Food by VICE

The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is a Masterpiece

The agony and ecstasy of the inescapable sandwich.

by Hilary Pollack
Aug 21 2019, 7:48pm

Photo by the author

On August 7, I received an embargoed email.

“Starting Monday, August 12th, Popeyes will be launching a Chicken Sandwich nationwide,” it read. “Many people don’t realize that Popeyes has never had a Chicken Sandwich on the menu nationwide.

This is a big deal.”

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Photo courtesy of Popeyes.

Fast food chains release new menu items all the time, and most of them are Totally Fine or maybe even Mildly Intriguing, but still just remixes of whatever meat-bread-cheese combination the chain typically deals with—maybe they’ll throw in a “spicy” for good measure. So it was with this pattern in mind that I closed the email and made a mental note to try the sandwich when it hit stores. Little did I know that those foreboding italics were quite the understatement.

There was one notable detail in the attached press release: The new chicken sandwich at Popeyes was created in partnership with Sweet Dixie Kitchen, the Long Beach, California restaurant that was called out a couple of years ago for surreptitiously serving Popeyes as part of its $13, ostensibly homemade chicken ‘n’ waffles plate. Once exposed, the restaurant pivoted to “PROUDLY” serving Popeyes, and the fact that they were involved in fashioning this new menu item should have signaled that there was a sort of deeper-level self-awareness moment taking place than what you’d typically see with a new menu item.

The Popeyes chicken sandwich is the Tickle Me Elmo of sandwiches, the Fleabag jumpsuit of sandwiches, the 30-50 feral hogs of sandwiches. It is suddenly, inexplicably inescapable.

Fast forward to this week, when the sandwich’s debut has been met not just with positive reviews, but with an outright frenzy. Thrillist called it a “tiny miracle”; The Dallas Observer called it “the best [fast-food chicken sandwich] going right now.” Once it was established that the sandwich was, in fact, very good, an exchange of Twitter beef between Popeyes and rival chicken chain Chick-fil-A—into which Wendy’s also foolishly dove—stoked the media flames further. Yesterday, The New Yorker dropped a thinkpiece on the sandwich declaring that it would “save America.” And now, some guy in the Washington, DC area is even trying to resell the sandwiches for $100, plus a $38 delivery fee. (By the way, a note to that guy: Stop. That is not the spirit of Popeyes.)

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Photo by the author.

The Popeyes chicken sandwich is the Tickle Me Elmo of sandwiches, the Fleabag jumpsuit of sandwiches, the 30-50 feral hogs of sandwiches. It is suddenly, inexplicably inescapable.

Or can it be explained?

Popeyes has never exactly fallen out of fashion, but it’s certainly having a moment in the spotlight (the heat lamp, shall we say). As beloved by chefs as it is by stoned teenagers, tired moms, or really, any hungry urbanites who are short on cash, it has long been applauded for its perfectly crispy chicken, delectable biscuits, and inventive pies. Honestly, its success with the new sandwich is not only overdue, it’s unsurprising.

Restaurant Brands International, the Toronto-based parent company of Popeyes (acquired in 2017), is sitting pretty when it comes to its current lineup. In addition to the perennially popular chicken chain, RBI also owns Burger King, which has been receiving a massive amount of press (and patronage) for its recently released Impossible Whopper. Perhaps it was on the coattails of that sandwich’s success that RBI thought to roll out a menu item at Popeye’s with similar smarts—a slightly modern update at the highly accessible price point that customers already expect.

But the only way to find out exactly why the sandwich is instantly iconic was to taste it. So there I was at Popeyes on a Tuesday afternoon. Because the chicken sandwich has been forced into an online taste tournament with those of Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s, I brought sandwiches from each of those chains, too. You can’t really know what makes something better unless you know what it’s better than.

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Photo by the author.

The line at Popeyes was long, stretching from the counter all the way back to the double glass doors that lead onto Hollywood Boulevard. Despite its proximity to the Walk of Fame, the Popeyes on Hollywood and Cahuenga is not glamorous. The tables are littered with breading crumbs and paper wrappers and cardboard shells filled with remnants of mass-produced jambalaya. The service is friendly enough, but not particularly efficient. But the spirit in Popeye’s yesterday was one of almost bizarre excitement. Everyone seemed talkative, and the conversation revolved around the sandwich and, well, the conversation around it.

“I don’t even eat fast food. I just look at Twitter a lot,” the woman behind me said, chatting with a couple of friends in line behind her. They’re regulars here, they explained. This was the third day in a row that they will be eating the chicken sandwich. They attempted to deconstruct the Twitter beef for a man behind them who was listening intently but clearly lost. “Then Wendy’s jumped in and tried to stunt on both of them….” they continued as he nodded furiously. In front of me, a businessman sweated in his gray suit. And in front of him was a woman with three large suitcases, who clearly came straight to Popeyes from the airport.

