Imagine a pop star who had put out a smash-hit album a few years back — critics raved! fans swooned! — and now she’s debuting a much anticipated follow-up.
Oh, the pressure.
That’s basically the scenario for Popeyes, which this week began offering its new chicken nuggets, two years after its spicy chicken sandwich became a viral sensation that prompted lines out the door, evening-news coverage and a tidal wave of social media love.
Sadly for the chicken chain, it turns out that the hyped new product isn’t destined to be quite the chart-topper that its older sibling was. Forget recapturing the magic — think of the new nuggets as the Jamie Lynn Spears of the chicken wars, forever in the shadow of the dazzling big sister Britney.
That’s what the people are saying, anyway: The nuggs have been for sale nationwide for more than a day, and longer than that in some areas, and so far, there’s been no drive-through stampede or mass Twitter fawning that accompanied the launch of The Sandwich. Reviews have been mixed.
I picked up a box on Tuesday, and a survey of the box’s contents had me feeling optimistic. The little guys are stunners: to start with, they’re irregularly shaped, which is a good thing in the nugget world, where a natural profile indicates they didn’t get cut out of a slab of meat amalgam with a nugget-shaped cookie cutter.
The breading is promisingly craggy, with jagged edges of golden brown breading (yes, the color is lovely, too!) for days. Popeyes says it uses the same buttermilk batter it does on the famed sandwich, which is another reason to get excited. And if you tear one open, the flesh is reassuringly birdlike — no McChicken paste here. But a bite in, I’m disappointed and a little bewildered.
Where, in the name of all things feathery, is the flavor?
There’s a decent level of salt happening, and the anticipated crunch definitely delivers. But beyond that, there’s just no seasoning in that beautiful breading. The visuals confirm it — no flecks of pepper, no trace of paprika. This bland bird badly needs a bath in one of the many sauces Popeyes offers. But which one? The chain offers a large array, and so I ordered the entire range of little tubs and got to dunking.
There are a few hits here. Bayou Buffalo is a vinegary, classic-style dupe of the beloved Frank’s. Blackened Ranch is a slightly spicy twist on the ubiquitous creamy dressing. A friend really digs the Sweet Heat, which balances notes of honey and hot sauce, though I find it leans a tad sugary. The top dip by my lights is the Mardi Gras Mustard, which boasts the grainy Creole condiment and lends a complex tang to the equation.
Thus dressed up, our new nugget friends are looking a whole lot better. But sorry, Popeyes, this is no spicy sando-level phenomenon.
Sure, they’re an improvement over the chain’s floppy and unwieldy tenders. And it practically goes without saying that these are far superior to the classic of the genre, the McNugget, which ignited our collective mania for bits of fried bird way back in 1983. (Though the mooshed-up texture of the Golden Arches’ offering is often made up for by our nostalgia for the stuff of childhood Happy Meals.)
Of course, it would be difficult to replicate the success of the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich, which nailed a complex layering of texture — the crunchy patty and pillowy bun — and flavor (the slow burn of that sauce!). Nuggets are by nature a simpler bird.
Popeyes’s marketing campaign around the nuggets was bold, with advertisements proposing to its rival fast-food chains an end to the Chicken Wars that its sandwich ignited. The stunts included donations of its competitors’ nuggets to a food bank, and the chain offered the assurance that “we come in piece” (get it?).
Despite the company’s Kumbaya-esque entreaty, the Chicken Wars are still raging out there, and a decent nugget that needs a sauce dip just isn’t enough firepower to demand a truce.