If it weren’t for fried chicken, a whole generation of people might not have seen volcanic rocks and would know less about “dirty rice.” That is part of the legacy of Popeyes. From out of nowhere, little-known Al Copeland changed the perception of fried chicken. It was never really a spicy food before him. It might have special seasonings, like what the Colonel put into them, but it was never lip-burning tangy. Copeland changed that. For something that claimed to be New Orleans-style, his chain of chicken restaurants had the inexplicable façade of volcanic rocks – as native to New Orleans as Mt. Etna. Closer to home was the rice dressing served as a side. Based on a Cajun dish, it was surprisingly bland, not Copeland’s best dish and nowhere near in flavor to the side servings of red beans and rice, which arguably remains as the best version of that dish around.
Most of all though, there was the chicken. I remember talking to a restaurateur who operated a steak house. On the subject of Popeyes he said that when done correctly the chicken could be served on a white tablecloth at a fine restaurant. Those red beans, and the biscuit, belonged there too.
An Atlanta-based company owns Popeyes now. Curiously, under its direction the outlets have more of a New Orleans motif than the early Popeyes ever had. Like molten lava, New Orleans cooking has found new paths.