The chain best known for its “bonafide” New Orleans cuisine has a surprising address. Yes, the homebase of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is in… Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s a global hub. But, Louisiana is the engine of everything we do," said a Popeyes representative. Of the three Popeyes bigwigs in the room, each had been on the ground in NOLA within the past week.
The 2,000-square-foot test kitchen sparkled and shone for its guests. The cookspace is stocked with every single piece of equipment that every single Popeyes restaurant around the world has… and they’re all on casters so the whole place can be reconfigured at will.
Popeyes Chef Amy Alarcon
Amy Alarcon heads up the team that dreams up the food at Popeyes (her official title is VP of Culinary Innovation). Every menu item must reflect the Bayou’s traditional flavors, borrowing from African, French, Italian, German, Spanish, English, and Native American cultures. But inspiration can come from anywhere. Amy admitted that the lightbulb moment for last year’s Rip’n Chicken came over a snack of Fritos and onion dip.
Everything the Popeyes kitchen cranks out has to “build a bridge back to Louisiana,” Amy told us. It helps to have a pantry stocked with real-deal ingredients. These jumbo shakers of seasonings come from a supplier in the city of New Iberia, about three hours west of The French Quarter.
Wide-open spaces become impromptu meeting rooms with whiteboard walls, dry-erase tables, and snack trays built into seemingly everything.
Zatarain's Butterfly Shrimp
Popeyes has teamed up with another Louisiana tastemaker to create Zatarain’s Butterfly Shrimp. The company known for its boxed rice mixes worked with Popeyes to develop an exclusive blend of seasonings and spices that now coats the chain’s tail-on shrimp; it's only available through July.
Zatarain's Butterfly Shrimp Meal
The Zatarain’s Butterfly Shrimp Meal is 8 shrimp, a side (we got Cajun Battered Fries… did you know that Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce is one of the secrets of the French fry batter?), one of those mouthwatering biscuits, and the chain’s new Lemon Garlic Sauce for $4.99. The shrimp is super-crunchy, with a thick coating of batter that boasts a genuine kick on the back end. This is the first partnership between Popeyes and Zatarain’s… but not the last, if this four-week promotion goes well.
Fried Crawfish Bites
Popeyes fanatics know that they throw fried crawfish bites on the menu every November… but we were special enough to snack on them in June at the test kitchen. These babies are pretty small by the time you marinate them for two hours and encase them in that craggly, crunchy Popeyes fry batter. They don’t taste markedly different from fried popcorn shrimp… or fried chicken… or fried clams. But still, how many places can you get crawfish from a drive-thru window?
Hot Crab Dip (Test Item)
One of the test kitchen’s recent projects is an as-yet-unnamed hot crab dip featuring blue crab claw meat. It was insanely delicious as a dunk for chicken, fries, crawfish… even fingers. Look for this one come fall—it will likely be served in a small cup alongside popcorn shrimp (as shown here) for around $4, but offered as a $1 add-on to anything else.
Spicy Chicken Po'Boy with Hot Crab Dip
…like a spicy chicken po’ boy. The test kitchen trotted these out as a fourth course, using the hot crab dip as a condiment on the already-hefty sandwich. The dip is spectacular… but very rich. By this point in the tasting event, many of us had started to slow down considerably. That photo seems a little blurry around the edges; that’s a good approximation of how my stomach felt at this moment.
"The sauces are a big deal to us… as important as the protein," said Popeyes chef Amy. The labeled tartar and cocktail sauces were what you’d expect. The Garlic Lemon is the new one rolling out with the Zatarain’s Butterfly Shrimp—it’s a little like an aioli with some buttermilk in it. Good stuff. The one at far right marked “CH” is Creamy Horseradish, the sauce served with the fried crawfish, and not my cup of tea. The one at far left, though…
Blackened Tartar Sauce
…is Blackened Tartar sauce. Holy crap. This sauce was the boss on the last fried shrimp I was able to get down. (Note: pretty full at this point.)
Louisiana Leaux Naked Chicken
Just in time for more meat! When asked about their Louisiana Leaux menu, the Popeyes test kitchen crew delivered. Amy and the Popeyes brass saw no need to do the salad thing to placate consumers looking for healthier options, but instead came up with naked chicken tenders. These grilled strips of white meat are quite juicy and pack a lot of punch with a seasoning treatment heavy on black pepper and paprika. If I’m already at Popeyes, I’m not sure I’m going low-cal… but I’d kill for a hack of this spice rub for my backyard grilling adventures.
Fried Blackberries-and-Cream Pie (Test Item)
I was pretty sure I’d never eat again… until they brought out dessert. Popeyes is already doing a fried peach pie as a summertime special, but they’re working on a blackberries-and-cream version, too. Warm and gooey on the inside, crisp and sugar-crusted on the outside. As good as it sounds. And for 99 cents…? When it finally hits the menu, trust me and buy them in bunches. You’re welcome in advance.
Love That Chicken
According to their data, Popeyes outperformed the entire fast food industry for the past three years running, and they were the top performer in any category in the US last year. During my visit, it became clear that this chain takes supreme pride in their ingredients, their New Orleans heritage, and their next big ideas.