To state the obvious, Popeyes is fast food, the kind that will do in a pinch but is not intended to impress deeply. Yet, few restaurants can equal Popeyes when it comes to satisfying one particular craving: red beans and rice.
Lately, my cravings have veered in a distinct southerly direction, perhaps because of all the news, sad and unpleasant that it is, coming from Plaquemines Parish, the marshy, coastal county south of New Orleans. Even through the worst associations — I was last in New Orleans to write about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — good memories of eating are what prevail from numerous visits there, perhaps because the food is what makes that part of the country so distinct.
A craving for red beans and rice, for that matter a craving for Southern food in general, is a tough order in the Northwest, where it is easier to find authentic, provincial Chinese food than it is to find traditional, regional, American cooking. God help you if you want the kind of beans and rice they serve in New Orleans: smoky, creamy, basic, and comforting in a way few dishes are.
After trying a few places in the city and being met with disappointment, I thought of Popeyes and wondered if any even existed close to home.
In fact, there are nine Popeyes fried chicken franchises in Washington, most in and around Tacoma (two are at Fort Lewis and on McChord Air Force Base), the others in Bremerton, Burlington, Federal Way, and Renton (the outlet closest to Seattle). The Renton store is just off Rainier Avenue South, surrounded by car dealerships, and a few hundred yards away from a Wal-Mart, a sure sign you have left the city. Certain businesses are demographic designators, Wal-Mart and Popeyes among them, each catering more to the proletariat of America than, say, the Pottery Barn does. Here in downtown Renton, the nearest Whole Foods is 15 miles away.
Popeyes’ locations at Fort Lewis and McChord are not a coincidence. Popeyes also has franchises on Travis Air Force Base in California and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Known for its highly diverse workforce, the U.S. military is bound to have the type of customer most devoted to the food at Popeyes, namely Southerners.
Popeyes is a fast-food anomaly with few peers that come to mind except maybe the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue chain, in that both serve regional, American food. The conceit of a fast-food chain is that it strives for the lowest common denominator when it comes to eating. Its food should speak a universal language and should be as familiar to someone in Tennessee as it is to someone in Wisconsin. Burger King is like that; Taco Bell is like that. Popeyes is not. A whopper with cheese or a burrito supreme tastes like nowhere in particular; Popeyes tastes like the South.
Popeyes — it is named after Popeye Doyle, the Gene Hackman character in the “French Connection,” not the spinach-eating sailor — is a franchise of about 1,000 fried chicken joints all over the country, but concentrated in the southern U.S., where customers hold it dear to their hearts the way Californians love the In-N-Out burger chain.
After the chicken, the No. 1 seller is the beans and rice, said Mischa Wells, the manager of the Renton store.
“We get a lot of customers who are from the South,” she said. “A lot of them are from New Orleans. We really noticed it after the Super Bowl (in which the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts). “Customers tell us all the time how the beans and rice reminds them of back home.”
Red beans and rice is a bona fide comfort food of New Orleans, traditionally eaten on Mondays because Mondays were wash days, when the family laundry was cleaned. Beans could be cooked while doing the wash because they could simmer a long time on the stove without being constantly watched or stirred. Beans and rice also made use of Sunday leftovers, usually ham. A ham hock is the key ingredient, giving the beans their smoky flavor. When cooked properly, the beans are nearly creamy in texture. Although served together, the beans and rice are cooked separately.
The beans at Popeyes are an imported product, cooked entirely in New Orleans, Wells said, packaged and shipped to stores, where it is reheated and served with rice that is cooked on the premises.
“They use a real ham hock,” Wells said. “We have let customers know if they can’t eat pork, they shouldn’t eat the beans because it’s cooked with ham.”
Wells was an Army kid, whose father was stationed at Fort Lewis, where one of the first Popeyes franchises in the state opened. Growing up, red beans and rice at Popeyes was her favorite thing to order. Done right, the taste should be addicting.
Even the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square, whose name suggests a certain authenticity, does not get this dish right. Go there if you want to listen to jazz; it is perhaps the best, local jazz hang in the city. But do not go there for the beans and rice. The beans are vaguely sweet and otherwise flavorless.
The Five Spot restaurant on Queen Anne makes a far better effort at the dish, but also falls far short with its Satchmo’s (Louis Armstrong’s nickname) red beans and rice. In its defense, the Five Spot does not claim to serve authentic Southern food. The sign outside reads regional American food, by which it means a little bit of New England, a little bit of the Southwest, a little bit of the South. It takes a Cheesecake-Factory approach of approximating every archetype of American cooking at the risk of getting nothing right.
The Satchmo’s red beans and rice is a reasonable execution of the dish if you did not know any different. The beans are a bit undercooked, al dente and whole rather than partly mashed and creamy in texture. There are crunchy chunks of onions and bell peppers. All the flavor of the sliced andouille sausage has been cooked out. The predominant flavor is spicy and sweet. Rather than smoky and earthy, the dish tastes bright and peppery, vaguely Latin or even Middle Eastern in flavor, tasty perhaps judged on its own merits, but a complete failure as an authentic Southern dish.
Five Spot’s version ($10.75) is really more of a Seattle rendering, more indicative of the leanings of this region toward sweet and spicy. Notice our love of Thai food, for instance, our tendency to add Mexican and Indian spices to whatever we are preparing. The Five Spot is a Seattle joint, full of pop art with local references to Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, the Fremont troll, the Space Needle. Sit at the bar, admire the mural of Mount Rainier. And order the salmon. The only good beans and rice around here is right off highway 405.
Finding a Popeyes off the interstate does not feel like the compromise or the capitulation that comes with eating at a Subway or McDonald’s. The fried chicken tastes like fried chicken. (I might spark a fight for writing this, but the chicken at Popeyes has far more flavor and crunch than the chicken at beloved Ezell’s.) The biscuits are compact and crispy, not fat and doughy. And the beans and rice ($2.09 for a small cup, $4.49 for a large cup) tastes straight out of New Orleans.
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