Wendy's New Ghost Pepper Menu Is Fire

Both the Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Fries bring actual heat, not just hot air.

Like Takeout writer Dennis Lee, I firmly believe "the claim that a fast food item is spicy is generally bullshit." Harsh words, but hey! If our take on a new menu item is spicier than the food itself and my eyes burn more from rolling them than accidentally rubbing them with the seasoning, you can't say we're not on to something here.

I've danced with the devil while sampling Arby's Diablo Dare and sailed through all five layers of spice unscathed. It was flavorful, but "not nuclear spicy" as promised. I've laughed in the faces of 11 different spicy chicken sandwiches; not a single one has made me break a droplet of sweat. So when Wendy's came in hot with the hype, boasting of four layers of heat on its new Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Fries, I answered the call tepidly, mostly because I have a soft spot in my heart for my high school employer.

The Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich has long been a favorite of mine, and not just because I used to swipe mine fresh out of the pressure cooker. It has always had a peppery, creeping heat that extends just below the crunchy breading into the always premium, unmistakably full-cut chicken breast fillet that led the pack until Popeyes blew up in 2019.

So, sure, I'll give it the new Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Fries a try. After all, I believe in ghosts IRL. Why not suspend my disbelief of ghost pepper, too?

Getting my ghost on

For this taste test, I'd invited my partner and his mild-mannered mother to join me, hoping for a) objectivity since my tolerance for spice is rather high and b) quality sound bites from the MIL's bites, because there's nothing more adorable than a shocked sweet grandma.

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Like many of my fast food adventures of late, the quest began painfully. I wanted to order at the counter to ensure best service and create less room for error. Alas, that was not to be, as the busy location I visited in Hicksville, Long Island made me order from the app even while I was standing at the counter, and I, not knowing where I was, sent the order to the wrong store with no ability to cancel that other order, effectively paying double.

This stung more than any "spicy" fast food sandwich I'd ever tasted, so I was hot under the collar. And hungry. A lethal combination, curable only by a satisfying meal.

"This better be worth it," I grumbled loudly to my very excited panel as first we dug into the Ghost Pepper Fries first, so as not to lose out on optimum texture.

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Trying Wendy’s new Ghost Pepper Fries

I'll admit, as a concept, this initially confused me. Assuming the fries would be dusted in seasoning, I asked how Wendy's kept the spices from touching the other fries, and was surprised when the team member who took over my order showed me a squirt bottle of liquid sauce.

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Wait, what? my inner monologue screamed, simultaneously horrified at the prospect of soggy fries, worried about uneven flavor distribution, and glad I ordered a backup of the regular ones.

As it turns out, I had all those feelings for nothing. These fries are awesome.

What I was most impressed with was how well the sauce-topped fries traveled. Packaged in a ribbed plastic tray with a transparent vented plastic lid, they were still warm in the middle and remained crispy about the edges during their seven minutes in transit. In fact, the plain ones in the normal carton cooled faster, and the difference in retained crunchiness was negligible.

What had started as a thick, herb-studded sauce thinned out nicely on the drive to provide a nice, light tossed effect. The texture had been only minimally degraded by steam or sauce—so minimally, in fact, that my fellow testers also thought they were dry-seasoned until we got to the buttery dredges collected in the tray's ridges, which had helped keep the fries high and dry in the meantime. It reminded me of liquid seasoning, like movie theater popcorn: pervasive enough to add needed flavor and richness, but light enough to maintain the integrity of the vehicle.

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And the flavor! They start off slightly sweet, with onion powder at the forefront, garlic close behind, and a creamy buttermilk richness and fresh herb flavor across it all. Give it a second, though, and be rewarded when heat creeps in on a breath of smoke.

This combination proved to be unstoppable as the MIL and I started swirling the regular fries into the congealing ghost pepper fry sauce at the bottom of the tray. "Once you get used to it, it's not bad at all," she said, reaching for another. "The trick is to keep eating them. As soon as you put another in your mouth, you taste the starting flavor and don't feel the heat!"

