COPELAND'S OF NEW ORLEANS -- 4300 King St., Alexandria. 671-7997. Open: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11 to 1 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Separate smoking section. Complimentary parking. Prices: lunch and dinner appetizers $2.95 to $6.95, lunch entrees $4.95 to $7.95, dinner entrees $6.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $30 per person.

Just keep thinking Popeye's when you're eating at Copeland's of New Orleans and you'll do fine. Copeland's is a restaurant chain owned by the same people who broke the age-old identification between the cartoon character and spinach. And what makes their fried chicken chain great also makes for the successes on Copeland's menu.

But just as you wouldn't go to Popeye's for a romantic evening of culinary splendor, you should anticipate Copeland's limitations. It isn't the New Orleans Emporium by a long shot.

It is a razzle-dazzle of a place, with doors of stained glass leading to a maze of '50s pink-and-black furnishings, aquamarine lights, flamingo posters, neon scribbles on the ceiling and Icart-style deco prints on the walls. Even the ceiling fans are deco-styled. Glass, glass, glass sparkles everywhere -- stained glass, etched glass, glass bricks and mirrored designs.

You can feel like James Bond dining in a curtained booth or like the Gerber baby on a high chair, which is so awkward you need a waiter to push you in close to the bar-height table. But if you want to still feel human by the end of your meal, you'd better find a relatively quiet time to visit Copeland's. Even at midweek the crowd is loud, the noise reverberates, and the staff falls prey to utter confusion. At dinner we've had the hostess snap at us and make sneering remarks about customers in front of them, the waiter complain endlessly about how busy he was, and the dishes from each course left to pile up so that we had dessert accompanied by the remnants of red beans and corn relish. Sunday brunch was pleasant and peaceful, though.

Appetizers are among the best dishes at Copeland's. The one to remember is Onion Mumm, although it is more something for an entire table to nibble throughout the meal than a single appetizer. A big Spanish onion is cut crisscross nearly to the stem, breaded with spicy crumbs, then deep-fried so it looks like a giant flower. You eat it by picking off those crisp spikes one by one.

The crucial fact is that Copeland's does a grand job of deep-frying. The Cajun popcorn -- fried crayfish tails -- is every bit as crisp and grease-free as the fried onion, as are stuffed mushrooms and bayou broccoli (the former filled with spicy, gummy crab-and-bread stuffing, the latter a mix of cheese and bacon with broccoli). And among the main dishes the best I had was fried catfish, which was as crusty as you could want but to no detriment of the fish itself. The Popeye's lessons have been learned well.

Copeland's also serves sensational biscuits, which themselves taste fried, so crusty are their surfaces. But then everyone knows Popeye's biscuits.

Beyond frying, Copeland's is full of good ideas and probably has a masterful set of recipe cards in the kitchen. Yet it produces a series of dishes that taste the same and lack the finesse of a personal touch. For example, all the fried dishes, good as they are, taste alike. It is the same seasoned breading on everything from onions to soft-shell crabs. And the dense crab stuffing cuts a similar swath. So soft-shell crabs are lost between the seasoning and the stuffing. They might as well be breaded stuffed potatoes. With sauces, too, the same oversweet creole mustard sauce serves as dip time after time, and I didn't think it went well with anything. And the gumbo tastes of an authentic recipe but was too diluted.

Then there is the quality of ingredients. Those soft-shell crabs have lost their firmness, and the oysters have been mushy and tinny. The crab in crab cakes and stuffings has been finely shredded and more fishy than delicate. Andouille, the classic Louisiana sausage, is sliced thin and grilled as an appetizer on a bed of collards chopped with that potent Cajun ham called tasso and topped with creole mustard sauce. It is a heroic combination of flavors, but the andouille -- homemade, says the menu -- is flabby and mild by Louisiana standards (and the collards are way oversalted, a frequent problem at Copeland's).

Main dishes cover four pages, starting with salads (spinach, caesar, chef, shrimp, chicken and blackened redfish) and sandwiches (burger variations, blackened chicken and that old New Orleans favorite, club sandwich on a croissant). What a poetic listing those main dishes are: Chicken Fais Do Do, Eggplant Pirogue, Artichoyster, Catfish Acadiana or Richochet, Roast Cajun Duck. Then how disappointing to find Veal Copeland's "milk-fed baby veal" a dead ringer for cafeteria stuff, gray veal pounded to near hamburger, encased in an armor of crumbs and fried to a rigid disk. And the famous blackened redfish could give both blackening and redfish a bad name. It was spice-coated fish with a bitter aftertaste, burned in spots, cooked to a firm, slightly chewy stage.

Farm-raised catfish is a dependable commodity. It is likely to have a fresh, clean taste, and its texture stands up well to frying. Thus the Richochet Catfish had the crunch of Copeland's frying and the tender fluffiness of steamy-hot catfish, topped with even more crunch of pecans and sesame seed, under a wash of tangy brown butter sauce known as creole meuniere. It was delicious, but it had to be eaten immediately before the crust turned soggy.

I'll take brunch at Copeland's. Its poached egg dishes combine barely cooked spinach and artichoke hearts with hollandaise on a croissant, or red beans and andouille creole sauce on a biscuit, or shrimp and oysters with a cream sauce. Its omelets mix tasso, ham and cheeses with a lot of spice, or crayfish, cream and dill. The platters are garnished with a bit of jambalaya and some good fresh fruit salad sprinkled with sugared pecans. All this for $5 to $7.45.

Desserts, on the other hand, are not worth the price. There is a $7 mile-high ice cream pie that has very good bittersweet chocolate sauce and good fudgy ice cream, but it is a lot to pay for ice cream and a collapsing halo of whipped cream, even though it is served for two. And the bread pudding here is just shameful, more like ambrosia stirred into wet bread.

Copeland's has its good points. Should you happen to find a quiet Sunday or weekday evening when the staff is relaxed and things are running smoothly, you could happily discover them. But like Loehmann's on a Saturday, Copeland's requires you to put up with a lot and wade through the junk to come up with some great finds. ::