The Art of Popeyes
I’d been obsessing about Popeyes. The television commercials were torturing me. Two pieces of chicken, a biscuit and two sides in a $5 box. Slow Marinated in Louisiana Seasonings, Hand-Battered, & Hand-Breaded. The siren call of grease and salt. I imagine I can already taste it.
I search online for the closest Popeyes and find one way west on 40th Street. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is the official name. (No apostrophe.) Google is full of Popeye lore. I hadn’t realized that this crispy fried chicken is so famously craved by chefs.
When my friends Penny and Peter leave it to me to decide where we’ll eat last Monday, I ask how they feel about Popeyes. I know they will drive miles for fried chicken. They’d detoured all the way downtown one evening to pick up a bag of crunch from Root & Bone.
“We love Popeyes,” says Penny. They’re practically regulars, it seems. They’ll pick me up to drive to their favorite Manhattan location on Lexington between 25th and 26th streets. It’s a bit more secluded than the Theater District outlet.
Peter drops us off and drives away to park. Penny and I join the attendees. “Is there always a line?” I ask.
“Sometimes we come by at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and there’s almost no one here,” she reports. The young man behind us in the queue confides that this is his second visit today. “I came for lunch, too,” he says.
I study the options as we wait our turn. “Give her your order and then I’ll wait while you grab a table,” Penny coaches. “Peter and I just eat chicken. You can have our biscuits and sides.”
I order two portions of dark meat, one spicy, one regular, and every side, two of my own, four inherited from my abstemious friends. Penny and I fight over the bill. She puts her credit card in the young woman’s hand. “Puhleese,” she stops me. “It’s only $25. Go hold a table.”
“You’re taking away my chance to treat for $25,” I scold her.
The dinner comes with a tall drink. The server hands me a cup and access to the fountain. Sweet iced tea. Coke. Diet Coke. Fanta. Sprite. I’ll just have water, I decide. But then I notice lemonade.
“Sit here,” says a young man at the table closest to the door, getting up and tossing his garbage into a bin. Peter arrives in time to collect Penny and our dinners. The line is longer now, extending past our table out the door.
There is an elderly woman with a cane patiently waiting. “Why don’t you sit, till your turn comes up,” I suggest.
She looks at me as if I’m crazy. “I’m here all the time.” As if in confirmation, the lanky manager comes out from his post to be sure she’s settled.
In the chaos of the dinner crush, a homeless man seated on the sidewalk out front rushes in, bent low, with his own tall paper cup, and fills it. I wonder what beverage he prefers.
I start with a spoonful of cole slaw (good enough, not great) and a spicy Cajun fried chicken leg. Yes, I love the spice. But the everyday limb is fresher, unbelievably moist and delicious. Bigger turnover, perhaps. Is it the best fried chicken I’ve had since Aunt Eve’s a thousand years ago growing up in Detroit? Maybe not. But very good.
I prefer my mac’n’cheese crispy and toasted on top, like my Mom’s. It doesn’t occur to me to even ask for a toasting, but the cheesy orange macaroni is okay too. And the not-very-fiery Cajun rice is pleasant enough.
Against the opposite wall a very fancy bicycle is parked at a table where two men are eating. Peter admires the bike. He and the proud owner agree, the aristocratic cycle would be too tempting to be parked on the sidewalk. The men are brothers. They were born in Port Jefferson, one of them says. Their father was an MTA transit cop.
The line is just an occasional trickle now. I ask to take my duo of untouched thighs and cole slaw home. Maybe a biscuit too. A server drops off an empty carton. Everything, carefully pivoted, just fits. There’s a bag to carry it home in. Fried chicken for breakfast? Why not!
75 Lexington Avenue near SE corner of 27th Street. 212 725 7033. Weekdays, 10 am to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight.