The fast food franchise gods have extended a gesture of mercy toward us and hath bestowed upon our town a considerable bounty of good tidings with the opening of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (1). It might behoove us all to send up thanks with abandon and with earnest zeal as then these gods may see fit to soon grant us a Krystal or a Del Taco, moving us closer to the day when we look over a fully realized national franchise tapestry, as proud as any in the Northern South.
I have lived in a Popeyes-free zone in the past, in Buffalo, New York. The one escape hatch was the Popeyes located at the first service plaza east of town on the New York State Thruway. I merely needed to get a toll ticket, drive 15 or so miles toward Rochester, hit the plaza, gobble down the goodness, get back on the Turnpike, take the first exit, pay a nominal toll, exact a U-turn, get another toll ticket, drive back to my home exit, pay another small fee, and be happy to have done it.
But the logistical issues of the Thruway stunt was nothing compared with trying to get in and out of the Popeyes parking lot on Emmet Street between Hydraulic and Angus. Nevertheless, we are blessed to have it there. What it brings is something there just ain’t enough of around here—red beans and rice.
I have no interest in getting into a chicken argument here. The bird served at Popeyes is just fine. Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author, and Alabaman Rick Bragg stated in his 1999 classic, All Over But the Shoutin’, that Popeyes makes as fine a piece of chicken as he has ever eaten. And I bet that dude has eaten some fried chicken. But more to the point, I have known New Orleans natives who consider Popeyes’ red beans and rice the best they have had.
Is it possible that a fast food chain is serving up something so good that it is not surpassed by all these fine dining kitchens, over-staffed with Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs, sous chefs, and sauciers? I think it might be.
I ate red beans and rice on Decatur Street in New Orleans last November. It was quite good. It was soupy and tangy and came with two pieces of fried chicken. I was charged about $9 for this. I mention that because when I went looking for alternatives to Popeyes’ beans and rice, I wound up at Miller’s Downtown. It has long offered NOLA–
inspired fare and I figured the red beans and rice platter deserved a go. I ordered the side portion of beans and rice and must have looked pitiful doing so, as the side portion does not normally come with sausage, but my gracious server persuaded the cook to toss some andouille into my little bowl. Hence, I was able to get an idea of what the dinner platter, which does come with sausage, would taste like. It was lusciously brothy, if not a tad light on flavor, and the andouille sausage gave it a perfectly seasoned balance. Here’s the problem: This entrée costs $14.
At the risk of offending any actual peasants, this is peasant food, after all. I thought the New Orleans price was pretty fair. I can’t imagine that the cost of doing business on one of the most visited streets in the French Quarter is that much less than our Downtown Mall. Heck, on Walworth Road in my old South London neighborhood, there’s a Jamaican bakery selling a huge plate of beans and rice, with a jerk chicken quarter on top, for 5 quid—a little less than the cost of two pints of Stella. Can we really not compete with the food prices of London and New Orleans?
La Michoacana (2) serves a beans and rice platter. Soupy, refried black beans alongside sticky saffron rice with a small salad and fresh avocado slices. It’s great, it’s $8, but it’s not quite enough food at that price.
Mel’s Diner (3) has a red beans and rice side that’s more like a jambalaya. The beans and rice are mixed in together in a sauce-free blend, and it’s quite good once you get some hot sauce in there. It’s a smaller portion, but you can fill out the plate with other great sides. I went for the collard greens and mac-n-cheese. It’s pretty much a meal and the whole thing came to less than $6.
After I had gone around and tried these other fine dishes, I went back to Popeyes to make sure. I got the large side of red beans of rice. It was $4.35 with tax and still the best of the lot. New Orleans native Al Copeland, who came up poor in the housing projects of an impoverished city, started Popeyes in the ’70s, aiming to make cheap food for a broke-ass town. His passing five years ago was mourned by food critics and cultural commentators alike. He came as close as you can to making food that goes out to hundreds of restaurants taste like he’s back there cooking it himself. And don’t pass up the mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy or the corn on the cob.