I am one of those pathetic souls you might have heard about on the news, or read about on national websites: the Popeyes pilgrims of Buffalo. The other night I waited for 47 minutes in an idling minivan for takeout fried chicken.
Then, when it was finally sitting in my lap, all hot and steamy with its perfume tickling my nose, I couldn’t even dig in. We had a 20-minute drive home first, and the roads were all bacon greasy, which did not seem like foreshadowing at first.
It would not be fair to blame my wife, Cat, even though it was her idea. Again. Since the Cajun-styled fried chicken franchise opened its first Buffalo outpost at 2160 Elmwood Ave. in mid-December, a crowd has formed at mealtimes, and the place sells chicken as fast as it comes out of the fryer. This despite an operating Popeyes outlet in Niagara Falls, Ont. Numerous customers report the wait at 30-45 minutes at mealtime, a marked improvement over the three-hour waits in the Buffalo store’s first week, which reportedly required a police presence to keep lines orderly.
A week earlier we’d aborted the mission, turning around when we saw the Popeyes building stuffed with people standing shoulder to shoulder.
When she suggested it a second time, I agreed. I’d had Popeyes once before to minimal impact, but hearing of Buffalonians willing to endure waits longer than a round-trip drive to Rochester sharpened my interest.
So the reporter in me was glad she asked. The wide-eyed dupe in me, having salivated over the television ads, was secretly thrilled. Finally, a chance to see what all that fuss was about.
When we got home we laid out the chicken, and had at it.
Even after 20 minutes steaming inside the box, the crust was enjoyably crackly, the meat juicy. The advertised seasoning exuberance was mainly notable in the spicy version, which was less fiery than most medium Buffalo-style chicken wings. I liked it better than Kentucky Fried Chicken, for more flavor and the option for smoky red beans and rice, as a side. As I wiped grease from my chin, I reckoned that Popeyes will probably bump the Colonel from my once or twice a year drive-thru chicken spot, but not make it into the regular rotation.
Forty-seven minutes is plenty of time for reflection, regrets and recriminations. How can one eight-piece be enough? How spicy is spicy? How on earth can any fried chicken be worth taking the 21st spot in line?
It can’t. Here’s one thing I learned waiting for Popeyes: Knowing it can’t doesn’t mean we won’t wait anyway. The reaction Krispy Kreme first got on Niagara Falls Boulevard before the mania faded, the international trips Swiss Chalet lovers make without apology, demonstrate that we are entirely comfortable waiting in line for food that could kill us.
There’s already good chicken in Buffalo. Gigi’s and Mattie’s on the East Side, the Soul Food Shack at the Broadway Market, Nette’s on Main Street, all turn out blue-collar fried chicken that has its fans. But it’s not Popeyes.
Hunger drives us, and primal hungers drive us further, past boundaries we set for mundane meals. If I grew up on Popeyes chicken, if tearing into an eight-piece box with my family was one of the great satisfying thrills of my childhood, I can see how it would be an itch that needed scratching. Heavens knows people whose taste I respect go completely batty over childhood delights my adult palate finds repulsive, like loganberry drink, or Twinkies. I can respect that.
But those people who insist that Bocce’s on Bailey doesn’t have the best pepperoni pizza in Buffalo? Those people are nuts.