Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku‘s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!

Krystal (the all-you-can-eat adventure)

When it comes to food, almost everyone has a guilty pleasure.  Maybe yours is Cadbury Creme Eggs (wisely bought on sale after Easter and saved in the depths of your freezer so you can enjoy one every month of the year that follows when nobody else has any), or trashy frozen French bread pizzas that remind you of hanging out at your friends’ houses in high school, or possibly even intimidating sandwiches you painstakingly assemble using two of those French bread pizzas in place of a sub roll, like a true sandwich artiste (particularly going for that self-destructive streak too many artists share).  It might be something as simple as ice cream, or fries, or fries dipped in said ice cream.  You might have a love-hate relationship with these foods.  Indulging might make you feel bad physically after the initial rush of excitement and joy, but you can’t help yourself.  Or they might bring you to a happy and comfortable place at the time, but then you feel shame or depression later on, like so many dysfunctional relationships.

After a disastrous attempt at the keto diet back in 2017, I now firmly believe we should eat whatever we want, just maybe a little bit less of it at each sitting, and maybe not indulge quite as often.  But life is full of pain and suffering and misery and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.  I say we should just take our pleasures where we can find them — ideally with some modicrum of moderation — and not feel too guilty.

Of course, that’s easier said than done when when of your (by which I mean my) guiltiest food pleasures are cheese Krystals, tiny little cheeseburgers served with mustard, onions, and a pickle slice on soft steamed buns.  Krystals (sometimes colloquially referred to as “sliders”) are the signature item from the fast food chain Krystal (https://krystal.com/).  If this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of White Castle, a fast food chain located throughout the Northern U.S.  We don’t have White Castle here (and I’ve never had a chance to go to one), but Krystal is the Southern equivalent.  Founded in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Krystal’s website claims it is the second-oldest fast food restaurant.  Locations are decorated in white and red and have a bit of a retro feel to them, and they’re usually sparkling clean and bright.

As you might guess, the Krystal burgers are very cheap (being a product of the Great Depression), remaining one of the better fast food values today.  They are meant to be consumed in mass quantities, and as you might also guess, they are not exactly health food.  I usually only go to Krystal once or twice a year, and luckily I have to drive out of my way to go to one, keeping it a rare indulgence.  When I go, I usually order a dozen cheese Krystals, and each soft little slider is lovingly tucked into a cardboard sleeve with one open side.  I’ll reach into the bag on my passenger seat and wolf down several of them before I even make it home.  Hey, I’m not proud.

But perhaps in an attempt to reach out to people like me, Krystal recently instituted an all-you-can-eat deal, offering unlimited Krystals and fries for $5.99.  (This deal is for dining in only.  You can’t get it to go, and you can’t leave and come back later and hope to get more.)  I had to try it, for the sake of this food blog and my dozens of vaguely-interested readers.  I figured I would live-blog my experience as I ate more and more sliders, perhaps chronicling my physical and mental decline, and to see how long I could stay in the restaurant, how many they would be willing to serve at a time, whether I could beat my previous Krystal record of eating twelve, and whether or not I’d wear out my welcome before I tapped out.  I love the state of journalism in 2019, don’t you?

Here’s a twist: I don’t think Krystal’s fries are anything special, so perhaps for the first time in the very short history of their all-you-can-eat deal, I asked them to hold the fries and just give me cheese Krystals.  (The incredulous cashier said “Are you sure?  The fries are included!”)  Just so ya know, the cheese is a $2 upcharge, but I think it’s totally worth it, as long as we’re indulging.  I also ordered a drink, a Sprite slushie for $1.  Hey, big spender!

So instead of giving you a tray laden with a precarious leaning tower of burgers like an old Jughead comic book cover, they start you out with four at a time.  If I had wanted fries, they would have given me a regular order of fries to begin with as well.DSC02469

Well, these sliders slide down real easy, so it wasn’t long before I went back to the counter and asked for a re-up.  Luckily they weren’t busy.  You can tell some time has passed because I drank about a third of the Sprite slushie with the first round.  Here’s round two: four more cheese Krystals.  DSC02470

I took my time with those soft, squishy, oniony, mustardy, cheesy little monsters, but I wasn’t ready to surrender to the sweet embrace of oblivion yet.  Like I said, my record for Krystals consumed had been twelve — sadly my usual order for the once or twice a year I drive through.  Whatever happened, I wanted to at least top that.  Why, you ask?  I couldn’t really tell you, dear Saboscrivnerinos.  Bragging rights?  I hardly think this is anything to brag about.

So I asked the nice lady for an order of five more, just so I’d have thirteen in all, and I could reevaluate my options after that.  She didn’t even argue with me.  I was clearly a man who came to play, who meant business, who could hold his sliders with the best of them.  Here they are, the Furious Five with no Grandmaster Flash in sight, and one-third of the slushie remaining.  DSC02471

In case there was any doubt remaining, I inhaled them.

And you know what?  After that, I made what might have been the smartest move I made that day — I called it a day.  Walked away while I was still on top (so to speak), quit while I was ahead (arguably), didn’t foolishly try to hit some arbitrary new Krystal milestone like 20, or doubling my old record with 24.

