the bland side, a look at Chicken Salad Chick's menu might just change your mind — it's not the boring stuff your grandma used to make. They offer 12 different varieties of the stuff. In addition to the classics, they have savory variants including a barbecue-flavored Barbie-Q and a bacon/ranch Sassy Scotty, fruity ones like the grape/apple/pecan Fancy Nancy, and spicy ones like Jalapeño Holly and Buffalo Barclay (yes, these flavors are all named after friends and family members of the founder). In addition to its eponymous dish, Chicken Salad Chick also offers soups, salads, and two different types of another southern classic: pimento cheese.

6. The Crack Shack

While the news that there's a Crack Shack coming to the neighborhood sounds like something that would have NextDoor in a major tizz, if it's a Crack Shack restaurant that's coming, all it means is that you're in for some super tasty (although kind of pricey) chicken. The Crack Shack currently has just six locations spread throughout the southwest: three in California, one in Denver, one in Salt Lake City, and one in Las Vegas. As chains go they may be small in numbers, but they've got, as they say, plenty to be "cocky" about. Even the Michelin Guide gave them a shout-out for their San Diego location.

The fried chicken served up at The Crack Shack is a fancy free-range brand called Jidori, You can get it by the piece, in a variety of sandwiches, or in the form of nuggets. It's also sold as something The Crack Shack calls "chicken oysters." No fear, these are nothing like the Rocky Mountain kind – they're just a clever way of using up the meat from the chicken backs, a part that might otherwise go to waste. Waste not, want not, right?

While The Crack Shack may be thrifty, they sure aren't cheap. Prices may vary by location, but an order of the chicken oysters in San Diego will run you $11 as of the time of writing, while the Coop Deville sandwich, their version of the classic fried breast on a brioche bun, will run you $12.

7. Golden Chick

If you want a chicken chain that's got it all, then Golden Chick might be just the ticket you've been searching for. The chain's been around for more than 50 years, but they were originally called Golden Fried Chicken as a nod to their signature item. In the 90s they dropped both the "Fried" and the "en" from their name, and their menu today features not only fried chicken pieces and tenders, but also roast chicken, chicken sandwiches, and even chicken salad (available as a sandwich or on top of an actual salad).

The Texas-based Golden Chick has nearly 200 locations, but to date it still doesn't receive nearly the press that some other regional chains do. Well, Golden Chick may finally be looking to do a little crowing — not only have they commissioned a prototype for an easily assembled modular franchise unit that will allow them to open new locations in record time (via National Restaurant News), but they've even taken to updating their Twitter account on a regular basis. According to Guilty Eats, they had often neglected to do in the past, but it seems someone has finally clued them in to the importance of social media in marketing. Hopefully, this means the Golden Chick will soon be expanding their reach.

8. Huey Magoo's

Huey Magoo's is still quite tiny, as regional chains go, with just 30 locations (including the ones still listed as "coming soon") in six southern states. Currently, you can find them in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. They are planning an expansion that will nearly double their footprint — or wingspan, as it were — as they're looking to add new restaurants in those states as well as making a move into North Carolina, Ohio, and Nevada.

Despite Huey Magoo's goofy name, they actually don't have a kooky cartoon mascot, unless you count the chicken caricature made from the "g" in their name. They do, however, have their own set of emojis, so obviously they're down with 21st-century publicity techniques. Another way they're winning at modern marketing is by boasting of their product's quality. They have just one specialty, that being what they call the "filet mignon of chicken": tenders made from the actual chicken tenderloin. So are these tenders really superior to tender imposters made from other chicken parts like breast strips?  Maybe so, maybe no, but Valdosta State University's student newspaper The Spectator does call Huey Magoo's chicken a "must try," and they're also big fans of the Magoo dip and the restaurant's hipstery-yet-friendly vibe.

9. Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Krispy Krunchy Chicken may not be about to win any spelling bees any time soon, but willful misuse of the letter "k" certainly hasn't hurt another chain known for their hot and ready donuts. While KKC may not have their own "hot light," they offer an equally cravable product: fried chicken that they claim "tastes like heaven with a Cajun accent." Ça c'est bon! It may come as no surprise, then, to learn that this chicken chain has Louisiana roots. They've expanded outside the South, however, and now have locations in 41 different states (via Thrillist). One of the reasons they may not be as well-known as a certain other Louisiana-based chicken chain named after a spinach-eating sailor is that their chicken is most often distributed by or co-branded with gas stations and convenience stores. Maybe not the first place you expect to find an excellent chicken dinner? Perhaps it should be.

