Smile Politely

Popeyes returns to Champaign, people line up

As some of you may know, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (For the record, they don’t use an apostrophe) has made a triumphant return to Champaign. (In the late 1980s, there were two Popeyes locations in C-U. Both closed in 1990.) This new franchise is carefully tucked between Thara Thai and McDonald’s at 912 West Bloomington Road, and has been the cause of some serious traffic congestion since opening on December 20.

I admit that I was not particularly interested in its opening or existence. Don’t get me wrong — I am interested in fried chicken. When I’m on adventures in the South, I eat a lot of fried things, chicken included. And we have a pretty great fried chicken and fish place in town of which I’m fond. Despite my indifference to Popeyes, like a middle school student goaded into doing something unsavory, I decided to check out all that it had to offer. I didn’t want miss anything, after all, and it couldn’t be any worse than KFC. And so I set out to have some Louisiana style food.

The hysteria was not only verbal, but also physical. On my first of several (I lost count along the way) attempts at getting some of this fast food, I was heading south on Prospect when I came to the intersection of Bloomington Road and Prospect. Wondering what the clusterfuck of traffic was all about, I turned to my right and saw cars backed up on Bloomington Road well beyond the McDonald’s entrance, and nearly to the intersection of Bloomington Road and Prospect Avenue. That was a serious drive thru line, and I was definitely not going to wait in it. Those people were crazy. That first attempt was shortly after the December 20th opening, so I assumed that things would die down within a day and that I’d soon be able to grab some fast food.

Oh, how wrong I was.

My next attempt was around lunchtime, a few days later. This time I approached from the west, driving on Bloomington Road toward Prospect Avenue. The drive thru line was again out of the parking lot and backed up to the McDonald’s entrance. I approached slowly, thinking that the drive thru line was like the bank drive thru: no one wants to get out of their car and deal with people in the flesh, so surely there would be a plethora of parking spaces available. I’d just run in, grab the food, and be on my merry way. Nope. The parking lot was full.

This was getting to be ridiculous.

I made another lunchtime attempt a few days later, and it was same thing: unreasonable drive thru line, no parking spaces. I tried dinner later that day. Silly me.

But this is a review of Popeyes, you’re saying. Yes, yes it is.

I finally managed to get some Popeyes. My husband and I were on our way home from the North Prospect area, and on a whim, we decided to drive by Popeyes to see if we could get in. It was 11:40 a.m. on a Tuesday, a little early for lunch, admittedly. To our surprise and delight, the drive thru line was within the Popeyes property line, and had enough space for one more car! My husband quickly maneuvered our vehicle into the drive thru line, just beating out someone waiting to turn left into the parking lot (thankfully, we were turning right).  We were snugly tucked in line as cars quickly piled up behind us; there weren’t any parking spots available for inside dining. A peek into the restaurant revealed a very, very, long line and hordes, yes, hordes, of people inside eating. With that look, we committed to the drive thru.

From start to finish, it took 23 minutes to get through the drive thru line. It’s worth noting that the woman taking drive thru orders was incredibly pleasant, making the long wait more easily digestible.

I’d never had Popeyes before, so this was my first foray into Louisiana style fried chicken and biscuits and it was a foray, all right. They have plenty of options, ranging from fried chicken (mild), to fried chicken (spicy), as well as fried shrimp, mashed potatoes, Cajun fries, green beans, corn on the cob, and gallons of lemonade and sweet tea. We ordered a meal that came with eight pieces of chicken (half mild, half spicy), a large size side of rice and beans, and four biscuits. (I did not sample the jambalaya, and realize that some of you may find that to be problematic. It is what it is.) The eight-piece meal rang in at $18.56 with tax, which isn’t terribly expensive, but isn’t exactly the dollar menu.

With the big bag of Popeyes in our car, we drove home in considerably less time than it took to make it through the drive thru.

