Some time ago, maybe in the early 2000s, Emeril Lagasse was cooking on Good Morning America. And being that this was the early 2000s, he was using the old shtick; “BAM!,” “Gahhhlic,” you know how it goes. But, inexplicably, amidst the catchphrases, he dropped a nugget of wisdom that was so simple, so spot-on, it’s hard to imagine it happened on a run-of-the-mill cooking segment on a morning show.
“Everybody thinks of Cajun food and they think, ‘spicy,'” Emeril said. “But good Cajun food isn’t spicy, it’s just well-seasoned.”
Emeril may not have even known it, but he really nailed what makes Cajun food one of the world’s best cuisines. So often, chain restaurants hoping to imitate Cajun flavors simply throw cayenne and black pepper at a dish until it can hardly breathe. That’s not how Cajun food is made.
And somehow, against all odds, Popeye’s is not one of those chain restaurants.
We should get something out of the way in the interest of full disclosure: This post won’t be a review so much as a waving of the Popeye’s flag, a celebration of what is certainly the best fried chicken chain in the country, and, in our book, comes second only to In-N-Out Burger when ranking the best fast food restaurants, period.
Brooke and I both love Popeye’s intensely. Undoubtedly, that’s due to the fact that we were both raised in the chain’s home state. For each of us, the restaurant is associated with great memories, something that can’t be said about McDonald’s or Burger King.
Popeye’s holds a very special place in our hearts, and as such, it will be impossible for us to be completely unbiased, much like it would be impossible for someone to criticize the generations-old blanket their great-grandmother knitted.
Like any great love, our passion for Popeye’s derives mainly from respect. The Copeland family could have taken the easy route. They could have made inferior, faux-Cajun and Creole food to sell to the masses, and they would have ruined this state’s culinary good name in the process.
But that’s exactly what they didn’t do. If you’ve read up on the history of Popeye’s like we have, you know that, yes, Al Copeland’s goal was to create a huge chain. But he insisted on never compromising the quality of the flavors, a trait that has stuck with the company since. It may sound silly, but adherence to culinary traditions, particularly when it would be far easier to go the cheap route, is something that demands respect and deserves to be celebrated.
Speaking of the cheap route, it was Popeye’s current $5 box deal that served as the catalyst for our most recent trip to the restaurant. Allow me to give the chain some free ad space: WHY ARE YOU READING THIS BLOG INSTEAD OF EATING A $5 BOX RIGHT NOW? Seriously, this is about as good as fast food deals get. Yeah, it doesn’t come with a drink, but if you’re going to be eating one of those biscuits, a Coke is the last thing you need.
Anyhow, the deal allows you to choose between two mixed pieces of chicken or three tenders. Believe us, you’re getting way more for your money by choosing the tenders. So Brooke and I both did. We also both ordered red beans as one of our sides. Brooke filled her order out with dirty rice, or Cajun rice as the restaurant calls it, and I got the mashed potatoes. Of course, both meals were accompanied by a biscuit.
As Popeye’s is a chicken joint, we should probably start with the chicken. We both prefer spicy over mild, but, much like Emeril said, the chicken isn’t spicy so much as it’s properly seasoned. The heat doesn’t overwhelm anything, and the flavors are incredibly well-balanced, letting every spice and herb come through.
Yes, it’s easy enough to tell that the restaurant uses a liberal amount of corn starch in their batter to create a sort of artificial crispiness, but we’ve never been particularly bothered by this. That’s probably because we’ve been conditioned to enjoy it since we were young children, but are you really going to complain when you’ve stored your leftovers in the fridge overnight and they’re still crispy in the morning? Didn’t think so.
Let’s just get the most disappointing part of the meal over with: the
dirty Cajun rice. This is one of the only items on the menu that, in my opinion, isn’t good. Brooke is a big fan of it, but we both agreed that this particular serving was dry, bland, and tasted very artificial. My guess is that the rice is cooked at a large facility, frozen, sent to the restaurant, reheated, and served. It’s highly likely that, in our case, the rice was freezer-burnt.
OK, we’ve cleared the only obstacle. So on to the mashed potatoes and gravy. This is a dish that’s so simple, so impossible to screw up, that there’s simply no way to find anything negative about it. The worst mashed potatoes and gravy in the world will still be average when compared against all other food. Popeye’s version is good, definitely the best of the fried chicken chains. Is it as good as your grandmother’s ancient recipe? Probably not, but for a fast food joint, it’ll more than do.