I ate thirteen of those things, and they were delicious, and I got it out of my system (pun very much intended).  I don’t need to return to Krystal for a while now — I’m good!  By the time I make it back, this dangerous all-you-can-eat deal will probably be over, and that’s fine with me.  I did the unthinkable that day, fearless readers, and lived to tell about it.  It was an intense 15 minutes that afternoon, let me tell you!

Arby’s

Wait a minute!  Is he really reviewing ARBY’S?  (https://arbys.com/)  He’s only had a food blog for two months and he’s talking about a fast food chain, and a critically-derided, notably un-hip fast food chain?

I try to be good.  I try to support local restaurants AND avoid fast food as much as possible, but I’m only human.  I’m a sucker for Krystal sliders, I have a nostalgic fondness for McDonald’s breakfasts (and was thrilled when they started offering all-day breakfast, even though I rarely partake), and Arby’s hits the spot more often than not (although I almost never go).  Sure, I think of obnoxious little Sherri from The Simpsons (or was it her twin Terri?) whining “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s!”, which I think ruined it for a whole generation.  But the truth is, Arby’s is cool.  It’s always trying new things, taking risks, adding crazy new menu items, and killing it with social media marketing — and these gambles are working!  Arby’s is the quirky, likable guy in a rom-com who might not end up with the girl, but he has a full and rich life with friends, hobbies, a good job, and you rooted for him and know he’s going to be okay.

I went twice in 2017, which was twice as often as I had gone in the previous decade.  Once was to try their porchetta sandwich while it lasted (surprisingly good), and the other time was to try their venison steak sandwich the one special day they offered it (incredibly good).  Yes, this is a fast food chain people regularly crack on, but they’re rolling out porchetta, a pretty classy Italian pork preparation that you rarely even see on menus at Italian restaurants and takes some real talent and patience to make at home, and venison, which is almost impossible to get unless you’re friends with hunters.  They’re not just adding bacon or chips or (eurgh) sriracha (sorry, it’s nasty!) to the same tired old offerings.  They’re introducing people to entirely new meats, which is a noble and ambitious undertaking!  

So yesterday, my best friend sent me this entertaining and insightful essay about the new golden age of Arby’s, and I was impressed by the writer’s obvious passion and enthusiasm, something I always try for here on The Saboscrivner.

He touched on all my thoughts more eloquently and at greater length than I would, so I’m not even going to try to top it.  But I am extremely suggestible when it comes to food, so of course that means I had to try Arby’s again.  I went today for lunch, and I have no regrets.

Their current limited-time special is the Smokehouse beef short rib sandwich, served with melty cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and barbecue sauce on Texas toast.  I’m always happy to find Texas toast, whether it’s made into garlic bread, served as a sandwich, or just lightly toasted and buttered and served with some Zaxby’s chicken tenders.  This sandwich was a real winner.  I have to admit, it was better than some sandwiches I’ve had from barbecue restaurants.  It was a decent size, with lots of flavors and textures going on, and the shredded, smoked short rib was very tender and tasty.  The Texas toast held everything together well.  I’m always disappointed when some barbecue places serve their wondrous, lovingly-prepared, low-and-slow-smoked meats on the cheapest buns or white bread, but not so here.

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I had also recently been advised to try Arby’s gyro and their onion rings, a combo I enjoyed at Theo’s Kitchen earlier this summer (see my recent review here).  I knew they had a gyro, but it never occurred to me to try it until a few people vouched for it.  And like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, right?  Well, this one was better than some I’ve had from dedicated Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants.  It certainly wasn’t the best gyro I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst, and only $3.99.  This was the good kind of pita bread — nice and soft, like you get from actual gyro shops but never find at the supermarket.  They included a generous portion of thin-sliced, processed gyro meat, which is usually a salty, garlicky beef and lamb combo, plus tzatziki sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and thin slices of onion.

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I can’t say the same for the onion rings, which had that craggy, crumby breading that mostly fell off.  I can’t Ring the Alarm! in good conscience for these rings.  At least Arby’s has some good dipping sauces in pumps: their legendary Horsey sauce (creamy horseradish), very decent three-pepper sauce that is more like a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce than an actual hot sauce (which is more than fine with me), and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce.

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Finally, because this was a hectic week and we’re heading into our busiest and most stressful time of the year at work, I treated myself to an orange cream shake, because orange shakes are hard to find, and I freakin’ love them.

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I also brought back a Jamocha shake for one beloved co-worker and two cherry turnovers for another one.  Food gifts are some of the best gifts, if you ask me.

So yeah, Arby’s.  If you haven’t had it since you were a teenager, or if pop culture has conditioned you to think it can’t possibly be any good, think again, and try it again.  Even if you don’t love their old-school roast beef sandwiches (tasty, but super-salty), they have a ton of newer menu options including the limited-time Smokehouse beef short rib, and I definitely vouch for that.  Their seasoned curly fries might be the best in the game, and I wish I had gotten those instead of the onion rings.  Nowadays they have Italian subs, Reubens, smoked brisket sandwiches, and even some healthy-looking options!  Seriously, try it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.