Wendy's Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich
I've spent a fair bit of time on this site documenting the various spicy chicken sandwiches that I've come across over the years. The Popeye's Spicy Chicken Sandwich recalibrated the market and, for a good chunk of years there every restaurant had to have their own. Some were winners, some weren't, but everyone was trying for it (and you can read the various recaps of those sandwiches: part one, part two, and part three). The wars have slowed, though, and there aren't as many spicy chicken offerings out now as there were and the height of the contest.
That doesn't stop some companies from chasing the spicy rush, though. Wendy's, for a long while, was held up as my go-to for a good spicy chicken sandwich. I ate so many of those things back in college that they started recognizing my car when I pulled up into the drive thru (a fact I'm both proud of and saddened by). That sandwich had the right mix of flavor, salt, and peppery bite that it gave my mouth a subtle, happy joy. But then Popeye's came along and blew Wendy's efforts out of the water. Crispier, tastier, and with more heat so I really felt the spice, Popeye's had all I wanted.
Still, part of me does wonder if Wendy's can every reclaim her crown. She was top dog for a while there, bested only by a dedicated chicken joint. Surely, with the right mix of ingredients, Wendy's could find a sandwich that could at least give Popeye's a proper run for their money. The recently announced and released Ghost Pepper Ranch Spicy Chicken was the chain's latest attempt and... well, it's okay. I still don't think it's anywhere near as good as what Popeye's has on offer (which is a simple but perfect sandwich that's hard to beat), but this version of their chicken at least does bring a little more heat.
As the company puts it, "the new Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich takes [Wendy's] signature Spicy Chicken to the next level with ghost pepper infused American cheese, ghost pepper and ranch seasoned crispy onions, lettuce, tomato and a creamy ghost pepper ranch sauce, made with fresh herbs." What that really boils down to, then, is its a spicy chicken sandwich with cheese, fried onions, and ranch. Each of those key ingredients has ghost pepper worked in so hat, presumably, you get a lot of heat in your mouth as you chow down. The only trick is this is Wendy's and they have to cater to an audience that, likely, isn't that ready for serious heat.
Thus, despite them saying they have ghost pepper in everything, the sandwich still doesn't really bear as much heat as the true heat-seekers probably want. I know, going in, I was prepared for the sandwich to fall flat on its face, a sad attempt at spice (see every spicy sandwich McDonald's tries to make). Thankfully this sandwich does have some heat to it, arguably even more than what comes on their standard spicy chicken, but not enough for me to really feel like the ghost pepper is well represented. It's spicy but not, you know, ghost pepper spicy. Maybe like a low-grade jalapeno burn. Spicy for some, but not for anyone seeking out a sandwich with "ghost pepper" in the name.
Once you get past the initial bite and either find the heat (or not, in my case) it's time to evaluate the full robustness of the sandwich. For a spicy chicken sandwich, it wasn't bad. There were ingredients on it I really liked, and some that I felt didn't really help. The single ingredient that, I feel, faired the worst was the cheese. I hate American Cheese as, frankly, it's not cheese. It's pasteurized processed dairy plastic. There's a rubbery, sticky feel when you get melted American Cheese in your mouth, and I could detect that with the sandwich. A breaded spicy chicken should be crispy but with the American on there, it lost some of that crispiness. The flavor of the cheese wasn't bad but the mouth feel threw the sandwich off. I really would have preferred it without the cheese at all.
Weirdly, the crispy onions added nothing to the sandwich for me. They're fried, like the chicken was fried, but then they had to go up against the cheese during assembly and, between that, the ranch, and the fresh vegetables, the crispy onions were just lost among all the toppings. It's hard to say if they added any flavor or texture to the sandwich at all as I hardly noticed them (and I didn't single out one onion to eat on its own because it's part of the sandwich so it needs to stand as part of the sandwich). I feel like, without the cheese maybe the onions would have stood up better, but that's just a guess after the fact.
With all that said, there were parts of the sandwich I felt were good. Naturally the spicy chicken itself was decently good. It still has that lovely paprika and black pepper flavor you expect. Topped with the ranch and fresh veggies, there was a crispness to the tone and flavor that I liked. Normally the spicy chicken comes with mayo so the change up to a spicy ranch was lovely. It added much needed flavor and brought the sandwich back from the brink that the cheese pushed it towards. This ranch should be on offer for every sandwich Wendy's makes.
I will also note that although I didn't find the sandwich to be all the spicy for most of the meal, I did get a solid kick right at the end. The last two bites, when all the ranch has been pushed to the back side and allowed to pool around the chicken, that was when the heat finally kicked in. I felt it in my mouth, I got a little sweat on my forehead, and it ended up being the flavor I wanted. Had this been the flavor I got end-to-end on the sandwich, I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more. The sandwich was missing something right up until those last two bites.
The Ghost Pepper sandwich isn't the only spicy offering they have right now as there's also Ghost Pepper fries. I didn't get these mostly because I hate having sauce on my fries. Wendy's has a good fry and I prefer to get them as crispy and salty as I can. For someone that doesn't mind sauce on their fries I could see getting these for some kick (I've seen good things said about the fries Online). Just, you have to really want it to try them and I didn't.
I did, however, grab some lemonade from the store, testing out their various flavors. I've had their classic lemonade before but I got it again here for the meal and it was the perfect compliment, I felt. Crisp and tangy with just enough tartness, it played off the saltiness of the sandwich and made the meal better. My wife grabbed a strawberry lemonade, which she'd liked in the past, but the mix was off this time and the drink was way too sweet. Meanwhile, as just a test, we also grabbed the new blueberry pomegranate lemonade and, well, were underwhelmed. it wasn't as blastingly sweet as the strawberry version, but it also lacked berry brightness. Were I to get one again, I'd probably just go back to the original lemonade. It's a classic for a reason.
Overall the meal was fine. Good enough that I got through it. But for a sandwich packed with premium toppings, and for while the meal alone was over 13 bucks, I would like more than "just fine" as my reaction coming away from it. Wendy's put a lot on this sandwich, but for both the cost to the user and my enjoyment after, I still don't feel like Wendy's really has what it takes to reclaim their crown. This sandwich was fine enough, better than most, but still not as great as I expect anymore.