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Best fast food grilled chicken sandwich: We tried 8 varieties and ranked them from worst to best

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CLEVELAND, Oh — We’ve all had times in the fast-food drive-thru line where we debated whether to sacrifice this delicious deep-fried favorite for something a little healthier.

Should you bet spending the money on a grilled chicken sandwich that might end up being dry and tasteless?

Let’s face it, grilled chicken has long suffered from the reputation of being fried chicken’s buzzy sibling – lacking the glamorous, often greasy and crispy coating. Still, it has grown in popularity over the years as a staple for those looking for a healthier alternative.

Since the seared chicken isn’t masked by the seasoned, fried breading, it must be good to keep customers coming back to the drive-thru time and time again, right?

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To find out, the Best of Cleveland team at cleveland.com did the work for you and visited six different fast food chains in northeast Ohio and found eight pan-fried chicken sandwiches on their menus. We’ve tasted them all — then ranked them from worst to best — to steer you towards the best fast food grilled chicken sandwich in Northeast Ohio.

Hardee: Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich

No. 8 Hardee’s: Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 650

Price: $6.69

Menu description: A grilled chicken breast, two strips of bacon, melted Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, served on a potato bun.

Our thoughts: If there’s one thing that would keep you from ordering that grilled chicken sandwich again, it’s the grizzly. The chicken would definitely have benefited from a sanitary garnish. While moist, the chicken breast had clearly been reheated in the microwave, making it rubbery. The veggie toppings were also a disappointment: tasteless thin pink tomato slices and wilted lettuce added to the sadness of this sandwich. Not much mayo or cheese and the bacon was precooked and tough. There is no freshness here. This sandwich also had the most calories of all the chicken sandwiches we tried. Get your calories from one of their burgers next time.

Swenson: Grilled chicken sandwich

Swenson's: Grilled Chicken Sandwich

No. 7 Swenson’s: Grilled Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: N / A

Price: $5.20

Menu description: Grilled chicken sandwich served on toasted wheat bread.

Our thoughts: The best part of this sandwich was the toppings. The the lettuce was crispy and the tomato slice was thick and fresh. Unfortunately, the vegetables weren’t enough to mask the pale, slightly salty and bland chicken breast. Although there were grill marks on the meat, the smoke had a slightly artificial flavor and it tasted more frozen than fresh.

Chick-Fil-A: Grilled chicken sandwich

Chick-Fil-A: Grilled Chicken Sandwich

#6 Chick-Fil-A: Grilled Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 520

Price: $7.89

Menu description: Boneless chicken breast marinated in lemon and herbs, grilled for a tender and juicy taste of barnyard smoke, served on a toasted multigrain bun with green leaf lettuce and tomato. The grilled chicken sandwich goes well with the roasted honey BBQ sauce.

Our thoughts: Since Chick-fil-A specializes in chicken, we expected a little more from them. The brisket itself was thick and meaty and tasted like it came off the grill, but it was dry and the lettuce and tomato toppings weren’t the best. Toasted wheat bread – with its slightly sweet flavor – was the star of the sandwich. This sandwich would definitely benefit from one of the sauces available.

At Culver: Grilled chicken sandwich

Culver's: Grilled Chicken Sandwich

No. 5 Culver’s: Grilled Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 390

Price: $6.39

Menu description: The thickest…juiciest…tastiest chicken sandwich you’ll find. Featuring a whole white meat chicken breast, hand seasoned with salt and black pepper right off the grill. Served with crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes and pickles on a grilled hoagie roll.

Our thoughts: This chicken sandwich was a great alternative if you’re not in the mood for beef. The chicken breast was a good size, tender and well cooked. The toppings didn’t do much to improve the chicken – the shredded lettuce was less than crisp and the tomato was tasteless and couldn’t stand up to the two solitary pickle chips. The toasted bun was the Culver’s staple: soft and smooth.

At Wendy’s: Grilled chicken sandwich

Wendy's: Grilled Chicken Sandwich

No. 4 Wendy’s: Grilled Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 350

Price: $5.79

Menu description: Herb-marinated grilled chicken breast topped with smoked honey mustard, crisp lettuce and tomato, served on a warm toasted bun. See if this isn’t the best chicken sandwich you’ve ever had.

Our thoughts: Mustard lovers will gather around this chicken sandwich. While the breast was thick, meaty, and well seasoned, it was so soaked in the warm mustard sauce that it was hard to tell if the moisture was coming from the chicken, itself, or the sauce, but it was good anyway. There were generous garden-fresh fillings and the bun was soft. Again – not a bad offer of a burger.

Panera: The spicy chicken sandwich

Panera: the spicy chicken sandwich

Panera #3: The Spicy Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 580

Price: $10.89

Menu description: Seared seasoned chicken breast, spicy buffalo sauce, crispy pickle chips and garlic aioli on a brioche bun.

Our thoughts: Just when we all thought the chicken sandwich wars were over, Panera launched a salvo this summer bringing two new entries into the fray. The Spicy Take Chicken Sandwich is just that – spicy. The seared chicken breast is big and chewy and smothered in a red, peppery sauce that packs a punch, enhanced by the crispy fried sour pickle chips. The promised garlic aioli was hard to spot, probably because there were so many other flavors involved. The brioche bun was a nice departure from the other standard burger buns we found along the way.

Chick-Fil-A: Grilled Chicken Club

Chick-Fil-A: Grilled Chicken Club

#2 Chick-Fil-A: Grilled Chicken Club – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 520

Price: $7.89

Menu description: Boneless chicken breast marinated in lemon and herbs, grilled for a tender and juicy taste of barnyard smoke, served on a toasted multigrain brioche bun with Colby Jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce green frisee and tomato. Goes well with Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce.

Our thoughts: If you prefer the local flavors of a simple chicken sandwich to an artisanal creation, this sandwich is for you. The chicken was tender and perfectly grilled. You could really taste the char that only a flame would produce. Of course, the crispy bacon was a big plus, because bacon makes everything taste better. The vegetarian toppings were generous, as was the Colby melted cheese. The multigrain bread was soft even though it was well toasted. It’s a basic sandwich that really shines.

Panera: The Signature Take Chicken Sandwich

Panera: The Signature Take Chicken Sandwich

Panera: The Take-Out Chicken Sandwich – Photo by Yadi Rodriguez, cleveland.com

calories: 570

Price: $10.89

Menu description: Seasoned and pan-fried chicken breast, parmesan chips, emerald greens and garlic aioli on a brioche bun.

Our thoughts: Soft and fresh brioche bread really enhances the blend of spices and seasonings in this chicken sandwich. Even though the chicken was seared, it was moist, light and tender and the crunchy artisanal lettuce added a refreshing touch. The garlic aioli could have used a little more garlic for our taste, but even though it was a subtle taste, it added a little something to the overall flavor. The real star of the sandwich is the crispy and flavorful parmesan chips. They added a really nice texture to the sandwich and a brightness that really lifted the overall flavor.

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