There are three things that thrill extremely online eaters: breakfast pastries that are simultaneously different breakfast pastries, pumpkin-spice anything, and sandwiches that will allegedly change your life. These sorts of sandwiches come around every now and again, frequently during the summer, when people are sweaty and bored and desperate for something to believe in. The buzz is often immediate and inescapable. “Noms” are typed; memes circulate; think pieces bloom. There are worse ways to cope with our deeply unpalatable era.
This summer we have the new chicken sandwich from Popeyes, the vaguely Cajun fast-food chain that is perhaps best known for having better biscuits than its enemy KFC. Though Popeyes has been around since 1972, it has somehow never had a hit sandwich until literally right now.
The Popeyes chicken sandwich launched nationwide on Aug. 12 to the sort of reverent acclaim usually reserved for religious apparitions or really good magic tricks. “Holy… the new Popeyes chicken sandwich is amazing,” tweeted chef and food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. “The rumors are true: Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich is better than Chick-fil-A’s,” read the headline on a Takeout article by Kevin Pang. “[T]ake everything good you know about Popeyes chicken and put it between two glorious, soft, sweet buns. Throw in some tart pickle chips and a creamy, savory Cajun sauce, and boom: the Popeyes chicken sandwich is born. And it’s a tiny miracle,” Kat Thompson wrote for Thrillist. “I have seen the face of God, and it is the Popeyes chicken sandwich,” Deadspin’s Luis Paez Pumar wrote on Twitter. The hype has been unavoidable. Enormous lines have formed outside some Popeyes locations. Some restaurants have even run out of the sandwich because of the demand.
As far as fast-food allegiances go, I was already a longtime Popeyes guy. The restaurant “caters” my fantasy football awards banquet each year, by which I mean we all get drunk and eat chicken until we feel sick and have to go home. I cooked and ate an entire deep-fried Popeyes turkey last Thanksgiving. (It was delicious.) I vowed long ago to never live in a neighborhood not within walking distance of a Popeyes, and if you interpret the phrase “walking distance” rather liberally, I have kept that promise. My standard housewarming gift to friends used to be a box of warm Popeyes biscuits, a tradition I discontinued once I realized that not only did nobody else find this bit funny, but that I also always ended up eating all the biscuits. Your loss, friends!
All of this is to say that I was primed to believe that Popeyes had created a transcendent product. The restaurant is good at what it does, and it certainly ought to have the R&D budget to engineer an outstanding mass-market chicken sandwich. The attendant buzz only made me feel more excited about the prospect of eventually eating one. While in Florida last week, I rolled up to a local Popeyes to fulfill my modest dream.
As of last Sunday at least, Popeyes mania had not yet made it to Tampa. There were no lines in sight, no flash mobs on the horizon. I was in and out of the drive-thru within five minutes. The sandwich comes in two varieties, “classic” and “spicy,” and it retails for $3.99, a price point that is itself both classic and spicy. I ordered the hotter option. “Thank you for this sandwich,” I solemnly told the Popeyes clerk who handed me my meal. With great anticipation, I opened the wrapper, closed my eyes—only briefly because I was driving—and took a bite.
It was … fine.
The second bite was just fine, too, as was the third, and the fourth. The whole sandwich: Fine! The Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich is a perfectly fine sandwich. The chicken itself is thick and juicy, with the same crispy, flaky batter that you’ll find on a standard piece of Popeyes fried chicken. Though it tastes good, Popeyes’ chicken batter has always sort of reminded me of whorled bark on a sickly tree, simultaneously hypnotic and unappealing. When combined with a bun, the batter is honestly a bit excessive; I personally would rather not have to gnaw through a bready bun and a quarter-inch of greasy flake before reaching the meat. A generous smear of spicy sauce adds some heat and lubrication, while a single pickle beneath the chicken offers a tart crunch. (Other diners have reported getting multiple pickles on their sandwiches. Not me!)
This spicy chicken sandwich was worth exactly the price I paid for it—$4.33, tax included—and no more. Within five minutes of eating it I had forgotten that it had ever been in my mouth. My life had not been substantially changed. It was nothing worth posting about online about, let alone waiting in line for. It was fine! And I was crushed.
What was I missing? Had I received a bum sandwich? Perhaps my taste buds had been dulled by the Florida heat? As I asked myself these questions for the next several days, sandwich mania continued to build. On Aug. 20, the New Yorker reviewed the sandwich with an article headlined “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.” Wrote the magazine’s Helen Rosner, who enjoyed the sandwich: “I’ve watched friends and strangers go through the stages of enlightenment: skepticism, curiosity, anticipation, capitulation, ecstasy.” Ecstasy! I wanted to access the kind of collective effervescence that can make life feel worth living, especially in existentially benighted times like these. I vowed to try again.