Many minutes passed. Maybe half an hour. Seconds before I reached the counter, a panicked, middle-aged woman with an Armenian accent approached me.

“Please,” she implored. “I am a Postmates driver. They make us wait in line to order the food. I can’t wait here for an hour. Look at this line.” She motioned at the dozens of people shifting their weight behind us. “I’ll be fired. I’ll get no tip.”

We let her in, because while cutting sucks, that sucks more. (Note to Postmates: You need to figure out a better system for your delivery people. This also explains why whenever I ordered Taco Bell delivery while living in Brooklyn, it arrived late, tepid, and tasting of angst.)

When I finally stepped up, I noticed that on the screen behind the counter, every single order in progress seemed to contain The Sandwich. Anyway, I ordered it, too.

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Photo by the author.

First, I needed a refresher course on the former standard of what makes a good fast-food chicken sandwich. So I took a bite of one from Chick-fil-A, and then a minute later, one from Wendy’s.

I want to mention that I was fully prepared to like either of those sandwiches equally or better than that of Popeyes. Undue hype can be annoying. And Chick-fil-A, despite its incredibly bad politics, has a gift when it comes to seasoning the breading of its chicken; that is easy to admit. But as I rediscovered, especially on comparison, its sandwich is dry, utterly devoid of condiments—the only spread used on it is a thin veneer of butter—and its limp pickles are thin and barely additive. Eating an entire Chick-fil-A sandwich without sauce produces a similar effect to that of a white-bread peanut butter sandwich, sans jelly: It starts to stick to the inside of your mouth in a way that feels invasive and entrapping. Wendy’s takes the opposite path, a very pro-lubrication interpretation that involves slathering its buns with mayonnaise and adding flaccid iceberg lettuce and slices of pale tomato, which would be welcome if any of that actually succeeded in enlivening the chain’s deeply under-seasoned chicken.

Now let’s get to the Popeye’s sandwich.

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Photo by the author.

Its slightly sweet, wonderfully doughy bun is like a Tempurpedic mattress for the hand, easy to grip, welcoming, and as worry-killing as a stress ball. I am of the belief that chicken sandwiches—well, most sandwiches—are best enjoyed on a potato bun, or a King’s Hawaiian roll, and this bun, while brioche, certainly fits that model. The chicken, in classic Popeyes fashion, is steaming-hot, juicy, and coated in a fabulously crunchy breading with forward notes of paprika and white pepper. But most importantly, the mayo ratio is absolutely ideal, providing a complementary moisture that does not dampen or overpower, and the pickles are thick coins that snap and release briny goodness into each bite.

"We only have 15 sandwiches left," she shouted. "After that, we won’t have more for an hour and a half." Then she walked to the front and hung a sign on the door, declaring that the sandwiches were sold out. It was 2:20 p.m.

Together, these components create a synthesis of heat and coolness and crunch and salt and sweetness that are utterly unreal. Every once in a while, a fast food item ascends into a new level of gastronomic achievement that is both a culinary and scientific feat.

This is, honest to god, a damn good sandwich. It costs three dollars and 99 cents, plus tax.

One must consider, too, that goodness can also be leveraged by availability and price point. Taco Bell, for instance, tastes great on its own, but it tastes better because you can bring home a meal’s worth of it for a fiver. A Big Mac may taste as good as a bite of steamed sea bass in lemongrass bouillon from Le Bernardin—I can actually argue, speaking from disappointed experience, that it tastes better—but because capitalism propagates the notion that expensive things must be worthwhile, that they’re rewards for smarts and hard work, we live in a world that sometimes struggles to link the pure, hedonistic pleasure we derive from items to their monetary value.

As my friend and I collected our napkins and walked away from our counter seats, the worker behind the counter made an announcement.

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Photo by the author.

"We only have 15 sandwiches left," she shouted. "After that, we won’t have more for an hour and a half." Then she walked to the front and hung a sign on the door, declaring that the sandwiches were sold out. It was 2:20 p.m.

As if on cue, two stoned-looking guys giddily approached, then saw the sign. “Oh, shit!” they yelled, laughing and clutching their hands, and walked away.

The Popeyes sandwich is a blessing. It is, in all fairness, a big deal. We should all enjoy it together, but we must be mindful of maintaining its egalitarian nature.

Do not make a fancier version of the sandwich and sell it for $29.

Do not buy the sandwich and resell the sandwich for $100.

Just wait in line with everyone else.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.