Aug. 20, 2008 12:00

Love that chicken from Popeyes


by Brian Clarey

Here’s a dirty little culinary confession: I love fried chicken. Freakin’ love it. Always have. And when I moved to the South 20 years ago (good god) I was introduced to a whole new universe of fried chicken. I’ve had it in restaurants and take-out joints, I’ve had it delivered and eaten it at the kitchen tables of sassy African-American women, each of whom claimed hers to be the best. But my favorite fried chicken is the spicy stuff that comes only from Popeyes.

And with the fairly recent death of Al Copeland, the New Orleans legend who built the franchise into a flamboyant personal empire, I felt it was time to go back. Copeland built the franchise in his native city on the strength of a chicken recipe that crossed cultural barriers; he inspired much beef with politicians, businessmen, journalists and neighbors; he created the greatest Christmas light display in front of his gaudy Metairie house that the suburb had ever seen. And when he passed in March, I vowed to eat some Popeyes in his memory.

When I was in college, I used to frequent the Popeyes fried chicken joint on South Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans to get a weekly fix of that spicy stuff and an extra box of biscuits, which my stoner roommate liked to eat with honey.

After college, when I lived in the French Quarter, I’d hit up the Popeyes on Canal Street for a big box of spicy white meat and then spend a whole Sunday watching football and eating it out of my fridge.

Every Mardi Gras I’d find myself at the foot of St. Charles Avenue outside the Popeyes there, dipping spicy popcorn chicken into mashed potatoes and Cajun gravy, trying to get the pieces into my mouth while drinking beer and catching beads.

I was broke and hungry back then, and when I ate my Popeyes I ate it down to the bones, stripping off every nugget of fried batter, prying out each morsel of meat. “Look at that white boy go at that chicken,” a woman on Canal Street once exclaimed.

There are 45 Popeyes chicken joints in the city of New Orleans. In the North Carolina Triad there is exactly one, nestled into a TC truck stop out in Whitsett.

And here I am, out with the lot lizards and long-haulers and folks who have loaded up on cigarettes and cowboy hats and perfume at the outlet store just down the road on Interstate 40/85. The chicken concern is just a small part of this bustling operation, and I approach the short counter and weigh my options. I decide on a two-piece — in the old days, when I was less concerned about diet and nutrition, I used to get three. I also used to get a lot of heartburn.

Two pieces of chicken, a thigh and a breast, marinated in deep spices then battered and fried into blistering perfection.

I peel off the crispy skin, not to discard it — that would be a sin — but to eat it all on its own. The meat is ample and juicy, and it brings me back. On the side I’ve arranged a portion of mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, absolutely the best side item in all of fast food dom. The potatoes are real, or as real as you’ll get in a fast-food place, and the gravy… just look at it… this is no homogenized brown syrup. It has character and depth, and you can see the ingredients suspended in the sauce, giblets, black pepper and cayenne. You can dip the biscuit in this, and I do. I also procure a side of dirty rice which, to be honest, was not as I remembered it so I only take a couple bites. But I wipe out the potato cup with the remnants of my biscuit and pile it on the table, next to a cairn of chicken bones picked clean.

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Popeyes spicy fried chicken, in reasonable doses, can be an important part of your deep-fried diet. (photo by Brian Clarey)