When I returned to New York City , I headed to the 14th Street Popeyes in Manhattan, only to find that it was not selling the sandwich. (Apparently some Popeyes locations don’t carry the thing, while others have been selling out as though the sandwiches are Hamilton tickets.) No worry! After calling to check, I made my way to a Popeyes in Brooklyn, bought three sandwiches, and sat down to eat one immediately. I ordered the classic sandwich this time. To my disappointment, it was also just fine. There were no major mistakes or anything like that. The sandwich was hot and accurately constructed; the chicken wasn’t sitting atop the bun or any such nonsense. The nonspicy mayonnaise helped moisten the whole deal, and the single pickle—again!—offered an acidic contrast. But once again, the sandwich was no rhapsody in grease. No one was standing in line for this sandwich, which is as it should be because this sandwich is just fine. I would wait eight minutes, tops, for this sandwich, and I would probably start to get very antsy around minute five.
The oily mouthfeel lingered as I rode the subway back home, where I immediately unwrapped a spicy chicken sandwich. It was a little bit better than the previous Popeyes chicken sandwiches I’d eaten. (“Spicy” is a term of art here. The sauce that supposedly gives the sandwich its heat is actually quite mild.) I ate the whole thing, which is a point in its favor because it was the second sandwich I had eaten in 30 minutes, and if it had been bad I would have just thrown it in the trash. It wasn’t bad. It was basically good. You know: Fine.
I stuck my third sandwich into the refrigerator and logged onto Slack to find that some of my colleagues had waited in a Popeyes line for 45 minutes that day and had liked their sandwiches much better than I had. “Manhattan Popeyes Sell Out as Online Fried Chicken Sandwich Mania Hits NYC,” read a headline on Eater. “A Maryland Man Is Selling the New Popeyes Fried Chicken Sandwich for $100,” said a Washingtonian blog post. Was I broken, or was the world?
I wondered whether the critics were grading on a curve—whether the sandwich was deemed excellent only compared to the other players in the fast-food chicken market. So I reacquainted myself with the competition. Popeyes’ foremost sandwich rival is Chick-fil-A, the 10-ton gorilla of the chicken-sandwich game. The regular chicken sandwich I ordered at the Chick-fil-A on Sixth Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan was, well, fine. The thing about the Chick-fil-A sandwich is that you can immediately tell that it’s an actual piece of chicken, as opposed to the gnarled if tasty lump of greasy batter that you get when you go to Popeyes. The light fry on this thin sandwich makes it much less substantial than the Popeyes sandwich, but it’s also easy to eat the whole thing. Helping is a bun that supports but does not overwhelm the chicken inside. I could have used two pickles rather than one—why is everyone a pickle Scrooge these days?—but I finished the whole thing and had no desire to immediately line up for another. Because of its owner’s history of opposition to same-sex marriage, I’m not a Chick-fil-A fan. The sandwich there is fine.
McDonald’s also sells chicken sandwiches, and while franchisees have begged for a product to compete with Chick-fil-A—“JFK called for a man on the moon, our call should be a category leading chicken sandwich,” was the hilarious quote from a franchisee group back in July—I actually found their Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich to be pretty good. While the brioche-style bun was a bit too dense for my taste, the chicken itself was plump and juicy and flavorful. Like Chick-fil-A, the McDonald’s sandwich was lightly battered; unlike Chick-fil-A, the chicken taste actually lingered. There was no pickle, but I would rather have no pickles at all than get pissed off because there’s only one pickle where there should be two or three. I ate only three-quarters of it, but that’s just because I did not need to put any more chicken in my gut at that point. Verdict: also fine!
I had eaten roughly four chicken sandwiches within approximately two hours, and my life had indeed been changed by the experience: I was now sweaty and bloated. When I got home I reclined on my couch, listened to my stomach churn, and got very upset at the social media hypeballs who had lied to me about Popeyes’ nontranscendent chicken sandwich. Were people merely eager to stick it to Chick-fil-A? Are people so desperate for wonder and joy that they’ll latch onto any well-advertised sandwich that doesn’t taste like actual garbage?
The Popeyes sandwich is very far from garbage. It does probably edge out the chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s. But I couldn’t taste anything that merited the hosannas it has received. I’ve eaten life-changing sandwiches before—the burger at Bud Willman’s in Manitowoc, Wisconsin; the blackened grouper sandwich at Big Ray’s Fish Camp in Tampa; the fried chicken biscuit at the Welcome Diner in Phoenix—and the Popeyes sandwich is not one of them. I did not cry while eating it. I did not dream about it afterward. I did not feel compelled to march into the kitchen and inform the cooks that they were doing God’s work. I have done all these things before for really good sandwiches. They know me for doing these things at Big Ray’s.
As I was writing this piece, I remembered that I had stashed my last Popeyes chicken sandwich in my refrigerator. Why not, I thought, and I took it out and ate it cold, hoping that a change of state might reveal something heretofore undetectable about the sandwich. All that I learned was that this sandwich is best enjoyed hot. I didn’t take another bite. I threw the half-eaten sandwich in the trash. And I felt, well, fine.