Last year, while we were on a short family trip to New Orleans, my brother and I thought about avoiding all our responsibility to drive two hours west for a pilgrimage to the last remaining Popeyes buffet on earth. It sounds charming these days. Popeyes, already a perfect food business, has posted his own ante: A powerful chicken breast – encased in the legendary crispy fried condiment – lined on both sides with mayonnaise, placed on top of a cool pillow with two thick cut jam cucumbers, held on space of the gentle embrace of an airy, buttery, supple brioche bun. I spend my summer in Canada, where the sandwich has not been introduced; I may or may not have dreamed of flying home just to get a taste.
Popeye's new fried chicken sandwich seems like a best-of-all-world creation, a rare example of almost unanimous mainstream approval. It takes the objective, populist perfection of Popeye's signature flavor profile and uses it on a proven sandwich form popularized by Chick-fil-A for more than six decades: fried chicken, pickles (always under the chicken, never on top), greased bowl, and not much else. It is not the most ambitious crossover event in history, but it is perhaps the most logical. Its torrential success then comes as little surprise.
Sandwich has become a sensation. You know this. Competitive businesses know this, as many have stimulated the meme economy during the prevailing notion that a rising meme is lifting all brands. As you read this, the sandwiches will already have been sold out for the day. To the left in the wake is The Great Fried Chicken Sandwich War of 201
But even though the unveiling of Popeye's sandwich may seem like the most emotional moment in the history of fried chicken sandwiches (if you live on the internet), we've seen it before. Although the hype feels unreliable, the fried chicken sandwich, as a form, really peaked as a phenomenon in 2015.
In June of that year, David Chang offered his ideal version of the fried chicken sandwich by opening the first Fuku in Manhattan East Village ; Weeks later, Danny Meyer launched the ever-growing Shake Shack empire Chick'n Shack in Brooklyn, and later expanded nationwide in early 2016, contributing a 43 percent revenue increase for the company's Q1 2016 earnings. In October 2015, Chick opened -fil-A is a 5,000-square-foot location in the Garment District of Manhattan, its first full-service location in New York, where opening lines went around blocks. Best-selling cookbook author and James Beard Award winner J. Kenji López-Alt hosted fried chicken sandwich pop-ups in Harlem and Los Angeles & # 39; San Gabriel Valley that month, using science-driven techniques from his cookbook, The Food Lab . I saw old grocery store owners staring in confusion as a massive line formed in an Asian grocery store that was sparsely populated most days – all to get a taste of López-Alt's monstrous kimchi-brined fried chicken sandwich, twice fried in beef tallow , topped with gochujang mayo and jam cucumber. Ironically, 2015 was the year McDonald's wound up southern fried chicken sandwich – an almost identical approach to a Chick-fil-A sandwich. (Just last month, McDonald's franchisees asked the company to produce a new Chick-fil-A competitor to take advantage of a high-demand market.)
It was also in 2015 when Los Angeles was first introduced to the latest addition to its sandwich pantheon. Howlin & # 39; Ray & # 39; s, a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant that has become one of L.A.'s busiest food establishments, modestly uncovered its hot chicken spirit in August 2015, when the business ran out of a food truck. It is probably the most baked sandwich in town; Howlin's Ray store in Chinatown now sees two plus hours of regular waiting. I was among the first to try the sandwich, a week after Chef Johnny Ray Zone finished the recipe, in L.A. Arts District bond market. I'd had my moment of transcendence with a fried chicken sandwich years before – at Bakesale Betty in Oakland – but Howlin's Ray's was the closest I came since.
In 2016, the fried chicken sandwich had been recognized as a full-blown national trend by Bon Appétit but then they really only agreed to say the obvious. The formula for the fried chicken sandwich's success over the years is really just the formula for a fried chicken sandwich, isn't it? At the center of it is the fried chicken – a touchstone for American food, from every perspective – and everything in orbit around it is meant to serve as leveling counterpoints. A sponge-like bowl offers contrast to the crunchy fried outside, with the mayonnaise as a connection to ensure that the structural transition is made fluid; the acidity of pickles cuts through the fatness of grease jobs; The slave (if any) offers another type of crunch, one that persists even if the fried chicken does not. The fried chicken sandwich establishes its balance by simulating a complete meal and all the sensory factors that go into one. Fried chicken is universal; Spices and additions to the lot can vary drastically from one supplier to the next, but at its core it is a unifying form.
I can almost trace the arc of life in fried chicken sandwiches. I was 6 the first and only time I felt indestructible: I lived a whole original chicken sandwich from Burger King alone, the elongated, submarine shape that made it seem much bigger than the typical burger. I was in Dallas for a high school speech and debate tournament the first time I ate at Chick-fil-A, which ignited my devotion to the franchise through college. A new Chick-fil-A opened a mile from my college apartment, and each new Chick-fil-A had a raffle that awarded a set of 52 free meals to 100 random people who signed up to camp at the restaurant for a day ; I did, and suffered from some of the worst food poisoning in my life for those free meals. In 2011, during the NBA lockout, I ran a Chick-fil-A blog called Starving on Sundays, where I reviewed menu items, power ranked the many available sauces, analyzed the impact of their advertising campaigns, and finally, counting on the fact that the company openly supported and funded anti-LGBTQ groups. I've eaten at Chick-fil-A sparingly since. (For the sake of transparency, I didn't have Chick-fil-A's waffle-fries anywhere near the top-five in my personal fast food ranking.)
Chick-fil-A is, for better or worse, standard – carrier. It is doubtful to have invented the mold, but given the South's history of erasing black communities and accomplishments, as in the case of Nashville hot chicken, the complete timeline of fried chicken sandwiches may never be revealed. As such, Chick-fil-A can always be the yardstick. Popeyes has seen countless Chick-fil-A comparisons over the past week, just as Fuku, Shake Shack and McDonald's had before.
Each of the Popeye's predecessors in the big market saw a massive wave of hype eventually die off, but the enthusiasm for fried chicken sandwiches seems endlessly renewed. And today, the handheld trunk has become a form of passive resistance to a titan in the industry; Chick-fil-A may always stand as the archetype, but clearly, it's worth the effort to strive for something better. Thus, the fried chicken sandwich – an amalgam of two ideal food forms, right there in the name – has become an important food in the viral age: a symbol of perfection that still has the power to capture the imagination.