“I do not eat fast food,” says Cajun New Orleans chef Isaac Toups. That is except for “asterisk, Popeyes.”
The Top Chef finalist and James Beard Award nominee is unashamed of his unabashed love for the fried chicken at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Why? Perhaps, he muses, it’s because “there’s so much more lovin’ to it.”
Toups isn’t alone. Popeyes may be the kryptonite fast food for the current generation of celebrity chefs who have publicly declared their weakness for the chain’s super crispy chicken. Momofuku chef David Chang is a huge fan. So is Anthony Bourdain.
One could argue that it is not a purely rational love and is a borderline obsession. “Some people would say Bojangles’ is better,” I make the mistake of mentioning to Toups, thinking of Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s affection for the East Coast chicken establishment.
“Those people are wrong,” blurts Toups, alarmed. “Those people are fucking wrong, and that’s the end of the story.”
Moments later, he admits, slightly deflated, “I’ve never eaten Bojangles’.”
I bring up another sore point. Restaurant Brands International, the massive corporation that owns Burger King and Tim Hortons, just purchased Popeyes a couple weeks ago—for a cool $1.8 billion, which would buy myriad three-piece chicken boxes—and Toups is among the Popeyes faithful that are in a bit of a panic that things might change.
This isn’t some academic debate. Toups is a regular customer of the restaurant chain. He and his wife are raising their children on home-cooked meals, what they bring home from their two restaurants—Toups’ Meatery and Toups South—and, of course, a fortifying monthly Popeyes feast.
“I always get a three-piece of dark spicy meat with mashed potatoes,” he says. “My wife gets blackened strips with green beans, and my children get a big pile of chicken tenders.”
He instructs me that the mashed potatoes are best eaten laced with gravy and crackling bits of fried chicken skin stirred in. He informs me that the best part of the biscuit is the crust, which is where all the butter flavor lurks. And, he adds, “If I return home without a pile of Mardi Gras mustard… Isaac Toups is going back to Popeyes.”
Now I’m getting concerned. “Mardi Gras mustard?” I have never heard of this condiment. Have I been missing some secret off-the-menu item? Popeyes was after all a staple of my frugal diet when I lived in a rent-stabilized studio in downtown Brooklyn for eight hard-living years of my twenties and thirties. I’d roll home late and pick up one chicken breast—a naïve fool, I went for white meat, and didn’t even specify mild or spicy—and a biscuit. It was a two-minute walk from my apartment and the antidote to certain hangovers. I was grateful for its proximity and its powers to soak up alcohol but was the food actually good? Or was it just my rose-colored late-night memories?
So, although it’d been years, I had to return and do Popeyes correctly with, naturally, Mardi Gras mustard. On a 20-degree night a few days after the acquisition news broke, my boyfriend and I boarded a Brooklyn bus that went door-to-door to a Popeyes 2 miles away. The bus stalled in traffic. My boyfriend began to murmur sadly about fried chicken from beneath his many layers. We rolled in ravenous and freezing. Four pieces of dark chicken, spicy, please, plus mashed potatoes and every single sauce they had behind the counter. Also, that $5 box of fried shrimp.
“Will I get my own biscuit?” my boyfriend asked, alarmed. He’s from Florida, and has had his share of Popeyes. (Yes, dear.)
The boxes of chicken were plunked down on our blue plastic cafeteria tray within minutes. The biscuits were hot and plush. Mardi Gras mustard, it turns out, is a spicy mix of mayo and mustard, and damn good. The chicken was hot and juicy—Toups thinks Popeyes was among the first to CVap (controlled vapor technology) chicken game, although he’s not sure—and the skin was as good as I remembered: tiny crackles, salty and super-crisp. Divvying up our bird between the buttermilk sauce (a riff on ranch dressing) and the spicy Mardi Gras mustard proved the way to go. The mashed potatoes still taste like chemicals, but the bits of fried chicken skin help. The shrimp were shrimp, and thus disappeared quickly.
Honestly it’s just so pleasant at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, I began to think. These orange walls! That wacky trumpet music that reminds me of New Orleans! But maybe we hadn’t gotten enough chicken. Was two pieces each sufficient? Another three-piece box? Another four-piece? Is that insane?
“Maybe we should just get up and try to walk for a second,” I proposed. My boyfriend agreed and we layered up. My coat was suddenly a bit tighter around my belly.
“Maybe we should just get out of here as fast as we can,” I said.
“Shit, man,” my boyfriend said as we walked into a woomph of arctic air. “Now I’m kind of upset that I’ve rediscovered Popeyes.”
Toups, for his part, is worried about whether Restaurants Brands International will change the brand’s recipes, but we will have to wait until the takeover is complete—likely this spring—to see if that actually happens.
In parting, I ask him what is his favorite non-Popeyes fried chicken. It doesn’t take him long. He names New Orleans’ stalwart Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Their fried chicken is, he says, “to die for.”
But is it better than Popeyes?
“No comment. You never start a fight you can’t finish, and I ain’t starting that shit.”