Thank Popeyes. When the national chain came out with a must-have fried chicken sandwich last year, sparking a theoretical sandwich war with its fast-food competitors, local chefs took note.

“Hey, we can do better than that,” Justin Sutherland recalls thinking at the time. Now, the St. Paul chef and restaurateur is the mastermind behind one of the Twin Cities’ buzziest birdwiches: Tennessee-style hot chicken at Handsome Hog.

You’ll find that sandwich in Cathedral Hill, but all over the Twin Cities, chefs are digging into their aprons of tricks to come up with their own twists on a menu item long dominated by fast food.

When World Street Kitchen opened almost a decade ago, “you were looked upon as a heathen if you’re a chef that puts a chicken sandwich on your menu,” said Sameh Wadi, whose M.F.C. (Moroccan fried chicken) is a longtime local favorite. Now, these sandwiches are everywhere. Why? “People figured out it’s delicious,” Wadi said.

They’ve also proved to be almost pandemic-proof.

“Chicken sandwiches travel well and keep their integrity during a takeout experience,” said Luke Shimp, who recently launched the takeout-only restaurant Chicken Republic.

At Hot Hands Pie & Biscuit, Tara Coleman took her labor-intensive fried chicken sandwich off the menu in mid-March. When she added it back on this summer, sales skyrocketed.

“Not to get too deep, but maybe the growing popularity of fried chicken has something to do with how nostalgic it can be for some people,” Coleman said. “In times such as these, people may gravitate toward what is comforting to them, and maybe that’s fried chicken.”

The Twin Cities’ standout fried chicken sandwiches showcase our incredibly diverse food scene: Hmong, Italian, Korean, soul food, Nashville-via-Ethiopia. Each one reveals something about the maker — their heritage, their memories, even their favorite rapper. Here are 14 of the best fried chicken sandwiches we tasted, and the stories they tell.

Alma

What started as a one-night-a-week dinner special in 2017 has become one of Cafe Alma’s top-selling regular menu items, said chef and co-owner Alex Roberts. The current iteration is a breast that is brined, then battered with seasoned buttermilk. It’s served on a brioche bun with charred jalapeño aioli, housemade dill pickles and bibb lettuce. Roberts credits its popularity to the distinctive seasoning in the buttermilk, and the fact that fried chicken sandwiches are especially on trend. “Handheld comfort food is a big thing right now,” he said.

528 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-4909, almampls.com

 

Bap and Chicken

“KFC” doesn’t mean Kentucky at this Korean street food spot on Grand Avenue, known for its fried chicken and bibimbap. It’s been open a little more than a year, and in that time the menu went from one fried chicken sandwich to four. The O.G. is the most popular: a thigh, double fried in a crispy tempura batter, on a soft Franklin Street Bakery butter bun, with spicy mayo and slaw. “It is a wonder to behold,” said chef and owner John Gleason.

1328 Grand Av., St. Paul, 612-333-0929, bapandchicken.com

 

Handsome Hog

Tennessee hot chicken is one of Justin Sutherland’s “all-time favorite foods,” he said, so it was only a matter of time before he put one on the menu at his flagship restaurant. First, skin-on thighs undergo a 48-hour brine, then get battered in buttermilk and Sutherland’s signature chicken dredge (soon to be sold in stores, by the way). After frying, it’s glazed with hot-but-not-too-hot seasoning, dressed with Cry Baby Craig’s aioli, sweet and hot house pickles and shredded romaine, and served on a toasted brioche bun.

173 Western Av. N., St. Paul, 651-219-4013, handsomehog.com

Chicken Republic

Noticing the popularity of chicken sandwiches during the pandemic (there’s one on the menu at Red Cow), owner Luke Shimp spun off Chicken Republic, a new restaurant in his “virtual food hall” Kenwood Food & Beverage. A Tennessee hot version has a hand-breaded and fried breast, dipped in hot oil and served on a Wuollet’s bun with sweet blackstrap aioli. And there are options: Buffalo with habañero Jack and blue cheese sauce, ginger-sesame with garlic aioli, bourbon and bacon, and honey mustard.

2626 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-767-3547, kenwoodfoodandbeverage.com

 

Fly Chix

New on the fried chicken scene is this Stadium Village spot, with six sandwich variations inspired by different regions in the U.S., from Texas to Buffalo and California to Tennessee. Chicken breasts get dunked in buttermilk and spice blends, each piece fried one at a time “to get them as crispy as possible,” said manager Carlos Dominguez. Coleslaw and pickles come on the side, and the bun can be swapped out for salad — or mac and cheese.

309 SE. Oak St., Mpls., 612-331-3978; delivery only at 5011 Ewing Av. S., Mpls., 612-453-3880, fly-chix.com

 

Hot Hands Pie & Biscuit

When she opened her biscuit shop late last year, Tara Coleman knew fried chicken had to be involved. The pairing reminded her of her childhood in Tennessee, eating chicken and biscuits with her dad. Here, a thigh is brined eight hours, dredged in flour seasoned with seven spices and buttermilk, and fried. It’s served on an all-butter biscuit with honey butter, bacon, and a side of maple syrup to drizzle on top. Tart house dill pickles cut through it all. They’re the “secret weapon,” Coleman said.

