I want to preface this post by saying this idea was not mine, and in no way can I claim credit for it. That said, I can't remember the name of the fellow who gave me the idea. Let me explain:
A couple weeks ago I was at the book launch party for Mission Street Food, a great new book by the proprietors of the whole Mission Street empire Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz. (By the way, Mission Chinese Food, the new incarnation of MSF in the Mission district of San Francisco is quite possibly the best restaurant I've been to all year. If you're in the Bay area, GO.)
Before the fascinating Q&A with the owners, I got into a conversation with a SE reader who told me that he follows our recipes and makes them at home. Apparently the night before he had made my Real Deal Kung Pao Chicken but only after he had the other ingredients ready did he realize that he didn't actually have any chicken.
What he did have, on the other hand, was leftover fried chicken from Popeye's. So he did what any Serious Eater would do: he improvised.*
As he explained this to me, my mind did a sort of heyuhhh, nice story brouuuHHAAAAAHHH AWESOMEST IDEA EVER!!
*If you are reading this right now, Popeye's Kung Pao Chicken man, please come and claim credit for the idea!
Here's the thing: I often find myself craving that crispy, saucy, glazed fried chicken that's ubiquitous on Chinese-American take out menus. I'm talking the stuff that's used to make General Tso's, or Orange Chicken, or Sesame Chicken, or Americanized versions of Kung Pao Chicken. You know what I'm talking about.
But frankly, the sauces and vegetables that come with most restaurant versions just ain't very good. I've always thought, wouldn't it be great if I could just make this stuff for myself at home to suit my own tastes? Then the harsh reality comes crashing down: frying crispy nuggets of battered chicken for a simple stir fry is a pain in the butt to do.
The solution: Pick up a couple boxes of chicken nuggets from Popeye's and use them as the foundation for the dish. Heck, if the Mission Chinese folks could make Kung Pao Pastrami, couldn't I make Kung Pao Popeye's?
They're the perfect size—just big enough to fit in your mouth in one bite—and they stay crisp pretty much forever. I let mine sit in their box for 30 minutes before incorporating them into a basic Kung Pao chicken recipe.
What's great about doing this is that you aren't forced to go with the standard mild, Sichuan peppercorn-free version of Kung Pao chicken that usually comes with these fried nuggets.
Mine is packed with dried red chilis, hot long green peppers, and plenty of Sichuan peppercorns. It's like taking the best of both worlds—the fried chicken of Chinese American cuisine and the bold heat of real Sichuan food—and combining them into one high-low dish.
Popeye's, of course, also serves popcorn shrimp which are the ideal protein for many of these dishes. General Tso's Shrimp, anyone?
Their seasonal crawfish special should prove interesting as well.
By the way, this won't work as well with chicken from other chains. The burger chains' chicken nuggets are far too large and regular, while the popcorn chicken from KFC is a little too black peppery for this, though I'm sure they wouldn't be terrible.
The best part is that there are precisely three Popeye's within a ten-minute walk from my apartment and exactly zero decent Chinese restaurants. Perhaps I'll start my own takeout service.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.