I've been watching too much sports and politics lately, which means I've been overexposed to journalists who repeatedly deny their blatant biases. Reporters who cover games and elections go to great lengths to assure us of their implausible neutrality. The only people I know who don't prefer one team or candidate to the others are the people who simply don't care about sports or politics, and three cheers for those healthy, well adjusted folk, but I don't want them telling me about sports and politics.
This fully accredited, informed, and engaged member of the fast food media is admitting a bias up front: I like Popeyes. In general it's easier to write about crappy food, because there are more clever ways to say "awful" than there are "not bad, pretty decent." But every time I head into Popeyes, I'm rooting for a positive experience on which to report. I have no emotional connection, good or bad, to most chain restaurants, but there are a couple of things about Popeyes that tickle me just right.
I like that it's new to me (I didn't set foot in a Popeyes until I started this gig last year). I like that the founder, Al Copeland, justified a grammatical error on the basis of poverty: He said there's no apostrophe in "Popeyes" because he couldn't afford one. I like that the soda fountain has Strawberry Fanta(!) I like that, their half-hearted Louisiana Leaux line of grilled things barely withstanding, they make little pretense toward healthfulness. And most of all, I simply adore the way Popeyes fries the pants off an animal part.
Popeyes' food quality is by far their strongest attribute, but their quirkiness contributes more than simple charm and novelty. Just as Popeyes is willing to forego empty gestures involving baby spinach and shaved carrots, they also have the courage to feature fried seafood outside the traditional season of Filet-O-religion promotions. Most fast food outlets offer one simple fried fish sandwich that is on the menu year-round and pushed hard during Lent. Popeyes, on the more adventurous hand, now brings us the Crawfish Festival.
Popeyes emphasizes their Louisiana roots at every turn, but it's still pretty bold to offer a nation-wide special on crawfish. It's one thing to sell us northerners a Cajun-rubbed this or a Creole-spiced that—Applebee's has been doing so for decades. But it takes real gumption to offer something that very few fast food patrons eat with anything approaching regularity.
For a limited time, $4.99* will get a thrill- or fish-seeking fast foodie a Crawfish Tackle Box featuring big pile of fried crawfish nuggets, a small batch of Cajun fries, a biscuit, and a tub of Creamy Horseradish Sauce. It's a good deal.
The marble-sized crawfish chunks weren't exactly bursting with flavor; the batter seemed less salted and peppered than on Popeyes' chicken, and there wasn't much aquatic character to the actual meat, which tasted as much like butter as it did like shellfish. But the crawfish's texture was ideal, with a good snap yielding to an almost creamy interior in a way that (perhaps falsely) suggested freshness. And this being Popeyes, they were fried to near perfection. The Creamy Horseradish Sauce was a very pleasant surprise, despite being little more than horsed-up mayo with a little dose of garlic. It was assertive enough to add punch to a somewhat staid situation without overpowering the crawfish.
The fries were peppery and good, with a buttery interior that resembled mashed potatoes in a crunchy shell. The biscuit provided yet more butter and all of the salt that was missing from the crawfish batter. The Strawberry Fanta was delightful. Go get yourself a Crawfish Tackle Box.
*The national ads say $4.99, though I paid $5.99 at the Popeyes in a high-rent part of an expensive city.