When it comes to the final side, there’s a reason Brooke and I both ordered red beans and rice. With any other dish from any other restaurant, neither of us would order the same dish as the other, because we’d just share our portion, thereby eating two dishes instead of one. But when it comes to Popeye’s red beans, we’re each getting our own.
The next statement I’m about to make requires a preface, so here goes: Brooke and I were both raised in Louisiana, where red beans and rice are a constant. That means we know a lot about this dish. Probably more than you, dear reader. We’ve eaten versions of red beans that run the gamut from “great” to “abomination.” In so many words, we know this dish back and forth. So, it is not lightly that we make this next statement.
Popeye’s has the best red beans and rice we’ve ever had.
No, we’re not joking. Really, if a tourist asks us where to get the best version of the classic dish, they’re going to be disappointed, because we’re going to point them to the nearest Popeye’s. A part of me wishes the best red beans came from a place in them middle of the bayou with about 15 seats and no air conditioning. But that’s simply not the case.
If one knows their history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Popeye’s red beans are as good as they are. Warren Leruth, whose own restaurant began a renaissance of Cajun food in New Orleans, developed the recipe for the red beans (he also created the famous Popeye’s biscuit, which we’ll get to in a minute.) It’s not often that a fast food restaurant has such authentic roots, but this brings us back to what we love most about Popeye’s: adherence to classic Cajun and Creole cuisine.
Oh, and before you start on us about saying a fast food joint has the best red beans, consider that Donald Link, this year a James Beard Award nominee for Outstanding Chef, is in our corner, having gone on record saying that Popeye’s has the best version of red beans.
But, as great as the red beans are, somehow the biscuits are better.
Popeye’s biscuits have inspired cult-like devotion, with conspiracies regarding their recipe to match. Some say that Sprite is a secret ingredient. Others claim that an entire stick of butter goes into each biscuit. For what it’s worth, the dishwasher at Shaya, who was a former Popeye’s employee, informed me that the biscuits came to the restaurant raw and frozen, where they were simply baked, not made, by the employees at the store.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter to us how Popeye’s biscuits are made. To quote Patton Oswalt, “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love.”
If we’re lucky enough to choose our last meal on earth, it will likely include a Popeye’s biscuit. Contrarians like to argue that Church’s biscuits, with their honey butter, are superior. These people are not only wrong; they do not deserve love. To say, or even imply, that any restaurant on this earth serves a better biscuit that Popeye’s would be a crime punishable by death in Joey and Brooke’s America. Like the red beans, they’re not just “good for a fast food restaurant.” They’re great, period. Bar none. Full stop.
Looking back over this post, we think to ourselves, “Are we morons to have such love for a fast food restaurant?” To answer our own question, no, we’re not. Popeye’s is truly a great restaurant. The fact that it is a chain doesn’t seem to have affected its sensibilities regarding quality and flavor. It has succeeded where many have failed: it has brought high-quality, authentic Cajun and Creole food to the masses. Not even Emeril Lagasse could accomplish that.
Food: Great. Yes, the Cajun rice is a bad spot, but for a restaurant to have only one bad item on its menu is remarkable. From the chicken to the red beans to the biscuits, Popeye’s hits every note perfectly.
Service: Fair. OK, we avoided mentioning this during the review, but Popeye’s service is notoriously awful. So much so that it’s almost become part of the charm of the place, like how tourists will go to a New York deli just to get yelled at by the guy behind the counter. Yes, we have waited nearly 40 minutes for biscuits at a Popeye’s before. No, we are not ashamed. But, we will say that, since moving to New Orleans, the service seems to have improved greatly.
Atmosphere: Fair. First off, it’s a fast food joint, so decor is probably the last thing they’re worried about. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, but one must keep in mind that they’re attempting to market the Louisiana image worldwide. That’s not an easy task.
Overall: Popeye’s is, in a word, magical. Really, we can’t think of another restaurant with multiple locations that immediately brings us back home. Sure, part of that is due to the fact that we were raised on it. But it’s also due to the incredible food, which, in our opinion, is unimpeachable.