Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is the second-largest chicken-focused fast-food restaurant chain in the U.S. -- and I have no idea why.
Its fried chicken is moist, flavorful and has a warm, spicy bite. Its side dishes, while mass-produced, are actually good for what they are. And unlike its major competitor, Popeyes also features an excellent gravy-to-mashed-potato ratio for both its small and large sides.
So why in chicken-plucking hell is it in second place?
Although I hadn't been to Popeyes for a few years, I had no problem recalling not just its great chicken, but those calorie- and fat-laden but honestly appetizing sides of red beans and rice. So when I heard that it had reintroduced Rip'n Chick'n, I flew to the store at 11097 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora to try it out.
Although the location at 2122 East Colfax was actually more geographically convenient, that one is usually ringed with panhandlers and working girls. This Aurora store, on the other hand, was not just bum- and hooker-free, it was clean, with spotless windows crowded with decals proudly proclaiming the return of Rip'n Chick'n.
Rip'n Chick'n is billed as a chicken breast filet that's seasoned with cayenne, habañero, white and black peppers; hand battered; breaded and sliced almost through into quasi-tenders that can be "ripped" after the bird is fried, then served with a biscuit and signature Cajun fries for $3.99.
I ordered the Rip'n Chick'n along with some popcorn shrimp and the chicken Po' Boy sandwich, along with some seriously tasty-sounding sides. Then I sat down, but the triple-sided ad card with a picture of the new peach pie made that look so delicious and deep-fried, I added one of those to my order.
Popeyes was founded in 1972 in New Orleans, and currently has close to 2,050 stores in the United States and 26 other countries. It started out selling ordinary, mild-seasoned fried chicken, but after it introduced a spicier breading, people took notice -- and sales jumped. Popeyes started franchising in 1976, and the rest is chicken-fried history. You can still order a mild version of the chicken, but really, why would anyone want to?
I had just enough time to digest this history when my order was up. The popcorn shrimp was absolutely as good as I remembered: crispy and peppery. The Po' Boy wasn't bad, but lacked the extra-extra slathers of mayo-based sauce that I so love. The baguette was also a bit too chewy, but there was plenty of spicy fried-chicken cuts, lettuce shreds and pickle slices throughout the sandwich.
The sides that came with these were reason enough to eat at Popeyes. The biscuits are dense and buttery; the red beans and rice a dual creation of quicksand-textured, bell pepper-seasoned beans topped off with a scoop or so of mealy white rice. And while the mashed potatoes are predictably instant and really no better or worse than those at other chain, the gravy is as spicy as the chicken, dotted with bits of bell pepper and what's possibly tiny nuggets of meat -- but the important part is that there's a lot of it.
Finally, I ripped into the main event, the Rip'n Chick'n. While the "ripping" idea is pretty tonky when Popeyes could just cut the bird into strips, but marketing "Chick'n Sticks" isn't nearly as sexy as chicken that needs to be ripped apart before you eat it. The crispy filet almost seemed like it had been marinated in Tabasco sauce before being breaded and deep-fried. Although it came with a little tub of ranch dressing for dipping, the chicken was fine by itself.
I skipped most of the Cajun fries, which were hard, over-salted, over-seasoned and chilly (I guessing they'd been sitting around for a while before they ended up on my tray) and moved on to the pie.
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The peach pie was indeed deep-fried. It looked almost exactly like a pie from McDonald's -- same size, same shape -- but the fried outer crust was far better, and the inside was all warm, diced peaches in that goopy syrup with an overabundance of cinnamon. Hells-to-the-yeya.
Popeyes's second-fiddle status saddens me, especially since it should win bonus points just for its health-defiant offer of extra gravy and deep-fried desserts. When I am dictator of the Northern Hemisphere, I will make sure that Popeyes ascends to its rightful spot at the top of the pecking order.
In the meantime, let 'er rip.