Behold the strange, terrible and tasty world of Popeye’s chicken

Foood!!! | by Aidan Morgan

Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen
475 Albert St


Back in the early 2000s I created a birthday tradition for myself out of fried chicken and regret. Instead of making reservations at a birthday-ish restaurant I would pick up a three-piece meal from the South Albert KFC and take my new box of triglycerides and fries somewhere warm and sunny. Eventually I dropped the tradition, because eating KFC is the physical equivalent of having your tongue scoured with salted toad skins behind a Petro-Can. But this was 2003, and the nation was still recovering from the last Smashmouth album.

KFC was out of the running but there were few alternatives for good fried chicken. The Fritous and Chester Chickens were usually stuck in far-flung neighbourhoods, and occasional attempts to incorporate “authentic buttermilk Southern fried chicken” at downtown spots tended to slide right off the menu (much like the batter slid right off the chicken, hey-yo). The shining exception was the Beaks Chicken food truck, but that wasn’t much use when I wanted a big box of heart attack and waffles on a Thursday night.

Behold Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, a.k.a. Popeye’s Chicken, a.k.a. The Best Damn Fast-Food Chain Chicken Joint Ever. Technically the brand has been in Canada since 1984 but until recently it’s been tough to find. An American friend who moved from Georgia to B.C. says Regina is now cooler than Vancouver because our Popeye’s beams rays of chickeny coolness over the whole city. Considering that the Regina Popeye’s used to be a Cash Money joint and an Arby’s, the coolness bar was not high.

So: is the Regina Popeye’s cool? I took a Knight of Appetite to test its coolness and eat as many chicken bits as my arteries could take.

We tried the place on a Saturday afternoon under the completely misguided assumption that it would be fairly slow. How wrong we were, how wrong. The parking lot was spiky with cars. An achingly slow line of vehicles fed themselves past the drive-through window, the tail end spilling out into the side street.

The inside of Regina’s Popeye’s is a nightmare of weird ergonomics. Wide double doors open to a gentle ramp with rails on either side, which is probably there for mobility and accessibility reasons. The ramp leads to a kind of broad empty space that abruptly terminates in a bank of tills and an overhead menu. This seems straightforward enough, but as people order and wait for their chicken, they form pseudolines and organelles and spontaneous chains that don’t really point anywhere but look like meaningful lineups. The result is that I queued two or three times before I found the actual line for ordering my chicken.

(The disorientation was so powerful that my partner, who came in a minute after me, immediately took a spot in one of these fake lines, even though she could see me in the correct line. We even waved at each other like we were separated by glass. That is the brain-scrambling power of the Popeye’s entrance chute.)

Things went a lot smoother at the till. I ordered the Spicy Fish and Shrimp Combo ($11.83)(you heard me right, that’s fish and shrimp), which comes with two sides. I chose the Macaroni and Cheese, because I figured a Louisiana-fied mac and cheese would rock very hard, and the Red Beans and Rice. I also got some Buffalo Bayou sauce to go with the whole thing. My partner opted for the Spicy Three Piece Chicken Combo ($11.83) and Cajun Fries with Blackened Ranch sauce.

The upstairs dining area was as calm and orderly as the ground floor was chaotic. For some reason there was a fireplace and a giant television above it playing a curling game, which is a pretty Saskatchewan way of doing Louisiana.

Once we started eating, we saw the hype was pretty much true: this was the best fried chicken I’d ever had at a fast food place. It did the basics extraordinary well: a salty, crunchy crust over tender, flavourful chicken. The same held true for the two fillets of deep-fried fish and a giant heaping of shrimp. The spicy formula had a slight kick but was pretty mild overall. I suspect it has been toned down for a general Canadian audience. Curse us all.

Of the sides I tried on that day (and subsequent visits), the red beans and rice were far and away the best. They reminded me of eating at random places in Texas and Louisiana, where a heap of red beans and rice seemed richer and more satisfying than anything else on the menu. Squeeze out a packet of Popeye’s hot sauce and it’s just about perfect.

The Cajun Fries were respectably crunchy and distinct from other fast food offerings with a peppery kick. The Macaroni and Cheese, on the other hand, was a bit of a mystery. I think it’s a Canadian specialty? In any event, it was a bland and goopy affair. A box of Kraft Dinner would be a better choice (secret: add cheez whiz! Shh!).

Let us now turn our thoughts to the Buttermilk Biscuits, which are to Popeye’s as the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are to Red Lobster. In other words, they’re the secret reason for going there and the hidden heart of any order. Order extra, because you’ll gobble down two and realize that your life is incomplete without two or three more.

I also tried the Chicken Tenders Combo ($9.83/3 pcs.) and the Mashed Potatoes with Gravy (there’s also Corn on the Cob). Some yahoo on Twitter (you know who you are) told me to try the Sweet Heat sauce, which I did, and I can now confidently say that I’ve tried the worst possible thing in the world.

Ultimately I discovered there was a limit to how much fried chicken I could eat. Then I learned that Beaks Chicken had stealthily opened on 11th Avenue.

Stay tuned.

The Round Table

WHAT IS IT? Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken

WHAT IS IT FOR: If you want it deep-fried, delicious, and made of chicken, you want Popeye’s.

WHEN IS IT THROWING DELICIOUS CHICKEN AT ME? 11 a.m.–11 p.m., seven days a week.

WAS A RACIST LADY PESTERING THE STAFF? Yes. The racist lady was convinced that the (non-white) staff was going to mess up her order and serve her spicy chicken, so she went up while I was trying to order and kept saying “I can’t have my chicken hot! Hot” and gesturing to her mouth so they would understand she was referring to food. They looked at her receipt and said “Yup, it’s mild” and gave her a thumbs-up, but she just kept standing there as if they hadn’t said anything at all. Oh, and some guy kept banging on the counter asking for ketchup. Well, he kept saying “ketchup”, so I assume he wanted some.