The Washington Post
The KFC Double Down is not a joke worth repeating
When KFC’S Double Down sandwich — which daringly subbed two chicken patties for a bun encasing bacon, cheese and sauce — debuted in 2010, it was a bona fide cultural moment.
Local news reporters interviewed people who had lined up to try the gluttonous discs in franchise parking lots. Stephen Colbert ate one on his late-night show and dubbed it “deep-fried insanity.”
We were collectively transfixed by both the excess (1,380 milligrams of sodium?!) and the novel lawlessness of it all. What, we asked ourselves, was a sandwich without the bread?
The year 2010 now seems a more innocent time. Let’s think back, shall we? “Avatar” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, skinny jeans had officially taken over, and Beyoncé was still Sasha Fierce. So, so much has happened in the 13 years since. And not just on the global stage. (Ebola, coronavirus and the Trump administration, anyone?) Things got pretty weird on the food scene, too, with the R&D labs for the nation’s fast-food chains seemingly overtaken by Frankensteinian madmen.
Pizza Hut grew tired of stuffing its pie crusts with cheese, and so it shoved hot dogs into them. Arby’s erected the “Meat Mountain” out of as many as nine different forms of animal protein. Four-pattied Big Macs reached skyward. Doughnuts were pressed into service as buns. There were Triplelupas.
Such stunt foods have given way to hacks. On Tiktok, people now customize their orders to their particular liking, getting their chicken sandwiches topped with mac and cheese, blending sauces — and trying the patience of fast-food workers trying to keep up.
Now KFC is bringing back the Double Down, which, if it wasn’t the sandwich that started it all, at least was the one that heralded what was inevitably to come. Nick Chavez, the chain’s chief marketing officer for the United
States, explained the rationale, saying that KFC is “embracing the chaos” of “one of the most buzzworthy fast food menu items ever.”
But in this landscape where we are weary of all these turduck-ened portmanteaus, the Double Down just doesn’t pack the same culinary gut punch that it once did.
The return of the Double Down is the revival no one asked for, said Adam Chandler, the author of “Drive-thru Dreams,” which recounts the history of America’s love affair with fast food. “It’s like seeing your ex at a wedding,” he said.
It isn’t like people are clamoring for it, starting Change.org petitions and Facebook groups calling for its return, the way they did with true fan favorites such as Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza, Chandler notes. Even at the time of its release, the menu item got tepid reviews, and the buzz around it seemed mostly driven by diners who enjoyed its transgressive thrill more than its taste. “There’s nothing really enjoyable about eating this other than the fact that you accomplished it,” Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema declared at the time. “It’s sort of a poor man’s Everest.” The New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton called it “a disgusting meal, a must-to-avoid.”
The Double Down reappeared for a bit in 2014, though it has existed around the world in other permutations. In some regions, it’s made with turkey bacon to skirt dietary restrictions on pork. A Canadian version was fashioned out of two chicken patties embracing a Belgian waffle — and the whole thing was doused with “a Canadian maple aioli sauce.” In the Philippines, KFC offered a Double Down Dog, whose filling contained a hot dog.
The chain’s decision to bring them back to the U.S. market this year probably has more to do with the bottom line than with the cultural moment, said David Henkes, a senior principal with the restaurant research firm Technomic. Most quick-service chains are experiencing slower growth and higher costs because of inflation, he noted, and they are often turning to limited-time offerings to boost business. “Bringing back items that have nostalgic appeal, celebrity meals — chains are doing what they can to cut through the clutter,” he said.
In other words, we might not be as disgusted/awed as we were more than a dozen years ago, but hey, it’s something.
Henkes notes that the Double Down relies on items KFC locations already have on hand. “Everyone is trying to do more with what’s in the store, because of supply chain and the fear of operational complexity,” he said. “You’re deploying existing products for a higher margin.”
When they made their 2023 debut Monday, I ordered a bagful and brought them to the office to sample with colleagues. First, let’s run the numbers: These sandwiches are big, clocking in anywhere between 10 and 14 ounces. And at about 2.5 inches tall, they’re hard to get your mouth around. If that seems bigger than you remembered from the last go-round, you’re right — the chicken patties the chain uses for its sandwiches are larger now, thanks to a retooling in recent years prompted by those infamous Chicken Sandwich Wars. The price has also changed: Two locations in suburban Maryland and Virginia charged $10.79 per sandwich.
Figuring out the Double Down’s nutritional information is difficult, since KFC’S website lists only 930-950 calories for the sandwich and does not note other stats, so one has to calculate for themselves. Each of the two patties contains 1,100 mg of sodium, and that’s before you add the salt in the bacon strips, cheese and mayonnaise. Even without doing the math, it’s evident this is one salt bomb of a sandwich.
Our first order seemed to be a victim of insufficient staff training on the new menu item — there was no bacon in any of them. A second order from a different location got us the sandwiches we were seeking. The double Double Down order was a reminder, too, that even at chains that strive for uniformity, the food can vary. The breading on the patties of our first order was pleasantly golden brown, while the second batch was paler, with a coating that came off on my fingers.
And that brings us to the inevitable unpleasantness of the Double Down, a factor so obvious that it seems pedantic to complain about: It’s just kind of gross to eat fried chicken patties with your hands. I’d rather eat a bone-in piece of fried chicken; at least that wouldn’t fall apart and leave an oily blob of mayo on my fingers. I like the patties in KFC’S chicken sandwiches, I really do — they are juicy and well seasoned, with nicely craggy crusts — but it turns out that I don’t want to eat two of them at once, and definitely not glued together with mayo and a small slice of unidentifiable cheese, and most certainly not accompanied by small strips of aggressively smoky bacon. (The spicy version, with a kicky sauce in place of the mayo, is marginally better since it at least offers a bit of heat to cut through all. That. Chicken.)
There’s a reason we love a sandwich. There’s a beauty to it — a logic.
A colleague of mine who is supremely rational fretted that the Double Down defies all of those principles. Without bread, there’s no softness to contrast the texture of the filling. There’s no sweetness to offset the saltiness. Even more fundamentally, there’s no vehicle to convey the meal to your mouth, which if you ask the card-playing Earl of Sandwich is the whole point of the thing. “It just doesn’t make sense,” she moaned.
Others weren’t as bothered by questions of nomenclature. “If you like KFC chicken, there’s no reason you wouldn’t like this,” reasoned another taster. But they might want to clear their calendars if they do indulge — after sampling the Double Down, my colleagues and I all felt as though we were dragging through the afternoon in a fog of dehydration and sluggishness.
Maybe KFC’S nostalgia play will pay off. After all, we’ve decided to give Uggs and low-rise denim another shot. Chandler wondered if the Double Down’s return might make us long, if not for the sandwich itself, for the less-splintered world that once viewed it with fascination and revulsion. “There is something nice about it being something we all knew about,” he said. “Maybe in some ways we long for that mass knowledge of a thing, what it meant for something to break through culturally. It’s our deepfried madeleine.”
“There’s nothing really enjoyable about eating this other than the fact that you accomplished it.”
Tom Sietsema, Washington Post food critic