Once home, I grabbed a plate and loaded it with a spicy breast, a biscuit, and some red beans and rice. The breading on the chicken was super crunchy; there wasn’t any soggy fried chicken coating, thank goodness. The breading was salty and oily, and the seasoning had a dry heat finish, like cayenne, right at the back of my throat. It had enough of a kick to make my mouth water, but not to the point of masking or taking away from the flavor of the chicken. The chicken was surprisingly moist and juicy, a trait not often found among fried chicken breasts. The skin under the breading was crispy, too. I am of the opinion that slimy, flaccid chicken skin is gross, so I was very pleased with my crispy breast skin. I also ate most of a mild thigh. The mild breading was crispy and crunchy, and just slightly less salty than the spicy breading. The combination of garlic, onion, and whatever other powders were used in the seasoning served the breading well. The dark meat was understandably more juicy and moist than the white meat, and as a second course it was still hot, despite going from the drive thru to my table.

The biscuits were perfectly round, and a toasty golden brown on the bottom. The tops were a little too yellow, clearly the result of a healthy wash of butter prior to baking. With an eyebrow raised to the slightly unnatural color, I dug in. The yellow finish was revealed to be a very salty, imitation-butter flavoring. It was only over the top part of the biscuit, so the rest of the doughy snack was less affected. The biscuits were hot and steamy. The insides were crumbly and sweet, and as a whole were the perfect companions for the crunchy chicken. The top of the biscuit was indeed quite salty, teetering on the edge of inedibility. But I was particularly hungry and I didn’t seem to mind this—I ate two. My husband was turned off by the oversalting, and didn’t finish his second biscuit.

The worst part of the meal was the red beans and rice. It looked gross, and I like mushed up, refried, and otherwise soft and squishy bean dishes. The color was a muted, dusty rose with flecks of yellowish rice. I closed my eyes and took a bite. It smelled like generic Cajun flavoring, or at least what my imagination tells me is generically Cajun. It tasted like a salt lick. There was little flavor related to typical Cajun spices, and even if there were hints to Cajunness, they were obliterated by salt. The rice was a little oily, and did little to support the runny bean mess. Overall, this side was a visual and textural nightmare, and inedible.

Popeyes offers hot sauce and honey as trimmings; I tried both. The honey tasted like regular honey—no fancy local varieties. It did make for a lovely sweet dip on the crispy, spicy chicken, and a nice schmear for the biscuit. The hot sauce was tangy and spicy — it’s Louisiana Hot Sauce, “The Original.” If you haven’t had it, it’s very much in line with Texas Pete. I added the hot sauce to the beans, which made them a bit more palatable, but couldn’t save that sad, sad, side.

Popeyes staff were very generous with the little packets of honey and hot sauce, and even more generous and, I’d argue, thoughtful, with the heaping stack of napkins packed in our bag. The napkins were essential—it was a messy meal.

So was all of the waiting worth it? I’m not entirely sure. Once all this craziness subsides and people resume their normal, non-holiday lives, I may return. Like most fast food, it’s not exactly healthy (spicy chicken breast, 420 calories; mild chicken thigh, 280 calories; biscuit, 260 calories; red beans and rice [regular size], 230 calories; total sodium for my meal, approximately 3,000 mg; recommended daily sodium intake, 1,500 mg). It’s not exactly cheap, either. A 16-piece family meal (chicken, 3 large sides, 8 biscuits) comes in at a whopping $35.99 before tax. That’s a hungry family, yes, but I might suggest that a family of four could eat a more affordable fast food meal elsewhere. I suppose if you’re just feeding one or two hungry people, it’s not too expensive, but if you’re looking for a cheap fast food meal to feed a family, this may not be it. I can say quite confidently that I will not wait in a drive thru line that long again; it’s supposed to be fast food, after all. By the time it took most folks to move through the drive thru line, they could have driven to Decatur and back. (There’s a Popeyes there, too — 775 E Pershing Road.) I’m confident that our Champaign Popeyes will do perfectly well and maintain a steady stream of business. It’s located right off I-74, a perfect location to serve travelers.

Popeyes is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. You can follow the Champaign franchise on Twitter. For additional photos, follow Jess on Instagram (@epicureanjess).

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