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Is the new fried-chicken sandwich at Popeyes worth the hype?

The new fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes Louisiana

The new fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, as served at the new Riverhead location. Credit: Newsday/Corin Hirsch

You can see it coming at you in slow motion, like a shopping cart rolling toward your car, and you scramble to dodge: Some viral food (or drink) that blows onto social media like a microburst that the professional food writer cannot escape. Think Cronut (2013), rainbow bagels (2016), the Impossible Whopper at Burger King (just a few weeks ago). In 2010, in a sort of precursor to this madness, it was the frenzied launch of KFC's Double Down, wherein two fried chicken cutlets serve the role of bread slices for a bacon-and-cheese sandwich. Heart attack fuel = immediate viral sensation.

So it is with another fried chicken creation, this one at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which debuted on August 12 and rapidly launched a thousand Instagram posts and online stories. Within days, it was purportedly selling out at Popeyes across the country, of which there are 2,000-plus. (The chain started in New Orleans in 1972).

Anyone with Google can find out this sandwich's details, though they aren't that exotic: A chicken cutlet clad in buttermilk batter then fried and loaded, with pickles, onto a mayo-slathered brioche bun. A reader sent a photo, swooning. It appeared all over my Twitter feed. I kept my head down, hoping it all would blow over, but then our social media team sent the email. Is it any good? How does it compare to the version at Chick-fil-A? Can one of you try it? 

Serendipitously, a new Popeyes had recently opened in Riverhead, at 220 Old Country Rd. It is too new to have a phone number, but I drove there in the hopes this relatively tucked away Popeyes had the goods without the crowds. Only a few weeks old, this Popeyes was already bustling, with a long drive-through line and every table full around 11:30 a.m. The clerk barely blinked an eye when I ordered two: classic, and spicy, the only seeming difference between the two being "spicy Cajun spread" in place of mayo.

The classic, at $3.99, cost about a dollar less than its cousin at Chick-fil-A, the baseline chicken sandwich for this study, which I had consumed one hour prior to refresh my taste memory. I don't frequent Chick-fil-A, but when I do, I've found their chicken sandwich lackluster and kind of soggy. Today was no exception: The spicy version gets a few props for being unabashedly fiery, but the regular version is a letdown. This is all to say I drove the 45 minutes from Chick-fil-A to Popeyes thinking the latter probably had better odds at winning this hyped feud.

Upon unwrapping, the Popeyes version looked as if a UFO of fried chicken breast had tried to squeeze through the closing jaws of brioche bun, and lost. Two flaps of intensely pebbly batter jutted from either side of a rumpled, squashed bun, as if the sandwich were trying to fly. A glob of unevenly applied mayo glistened in the center, and a pickle peeked out shyly. On looks alone, the thing, at least the Riverhead iteration, was uninspiring.

I took a bite from one side, and had a sort of Proustian moment, back to the childhood days when my grandpa and I shared buckets of Extra-Crispy fried chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken, as we called it back then. He drank Schlitz, I drank Dr Pepper, and all was good with the world. Flaky, greasy, peppery fried nuggets of sin — that's what this was, a triumph of batter over substance. There is so much of it (batter, that is) that reaching an actual piece of chicken takes a bite or two, and then to get to the bun, a few more.

If you are the kind of person who tears hunks of crispy batter away from fried protein and eats them on their own — the kind of person whose body, or at least well-being, thrives on grease and salt — this 600-calorie sandwich is for you. It is leagues better than the version at Chick-fil-A. Is there anything more to say? I will not be eating another one soon, unless so ordered. And that's a wrap.

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