Traditional fast-food sales are in decline in America, maybe because we’re finally smartening up and becoming more reluctant to treat our tongues, wallets, and digestive systems as mortal enemies. We’re still fat, ridiculous bastards, of course, but chain-restaurant sales data indicates that we’re starting to become a bit more discerning about how we blow seven bucks, 15 minutes, and 800 calories in the middle of yet another sedentary workday. Hurray.

Instead, old-school greaseburger dispensaries are being displaced by Shake Shack, Five Guys, and other similar micro-chains that pay attention to such erstwhile afterthoughts as freshness and quality. I don’t know why it took so damn many decades for someone to hit upon the brilliant gambit of “like Burger King, but less shitty,” but here we finally are. The hamburger game has changed. Meanwhile, there’s the rise of Panera, Chipotle, Au Bon Pain, and the other “fast casual” chains that feature such midfalutin amenities as dark-green lettuce, multiple brand-name hot sauces, and all manner of nutted and berried breads. A meal at those places will set you back a couple more bucks by comparison to Wendy’s and the like, but they also offer a far superior dining experience. The food is generally fresher and less nutritionally calamitous, and it usually tastes better, too.

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All of this means that McDonald’s as we know it is probably fucked, and Taco Bell might not be much better off. This Economist article details McD’s sharp sales decline in 2014; part of that stems from slower business overseas, but Americans are also starting to shun the chain in statistically significant numbers. McDonald’s may well live forever, but if they do rebound, it will likely be in foreign markets and/or with a drastically different domestic business model (hence the “as we know it” caveat at the beginning of this paragraph).

As for Taco Bell, they actually reported strong domestic sales last year, but they also started serving breakfast for the first time. Of course raw sales volume goes up when you add an entirely new meal, but that doesn’t mean profits do. Did they sell enough of their repulsive Waffle Tacos to justify the operating expenses incurred by opening up at the crack of dawn, well before any decent person is drunk enough to eat at Taco Bell?

In response, these two giants are trying to take diametrically opposite paths to continued relevance. McDonald’s is streamlining its menu, and new items are being promoted on the basis of their improved ingredients or less harrowing nutritional impact. Whereas Taco Bell, god bless its slimy soul, is still pushing extremity above all else, refusing to pay lip service to lame old-people concerns about fiber and cholesterol and living to see your kid’s junior prom as they chase the dragon of their huge 2012 breakthrough, the billion-dollar Doritos Loco Taco.

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Which brings us to the combatants in today’s fast-food fight between two fairly new respective menu additions: the McDonald’s Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich versus Taco Bell’s Chickstar.

McDonald’s Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich

All right, the “artisan” part is so patently ridiculous that we needn’t waste much time mocking it. The word has been played out for years now, so there’s really no harm in letting McDonald’s take their sloppy turn. In this iteration, “artisan” has seemingly devolved to mean “not as processed as our old grilled chicken sandwich, plus dried parsley and a shiny bun,” which isn’t quite as hollow as it sounds.

The tagline on the McDonald’s site is “Mouthwatering. Grilled. Savory. Success.” None of those words mean much more than “artisanal”—outside of “grilled,” which isn’t the sexiest word in the history of edible fowl—but that’s OK. McDonald’s brags that this artisanal offering is “seasoned to perfection,” and though my definition of perfect seasoning would include about two-thirds less salt and 100 percent less butterish extract on the bun, the sandwich as a whole delivers on its modest promise.

I’ll take McDonald’s at their word that the AGCS is “seared in their kitchens,” as the browner bits on either side of the chicken cutlet seem honest enough. The McDonald’s nutrition tool reveals that the cutlet itself accounts for 110 of the sandwich’s 360 total calories, which puts its weight at a respectable quarter of a pound of pretty damn good chicken-tasting chicken. My sandwich was very demurely sauced by contemporary fast-food standards, with just 20 calories’ worth of a thin, lemony vinaigrette; the sweetish bun was light and fluffy and pleasantly potato-y (once you numbed yourself to the dairy-like element). The lettuce and tomato were an affront to the plant kingdom, of course, but at least this gentle nod toward healthful eating wasn’t undermined by limp bacon or gratuitous cheez squirtz.

Taco Bell Chickstar

This is the newest member of Taco Bell’s quesadilla-inspired family of sorta-foods. It’s hard to keep them all straight these days; this is the one they’re promoting with ads featuring an older woman flashing her boobs at the older gentleman with whom she’s sharing a ride and a meal. I hope the ride was fun, because I know the meal was sad.

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What we’ve got here is a couple of tongue-sized strips of fried chicken trapped inside a whimsically folded tortilla along with brown lettuce, diced tomato, shards of curiously unmelted yellow cheese, and a thick slick of sauce. There are three different sauce options: Bacon Ranch, Chipotle, and Mango BBQ. I opted for the Mango version, which tastes like orange Lifesavers melted down in standard fast-food barbecue sauce.

The sauce was too strong, too sweet, and utterly overwhelming. The chicken was reasonable when sampled on its own, but nibbling each component individually is a fast-food reviewing convention that is of no use to the civilian eater. The chicken is coated in corn-tortilla crumbs pre-frying, which is a neat touch that gets utterly lost inside the Chickstar’s gummy exo-tortilla and beneath the heavy sauce. As for the other condiments, let me remind you that the lettuce was brown, and griddled.

Verdict

The Artisan Grilled Chicken wins this in an unlikely landslide. It’s a touch pricey at $4.99, but it’s also a perfectly reasonable lunch-in-a-pinch for a moderately health-conscious adult human who isn’t too cool for a simple chicken breast in this beefy, porky era. The Chickstar has no reason to exist; it’s overpriced at $4.49, it’s unwieldy to eat unless your Bell-assembler takes the utmost care (not the very most likely circumstance), it’s nutritionally abysmal, and it tastes like candied chicken fingers wrapped in compressed Wonder Bread.


Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.

Image by Sam Woolley.

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