By Carissa Lee
This past Sunday afternoon, I witnessed something that in my 19 years of life I never would’ve anticipated: a line — an actual, out-the-door line, at the old Sunnyvale Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen of all places.
Now I digress, I suppose it wasn’t totally unexpected: Popeyes’s initial announcement of their new chicken sandwich product back in August marked the onset of this summer’s fast-food chicken sandwich “war,” an epic social media-advertising battle sure to go down in history.
As Popeyes fans first took to Twitter to express their immense excitement for the upcoming sandwich, they were all too soon met by their Chick-fil-A sandwich-loving counterparts. Many debated over whose chicken was the crispiest, whose pickles the crunchiest, whose buns the most buttery.
The ensuing Twitter “war,” which involved both the official Popeyes and Chick-fil-A accounts, eventually found itself drawing in outside competitors. KFC, Wendy’s and Shake Shack were among those who partook in the meme and marketing mayhem.
All hell broke loose on Aug. 27, just two weeks after the release of the sandwich, when Popeyes announced that they had officially run out and were forced to withdraw the ultra-popular item from its menu for the foreseeable future. While that perhaps should’ve ended it all, the poultry-pertinent social media exchanges and silly banter between fast food chains continued until the announcement of the Popeyes chicken sandwich’s return in early November.
I wouldn’t normally consider myself a fried chicken fanatic or even a fast food enthusiast, but I had sporadically been following the online drama. When I heard reports of The Sandwich 2.0, I knew I owed it to the deep-fried, meme-loving, ever-curious foodie sides of me to go try it out.
So there we were at 2 p.m. on Sunday — far from peak lunch hour — waiting in this intriguing yet promising line that had somehow managed to breathe life back into the usually sleepy (read: dead) little strip mall. Popeyes’s seasonal offering, the Voodoo Tenders, suddenly made almost too much sense; there was clearly some sort of witchcraft at work here.
The hour-long wait wasn’t so magical, of course. I entertained myself in part by analyzing the chicken sandwich clientele, which largely consisted of young people in their 20s or 30s. In true millennial fashion, most of our fellow line-goers opted to stare at their phones rather than make any light chit-chat with other sandwich enthusiasts. Thus, while the line was long, so too was it quiet.
Inside the poor workers were swamped. What started as an orderly line became a confusing mess of people bustling about the store’s already-cramped walkways, anxious to get their orders inputted or corrected. Somehow, I pushed my way to the front, placed my order, and left the store around 20 minutes later — over an hour after my initial run-in with the line — triumphantly brandishing my toasty chicken sandwich bag.
So how tasty was it?
Numerical rating: 8/10. A solid chicken sandwich that I would return for after the lines (hopefully) die down.
While I had originally ordered the spicy version of the sandwich, the bags were (understandably) unlabeled, and there was no discernible difference between the spicy and non-spicy besides maybe a few red flecks in the mayo.
Regardless, the chicken breast fillet was the undeniable star of the show. It was so perfectly moist, juicy and crispy all at once, perhaps a product of the “all new buttermilk coating.” The seasoning was not too salty, with just the right amount of cajun-y, umami flavor. I actually would’ve loved to have seen a spicy seasoning option for The sandwich’s spicy variety, but the overall freshness and texture of the chicken left me far from dissatisfied.
Oddly enough, the density of the fillet gave it a certain chewiness that was reminiscent of the Taiwanese fried chicken fillets I immensely enjoyed (read: overdosed on) during my time abroad this past summer. While the signature “Louisiana seasoning” is still distinctly American, it seems Popeyes has near-mastered the techniques that have made Taiwanese chains such as Hot Star or Angel Chicken such famous tourist stops — and I was loving it.
If the fillet was the star, then the bun was its director — perhaps not always in the limelight, but an essential element all the same. Whereas Chick-fil-A buns are buttered post-baking, the Popeyes sandwich uses a brioche bun with all the butter pre-mixed into the dough. Toasty and golden on top with insides as plush as a pillow, the bun transformed the fillet from solid snack to comfort food. Yes, I could most definitely eat the bun on its own.
Where did it lose points? Assembly. The “crisp barrel cured pickles” were rather flimsy, adding an unfortunate sogginess to the bun, and there was very little flavor impact on the overall sandwich. The “spicy” mayonnaise was just as disappointing and flavorless, and it actually ruined parts of the chicken by rendering the crispy outside soggy.
In this way, Popeyes seemingly failed to fully trust their chicken, or they were so caught up in one-upping Chick-fil-A that they added unnecessary ingredients. The chicken fillet was perfection on its own, the bun so soft and buttery, that they didn’t need any extra moisture from the soggy pickles or slimy mayonnaise, both of which felt like awkward afterthoughts.
Overall, if I’ve learned anything from my Popeyes experience, it’s that you can’t judge a fast-food chicken sandwich based on standard menu offerings. I’ll be honest, I came in a bit prejudiced; I still find Popeyes’s famous fried chicken too salty and over-fried. The breast fillets used in the sandwich, on the other hand, are truly magical and worth waiting for.
Aftermath: The Chickening
In the days following the sandwich’s Nov. 3 return for good, it seems Americans haven’t yet awoken from the chicken craze. In other words, our brains are still deep-fried. One man in Maryland was fatally stabbed on Monday night (talk about fowl play!), and a woman in L.A. totalled her car over the carb complète.
Have we truly lost our minds over a chicken sandwich? Only time (and more insane headlines) will tell. Until then, “The Chickening” continues, for the lines remain long and the crowds ever-growing — and hungry.
Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.