272 Snelling Av. S., St. Paul, 651-300-1503, hothandspie.com

 

Nashville Coop

Waiting in line for two hours for Nashville-style hot chicken in Los Angeles, brothers Arif and Kamal Mohamed had plenty of time to catch up, watch Netflix and fantasize about opening a similar chicken joint in Minnesota. It started as a casual conversation, but two weeks later, they went back for more and hatched a serious plan to do hot chicken back home — with a twist: their mother’s homemade blend of Ethiopian spices. The bun holds extra-long and powerfully hot tenders, with a cooling sauce and slaw that lightly mitigate the burn. Just a few months in, more menu items are in the works: Look for biscuits and waffles soon.

300 Snelling Av. S., St. Paul, 651-330-6737, nashvillecoop.com

 

Pork & Piccata

The Broders family of restaurants has gotten into the ghost kitchen game with Pork & Piccata, a takeout-only operation from the kitchen at Terzo. The pork refers to porchetta, a familiar Terzo menu item. But the piccata is their new spin on a chicken cutlet sandwich. Breasts are pounded flat, lightly brined in buttermilk and deep-fried. The “piccata sauce” suspends the flavors of lemon, capers and butter in an aioli, which is slathered on a ciabatta roll.

2221 W. 50th St., Mpls., 612-925-0330, porkandpiccata.com

 

Revival

During the lunch rush at Revival’s two locations, it’s just “chicken sandwich, chicken sandwich, chicken sandwich,” said chef and co-owner Thomas Boemer. The boneless thighs are dipped in buttermilk and breading enhanced with spices and hot sauce. The Tennessee hot variation is finished with lip-numbing chile oil. Over the past five years, Revival has been a leader in the local chicken sandwich scene, with others soon following, Boemer said. “There seems to have been a boom lately that I have not been able to keep up with.”

525 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-340-2355; 4257 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-4516, revivalrestaurants.com

 

Smack Shack

Smack Shack chef and co-owner Josh Thoma worked at KFC for a year in the ’80s, and he’s put his fried chicken knowledge to good use to develop a non-seafood menu item that’s only become more popular as takeout has taken off. The 6-ounce chicken breast is dipped in Cajun-seasoned flour and buttermilk before frying, and set on a Franklin Street Bakery pub bun with onion, tomatoes, pickles and creamy, tangy housemade bacon ranch dressing.

603 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-259-7288, smack-shack.com

 

Soul Bowl

Chef Gerard Klass starts the Big K.R.I.T. with a “milkshake,” a blend of herbs, spices and buttermilk, in which the chicken soaks overnight. Then, it’s tossed in seasoned flour and fried extra crisp. The chicken goes into a butter-toasted kaiser roll with “everything” bagel seasoning. Inside: Hidden Valley Ranch, spring mix and cherry tomatoes, turkey bacon and finally, a sweet-spicy sauce called MPLS Mambo “that is good on anything,” Klass said. The sandwich is an homage to one of Klass’ favorite rappers, Big K.R.I.T., who stopped by last year and ordered one. He gave it his blessing.

520 N. 4th St., Mpls., 612-567-7044, soulbowlmn.com

 

Union Hmong Kitchen

Since adding the Hilltribe fried chicken sandwich to the menu at Union Hmong Kitchen in June, it has been the top seller. The thigh is cooked in a cider-based batter, with a mix of rice flour, tapioca flour and cornstarch, and served on a milk bun with cabbage slaw and sweet pickles. But “the real hack to take the sandwich to the next level,” said chef Yia Vang, is his parents’ Mama Vang’s Hot Sauce. Chicken sandwiches hold special meaning for Vang. When his family first came to the U.S., his mother worked at a chicken factory. “Every so often, she would get a box of the ‘damaged’ chicken patties that she would bring home,” he said. “I loved it. It was the only time that we really got to eat ‘American’ food.”

221 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., Mpls., 612-431-5285, unionkitchenmn.com

 

World Street Kitchen

When World Street Kitchen was first launched as a food truck, “all of the chicken sandwiches were American-based, and so we really wanted something that just popped,” said chef and co-owner Sameh Wadi. He tried several variations before landing on Moroccan style, heavily spicing the chicken breast with the flavors found in a beef tagine — smoked chiles, paprika, cumin, ginger. As a nod to the sandwich’s Southern American roots, he put it on a cheddar biscuit, with a spicy feta dip as a play on pimento cheese. A bright coleslaw with preserved lemons and carrots cut through the richness. “At the time, it was like, how much flavor can I pack into a ... chicken sandwich?” he said.

2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855, eatwsk.com

 

Zen Box Izakaya

To stay afloat during the pandemic, Zen Box Izakaya had to make some changes. They installed a patio and reconfigured their ramen to be more takeout-friendly. But there was still an appetite for a menu item people could pick up with their hands, said Lina Goh, who owns the nine-year-old downtown Minneapolis restaurant with her husband, chef John Ng. What they came up with was the Spicy Karaage Sando, which plays off Japanese fried chicken. A whole thigh is breaded with rice flour and fried, then topped with sweet and spicy housemade gochujang jam and pickles. “We never imagined ourselves being a restaurant with sandwiches,” Goh said, “but we’ve got to pivot.”

602 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-332-3936, zenbox.com