Even my dog found herself hooked on the flavor. In the spirit of giving a baby a lemon slice, I gave her a regular fry with only a smidge of the sauce since alliums are toxic to dogs. Her initial reaction was to widen her eyes, lick her chops ferociously for a solid minute ... and then to put her chin on my lap in an uncharacteristic beg.

By contrast, my partner broke out the ketchup to tone it down a little. "It's a heat that rides the tongue," he said. Not inaccurate, but also not a bad thing, three quarters of us evidently decided.

Tasting Wendy’s new Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich

No longer hangry, we unwrapped our chicken sandwiches. And oh, were they a sight for sore eyes.

A generously cut breast fillet that spilled out of the bounds of the standard soft, golden bun made it unquestionable that this is certainly a premium offering among quick-service restaurants. As it should be, for just about $7 plus tax for a fast food sandwich.

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A slice of tomato and a single trimmed romaine lettuce leaf added color to a vibrantly orange palette, dominated by the unmistakably bright spicy chicken fillet—the only one in the game that takes spicy beyond a dab of sauce on a fried chicken sandwich.

The already signature flavor of Wendy's spicy fillet, comprised of what VP of Culinary Innovation John Li calls "its really unique white cayenne and black pepper heat," is the base upon which the fire builds.

"We were passionate about making sure that we weren't just rolling out heat for the sake of heat, that it was boosted with flavor," Li tells The Takeout. "The magic is in delivering this flavor... We want you to be able to take one bite and say, 'Yes, that was spicy but tastes so good, I'm gonna plow through this entire sandwich."

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"When a ghost pepper dish is designed right, you can taste that intense spice, plus the fruitiness of [that type of] pepper that you don't get with others," Li added.

The team layered on spicy flavor in three very successful ways: infusing it into the white American cheese that tops the chicken; the curlicues of deep fried, lightly breaded, ranch-seasoned onion crisps; and a medium-bodied ranch sauce that starts out dilly and cucumber-y and ends with an ember. The ranch elements are what Li thinks are key for balancing out the ghost pepper heat. 

"Ranch is like the training wheels," Li said. "[People] love anything attached to ranch."

To me, though, the ranch was almost an afterthought, so exciting were the other components. Each of them offered striated, distinct flavors unique to that one ingredient.

The fried onions were absolutely exceptional. They stubbornly held onto their super crunchy texture, filling in the few gaps of where the chicken lost some of that trait due to steam, melted cheese, or just displacement. Like the fry sauce, they start out sweet before their sunken-in greasiness registers, and then end hot.

I loved that the gooey, happy-to-melt cheese tasted unmistakably American before hitting you with the creeping ghost pepper. Both the cheese and the ranch sauce provided a false sense of security that they were there to dampen the fire, but no—here they come with the sucker-punch! Because the fun thing about ghost peppers is that their spice enters at a crawl, but then it hits. Then it spreads, stinging the lips and coating the mouth.

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"It's not a ghost—it's a poltergeist that keeps smacking me," my partner declared. "Every new bite numbs it a bit, but then my mouth warms back up when I take a break. It's like when my saliva spreads it, it's even worse. It's kicking my ass."

His mom, on the other hand, impressed me with her savage but sagacious advice. "Don't stop eating then," she shrugged, right before agreeing that he was "the wuss of the group" when he conceded defeat halfway through to slurp down his also-newly-re-released Strawberry Frosty.

"I like that the heat doesn't go through your nose, but straight through the mouth," she observed. "Like, wasabi goes right up your nose, but this doesn't ride up. God knows what this is doing to my stomach, but it's so good."

It may only ring in a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the heat scale (and not the 8 or 9 the talking heads at Wendy's are claiming), but this chicken sandwich actually is legitimately spicy, without overshadowing the other flavors involved. Every element of the Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich (barring the single slice of lackluster, underripe tomato) has a reason to be at this party in my mouth, and the original, acid-forward Spicy Chicken Sandwich has definitely gotten a major glow-up.

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As the boyfriend said, "This isn't fast food—this is slow-the-eff-down food. Like, you have to sit down, because it gets you."

In other words, this pickup delivered, and I won't be ghosting Wendy's as long as they keep this ghost pepper sandwich on the menu.

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