Kanye West knows heartache. In his song "30 Hours," released earlier this year, he tells a story of going on a 30-hour drive to visit a girlfriend. But upon arrival, his heart—and ours—is snapped in two: "Then I get there and all the Popeyes is finished, girl / You don't love me; you just pretending." Oof. That's cold. I mean, the idea of driving for so long, expecting Popeyes all along, and then you get there and discover there's no more Popeyes. That's cruel stuff.
Luckily, here in Sarasota, we've got a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen right downtown. So if you ever find yourself as heartbroken as 'Ye, just pull onto 301. I'm here on a Tuesday, and the joint is rocking. There's not a free table in the house, and the drive-through line runs four trucks deep. The crowd is diverse, a blend of guys in paint- and dust-splattered gear, young families and women in nurse-wear.
The fast food chain first opened back in 1972 in a New Orleans suburb as Chicken on the Run, but founder Alvin Copeland soon rebranded the spot as Popeyes, naming it after, no joke, Gene Hackman's character from The French Connection. Since then, the restaurant has vaunted itself into the highest ranks of fast food, all thanks to one thing: addictive fried chicken.
Pretty much everything here is less than a Hamilton. A four-piece fried chicken combo comes with a side, a biscuit and a drink and runs you $9.49. The cuts include a wing, a leg, a thigh and a breast, all served lightning fast in a small paper basket lined with wax paper emblazoned with Popeyes' magisterial "P" logo.
Let's start with the skin. It's super-duper-crispy, but never heavily breaded. There's no grease stain on that wax paper; I barely need to wipe my hands to keep them clean. A thin, crunchy shell with a tiled texture, it's also well-seasoned. Popeyes serves its chicken either "mild" or "spicy." I'll always opt for spicy, but in truth, my chicken today isn't hot at all. It could use a much more aggressive hand with the pepper. Inside the skin, the flesh is warm and juicy.
This is probably fast food's best fried chicken, and it tastes just as good in tender form as it does on the bone. There's a reason An Evening for Healthy Start, the Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County's annual fundraising party, is one of my favorite local events. Yes, it benefits a good cause, helps pregnant women, new moms and babies, etc., etc., but just as crucially it features a table weighted down with a glacier-sized pile of Popeyes tenders. I think I ate my weight in tenders this past January.
The sides are also solid. I'm loving the mashed potatoes on the side, which come doused in "Cajun gravy." The texture of the potatoes is almost entirely smooth, but little starchy nuggets offer resistance here and there. One thing that's great about Popeyes is the variety of sides. You're never stuck with just fries. Go for these potatoes or green beans or even corn on the cob. The biscuit is also a nice touch. Salty and buttery, it's not going to amaze you, but it's a winner.
Like Mr. West, we've all known heartache. But there are few pains strong enough to outlast a trip to Popeyes.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is located at 820 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota, and at 3390 First St., Bradenton. Both locations are open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more info, visit popeyes.com.