According to Thrillist, Krispy Krunchy Chicken may not only be the most overlooked chicken chain in the U.S., but, in their words, "the most underrated item in fast food today." As to why, they cite the perfectly blended seasoning mix and the just-right crunchy fried coating, but they also give a shout-out to the wide variety of unique side items KKC has on their menu. Where else, after all, are you going to find blueberry biscuits, Cajun empanadas, chicken cracklins, or boudin bites? And just think, all this goodness may have been as close as your corner gas station all this time.

10. Layne's Chicken Fingers

What's that place with the really good chicken fingers? Train's, Main's, Banes', Payne's? Oh yeah, Cane's, that's it! Or wait, could it be Layne's? According to WingSpan, the student newspaper of Frisco, Texas's Liberty High, Raising Cane's is just a "copycat," while Layne's Chicken Fingers is the real deal. Their rationale is based on the fact that Layne's was founded in 1994 while Raising Cane's didn't open until 1996, but they also feel that Layne's clearly offers superior chicken fingers. They do say, though, that Cane's comes out on top when it comes to Texas toast, dipping sauce, and sweet tea.

While Layne's "Soon to be famous" motto seems to indicate that they're content to be patient, they are slowly expanding their base of operations. For years, their original College Station, Texas flagship was their only restaurant, but they are now expanding their reach throughout North Texas and on into the Houston area. Hmm, what's next? On into East Texas and then to Louisiana to take on Raising Cane's on their own turf? We wish you all the cluck, Layne's, and may the best chicken finger win. Or maybe the one with the best sauce?

11. Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken

Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken is a regional chain whose region could best be described as the northwestern part of the Southeast, or possibly the southeastern part of the Midwest. By this, we mean that the bulk of their restaurants are found in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio, although they've got a few scattered outliers as far north as Wisconsin and south as Florida. There's even one lone international outpost in British Columbia.

For the most part, Lee's offers a menu fairly similar to that of a certain chicken chain colossus that goes by initials alone. One thing we like about Lee's, though, is that they're honest enough to market their chicken breast strips under that name rather than trying to pass them off as the tenderloins they aren't. Apart from that rare moment of truth in nomenclature, Fast Food Menu Prices notes that Lee's also beats out their main competitor when it comes to cost, as their meals usually run a few bucks cheaper. As to the taste, they say Lee's chicken is slightly crunchier and more flavorful, as well. If Lee's chicken bears a strong family resemblance to that Other Chicken Chain's product, there's a good reason for this. It seems Lee Cummings, the founder, was the nephew and one-time business partner of a certain Harlan Sanders. Just like his white-suited uncle, it seems Cummings, too, must have had secret spices in his blood.

12. Mad Chicken

While many fried chicken franchises seem to start in the South, the Midwest is probably the nation's #2 chicken chain incubator. Mad Chicken is one such Midwestern chicken restaurant, but its origin story is not the typical saga of someone's dear old granny frying up chicken during the Great Depression. Instead, they were started in 2017 by an Egyptian family in Appleton, Wisconsin. They've expanded a bit from that base and now have seven locations in Wisconsin, one in Michigan, and even one in Pittsburgh. As this last-named city is technically part of the mid-Atlantic, it seems Mad Chicken's gone cross-regional in its first five years, and OnMilwaukee says they may even be opening a California location in the near future. (They were apparently expecting to do so in 2020, but, you know, stuff happened that year).

Mad Chicken's menu offers both wings and tenders, the latter also available in the form of sandwiches, hoagies, wraps, and salads. They also do chicken tender bowls where you can get your chicken on top of either mac and cheese or cheesy waffle fries. Where Mad Chicken really stands out, however, is with their sauce selection: 16 of these in all, including a signature "Mad sauce" (spicy and regular), as well as sriracha, mango habanero, hot honey garlic, buffalo (mild, hot, and extra-hot), blue cheese, ranch, garlic parmesan, sweet chili, honey mustard, and three different types of barbecue sauce (sweet/spicy, honey, and gold).

