Hours: Weekdays, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; weekends, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., although the 14th Street branch closes at 10 p.m. on Sundays.
Atmosphere: Fast food.
Price Range: Two pieces of chicken, $1.79; 10 pieces, $5.25.
Credit Cards: No.
Special facilities: Parking lots at Georgia Avenue and Oxon Hill branches. Wheelchair access at Georgia Avenue. No booster seats.
In that homogenized wasteland along America's highways, it's nice to run across a fast shop where at least some of the food has a little character -- an echo of the indigenous American food we used to find before kitchens went corporate.
Although Popeye's serves a regular fried chicken that local mass-market poultry chefs should get nervous about, its specialty is fried chicken with a zing: coated with a peppery seasoning (the recipe is known only by Popeye's president), then dipped in batter, coated with flour and deep-fried.
Popeye's is a Louisiana-based franchise whose tangy drumsticks hit D.C. in 1979 and are now available at five outlets in the area. (There are about 188 Popeyes in the country; most are in the South and Midwest.)
The Popeye's on Georgia Avenue is like any other fast-food shop. On the Monday night we visited it, the help looked tired, the formica tables were covered with crumbs and the people waiting in line looked as if they expected nothing more than an end to hunger, the sooner the better.However, after waiting long enough to claim a table, clean it ourselves, and check out the crowd, we got our order and had a perfectly enjoyable, if not flawless, meal.
Out of curiosity, we tried everything on the menu except corn dogs (75 cents), resolving in the future to stick with the items worth craving: the spicy chicken, apple pie, and perhaps the chicken tacos.
The fried chicken comes mild or spicy, at different prices for different quantities: two pieces for $1.79, 3 for $2.30, 4 for $2.80, 10 for $5.25, 12 for $6.49, 16 for $8.78, 20 for $10.50, and 24 for $12.48. (I leave the logic of the price structure to you.)
Our family of four ordered four pieces of each chicken style, assuming the adults would eat the spicy and the girls would eat the regular, with a few shared sample bites. But after polishing off a mild chicken wing, one girl lunged for the plump drumstick on the spicy pile, forcing us to order four more pieces to ward off frustration.
The chicken is plump, moist, coated lightly with a nonplastic batter and cooked to a pleasant degree of crispness. The spicy chicken has a piquancy that elevates it well above the most commercial fried chicken without making it a mouth-scorcher. Children are likely to turn it down more out of conservatism than delicacy. For family members who never like anything new, there is always the mild chicken -- which is also crisp without being greasy, and cooked to perfection the night we had it (a model for chicken houses that produce dried-out chicken breasts routinely).
Of the other "main course" items on the wall menu, only chicken tacos also warranted a re-order. Far be it from me, weaned on Tex-Mex tacos in the days before Taco Bell, to come right out and praise a Southern taco -- but for el cheapo dining (75 cents), this was not bad. Chicken tacos seemed like a quirky offering for an establishment with New Orleans roots, but after tasting the first one we ordered two more of them.
The clams ($2.30), in the Howard Johnson-rubbery tradition, were not at all successful.
With fried chicken you get a roll and either french fries or cajun rice -- both of which are forgettable. The rice was bland despite tidbits of meat and scallions, and the shoestrings were mere fillers. The bar-b-q beans (45 cents or $1.10), spiked with bits of meat, were surprisingly good, with a nice down-home flavor -- not thrilling, but worth ordering.
Onion rings (50 cents and 75 cents), which we were told were great, were limp and boring. Cole slaw, on the other hand (45 cents and $1), provided a cool counterpoint to the spicy chicken -- chunks of crisp cabbage and bits of carrots in a slightly sweet dressing. The corn on the cob (59 cents) was a great idea that didn't quite make it -- those fat yellow kernels were starchy and cool.
The closest we came to a green vegetable was a jalapeno pepper (10 cents). If somebody could combine Popeye's chicken with green vegetables or a salad bar, we'd become regulars.
For dessert, we ordered one chocolate pudding (40 cents and Swiss Miss, which the kids recognized from school lunches). Popeye's apple pie, which is a cross between an apple turnover and a cinnamon doughnut was the surprise hit of the evening: warm, sugary, and every ounce a dessert. Junk food lovers must try it, but even students of apple pie may go beyond one bite of curiosity.