Biz Beat

Taste test: Modesto sinks its teeth into Popeyes new viral hit chicken sandwich

When you say “tastes like chicken,” those aren’t usually fighting words. But in today’s world of Twitter beefs — to add another metaphorical protein — what tastes the most like a good chicken sandwich has become an all-out war.

Last week Popeyes Louisiana Chicken, a fast food fried chicken chain, introduced its new chicken sandwich nationwide. It comes in two varieties — classic and spicy — and is simply adorned with mayo (or spicy mayo) and pickles on a brioche bun. And that’s it; that’s the whole sandwich.

Released nationwide a week and a half ago, the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich has become the must-try food item of the summer. It joins McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Burger King’s Impossible Whopper as foods which have had their viral 15 minutes (and then some) of fame in recent years.

Fueled by social media and perhaps the desperate desire to distract ourselves from the everyday chaos of daily existence, the sandwich has taken off. A week after its release, Chick-fil-A (another fast food fried chicken chain with a devoted fan base) took a not-so veiled swipe at Popeyes chicken sandwich on Twitter.

And so began The Great Chicken Wars of 2019. Then Wendy’s entered the fray followed by an eager assortment of other fast food social media managers who quickly piled on to grab a little of that sweet, sweet chicken spotlight.

Naturally, we at The Modesto Bee had to try the new Popeyes chicken sandwich ourselves because as journalists we live by the credo “trust but verify.” Modesto has one Popeyes on Coffee Road. The chain has other valley locations in Ceres on Hatch Road, Merced on Martin Luther King Way and Manteca on Yosemite Avenue.

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Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Modesto, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. Andy Alfaro

With no Chick-fil-A restaurants in the region, we couldn’t do a comparison. The closest Chick-fil-A is in Stockton and the one coming to Manteca has just started work on the site and should open by early next year.

And, well, all apologies to Wendy’s, but come on guys.

If you’re wondering if Modesto is also sinking its teeth into the new viral chicken sandwich, the answer is a resounding yes. On Tuesday night, the wait at dinnertime was more than half an hour for food at Popeyes, which the friendly, efficient and obviously exhausted staff at the restaurant informed each new guest with an apology.

The drive-thru line stretched out onto Coffee Road, a traffic hazard to be sure. Others in the newsroom reported waits of up to 45 minutes earlier in the week.

I ventured out at just before lunch rush Wednesday to avoid a line and picked up six sandwiches, four classic and two spicy. There were still about five cars ahead of me. Every other time I’ve visited that Popeyes in the past, there was a one to two-car wait max. There was also still a 6 to 8-minute wait for the sandwiches — at 10:53 a.m.

The first thing you’ll notice when unwrapping this puppy is that it isn’t flat. In fact, it’s pretty darn thick (or thiccc, as the kids today say). Its unusual shape comes from using a real boneless chicken breast and not chopped-up chicken bits formed into a flat, breaded hockey puck like some other fast food offerings (cough, the McChicken, cough).

The breading, familiar to anyone who has ever tried Popeyes’ bone-in chicken, is flavorful and very crisp. The chicken inside is tender and moist. The over-sized pickles provide the needed kick of acid. And they don’t go too heavy on the mayo, which is appreciated because we’re already talking fried chicken here, so there’s only so much a person’s arteries can take.

The spicy version is the same except, you know, spicy. If you’re a heat wimp, best to avoid it because the hot creeps up on you.

But don’t just take my word for it. My co-workers comments on the sandwiches included “good texture,” “what a crunch,” “recognizable as chicken” and “this is delicious.” It took absolutely no convincing to get some of them to come back for seconds, or thirds — yeah, I saw you. I mean, even our health reporter indulged, so it’s clearly that good.

Lest you think us a bunch of valley rubes unfamiliar with good fried chicken sandwiches, we’re not the only ones raving. The New Yorker’s food critic wrote a positively gleaming (because grease and all) review under the headline “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.” The Chicago Tribune ranked it the second-best fast food chicken sandwich in the country, only behind cult-favorite Shake Shack. And the Los Angeles Times declared the Popeyes chicken sandwich far superior to the Chick-fil-A version.

Perhaps the best thing about Popeyes’ chicken sandwich is its price. At $3.99, it is ridiculously affordable. And in this instance, you truly get what you pay for — a fried chicken sandwich that tastes very much like chicken in the best way possible. Just be nice to the restaurant staff, because you might have to wait a while.

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Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs multiple times a week. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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