13. Mad for Chicken

While Bonchon may be the big name in Korean fried chicken here in the U.S., success breeds competition, so here comes Mad for Chicken. This chain is actually not all that new, since they've been around since 2005, but for their first 15+ years they were a New York-only thing. Last summer, however, they expanded into the Texas market, where the Dallas Observer says they've been hatching new locations all over the place. From New York to Texas, could California be far behind? Who knows, but with any luck Mad for Chicken and Bonchon will get into a Korean Chicken War that will wind up with both franchises occupying every state in the union.

So what's on the menu at Mad for Chicken? Their signature crispy fried wings, breast strips, and drumsticks are a must-have, of course, but they take quite a while to prepare -– up to ½ hour or so. While you wait, you can enjoy several Korean or Korean-inspired non-chicken items including fried dumplings, a bulgogi sandwich, and toppoki (aka tteokbokki) as well as non-Korean items like truffle fries and mac and cheese.

14. Nando's

While most of the chicken chains on this list make the most out of the food-world truism that everything's better when batter-dipped and fried, Nando's sticks to grilling their chicken. They don't need the extra flavor that frying provides, since their signature move involves spicing the heck out of the bird with peri peri pepper. Nando's sauces, which are also available by the bottle, include lemon-herb, coconut lemon, garlic, and their classic peri peri sauce in medium, hot, and XX hot.

Nando's is South African in origin, although they have long since gone global. They are particularly popular in the U.K., and the Daily Mirror reports that even Prince Harry is a fan, although they did take a little dig at him for ordering a pita sauced with Nando's mild lemon-herb sauce (something he did on a single visit nearly a decade ago). In the U.S., Nando's now has 43 restaurants, although they're oddly clustered: 31 of them are in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, with many in the latter 2 states being in what is still considered the DC metro area. The other 12 restaurants are in Illinois, all either in Chicago or its outlying suburbs. While Nando's has no announced plans to open further U.S. locations at present, it has spawned imitators such as The Port of Peri Peri. This chain has quite a few locations in the Midwest, but they've also expanded into non-Nando's territories such as California, Texas, and New Jersey.

15. Starbird

Starbird is a chicken chain that is based in the Bay Area, although they've recently extended their reach as far as the "South Bay," aka Los Angeles. According to Patch, the chain plans to open a bunch more restaurants in the year ahead, but all of these locations are also in the Golden State. We don't know when or if Starbird will be going nationwide, but then, even the legendary In-N-Out was entirely California-centric for the first 44 years of its existence, so it seems these things take time.

As you'd expect from a Cali chicken chain, Starbird's menu touts how healthy their chicken is, proclaiming it to be always fresh, antibiotic-free, and hand-dipped in gluten-free flour. (It's still fried, though, so not exactly a superfood). They do both bone-in and boneless wings as well as tenders, but the latter seem to be their specialty as they are available in sandwiches, on salads, and in tacos as well as in baskets with fries. Plant-based Gardenbird tenders are also available for a vegan clientele, and Starbird's dipping sauces include such California-trendy options as wasabi aioli, avocado crema, and spicy Seoul.

16. Wing It On!

Wing It On! is another chain with big plans for the future — and as far as they are concerned, the future is starting right this moment. They are based out of North Carolina, but have expanded into Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and Texas locations, and a New York one is imminent. QSR says Wing It On! expects to expand into both Florida and Virginia over the course of 2022, and are also aggressively trying to grow their brand by tweaking the menu and landing high-profile sponsorships such as the National Buffalo Wing Festival.

While wings are, of course, part of Wing It On!'s menu,(as well as its name, obviously)  the restaurant also offers chicken tender sandwiches. In fact, their name even has a subtitle, that being "Wings 'n Wiches." You can also get their chicken tenders unwiched, and they come in smaller nugget form, too. Yet another Wing It On! menu item may have been prompted by the great 2021/22 wing shortage: something called "thigh wings." 

Where Wing It On! really brings it on(!), though, is with their sauces and spices. We're particularly partial to the Cajun-spiced Buffalo Bayou, the hot honey-meets-cheese Honey Blues, and the super-spicy Wings of Prey, but are especially intrigued by the Buffa-Rub, a non-messy version of the classic hot wing. If they show up in your area, be sure to try them all — there's not a bad choice when it comes to their sauce.