Thursday, November 26, 2020

Eating in lockdown: The saga of the Popeye's Sandwich

 I've long liked that chicken from Popeye's. So much better than KFC. A spicy option, quality fries, biscuits, mac and cheese, corn on the cob -- so good. 

There really weren't any convenient locations for me for awhile though. Living in Toronto, I would hike to the one downtown on Yonge from time to time. When the 2015 campaign was underway there was one just down the street from the campaign office, and as this one offered Halal chicken it became a frequent fixture on the campaign office buffet. When I moved to Ottawa, the nearest one was a two-trip bus away in Alta Vista, so it remained a rare treat.

Then one opened in the Glebe, inside the former KFC turned Rogers Wireless store. There was the expected murmur of discontent from the Glebians, though tempered by past fights lost over Boston Pizza and McDonald's -- though they seem fine with Whole Foods and Starbucks.

Anyways, it was good to have a Popeye's close to home and they did busy business, and I made a few off hours visits due to their limited seating to get my chicken fix. But since pandemic times we've had to turn to Uber Eats, and it has not been a good experience. They do a lot of food delivery business at Popeye's, and they don't do it well.

Nearly every time I've ordered, they've gotten something wrong. They forget an item. They run out of something, so they just make a substitution with no consultation. So many times I'm given the wrong order entirely. If you're there in person, you can make sure you get the right thing, so they're less likely to screw you over. Less so with delivery. Still, many times I've had to complain to Uber Eats for refunds and they're usually good with it, but still, I wanted what I ordered.

Which brings me to the long-awaited flagship Popeye's Chicken Sandwich. I had long since given up on Popeye's via Uber Eats -- fool me four times, shame on you, fool me five times, you can't get fooled again -- but I wasn't going to go down there with dining closed and photograph a chicken sandwich in the parking lot.

Anyway, long store short, on the second order attempt I actually received the chicken sandwich I ordered for a work lunch, standing on Wellington Street to retrieve it and taking in inside passed the undoubtedly jealous Parliamentary security. Opening the bag and my desk and breathing a sigh of relief to find the long-awaited spicy chicken sammy inside.

I plated, photographed, dug in and it was ... OK. After all that, it was OK. It was good. It was a perfectly serviceable chicken sandwich. Probably the best of the fast food chicken sandwiches I've had. But the years of hype, the lines and fights over this sandwich in the US, the chicken sandwich showdowns, the long wait for it to come to Canada, with all that build-up it just underwhelmed.

I think we live in an era where we have been conditioned to lower our expectations. A decade or two ago, this sandwich would have been what you would reliably expect from a fast food chicken sammy. As I think I wrote about before, I still remember the big, juicy KFC Big Crunch of my junior high years. This Popeye's sammy reminded me of that. And it only shines because of the decline in quality over the years we have experienced in fast food.

 Anyway, some 600 words later. The brioche bun was good, the breading was well-seasoned, the patty of good size and the chicken juicy, and the spicy mayo did its job.

I haven’t had it since. When we can dine in safely again, I’ll be back. It’s as quality a fast food chicken Sammy as you’ll find. But it’s not worth the hype, or the Uber Eats Roulette with Popeye’s Glebe.

Other chicken sammies

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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Eating in lockdown: Fried vs baked chicken thigh sammies

 I've written about chicken sammies a bit lately, and I did finally get around to trying Popeye's new fancy chicken sandwich after some customer service foul-ups -- more on that soon. But after behaving myself this week, for the weekend I wanted to try making at home versions but with a twist -- I would deep fry some and bake the rest and compare the results.

Spoiler alert: deep fried was better. I mean, of course it was. We all knew that already. It's also horrible for me. And we knew that too. Still, we'll press ahead. Because science is testing your hypothesis, no matter how obvious.

The finished products. Guess which one is which?

I had defrosted a package of Ontario chicken thighs from my TruLocal meat subscription -- thighs being on trend right now for being jucier and more flavourful -- and proceeded to make a buttermilk dredge. Not having buttermilk, I made it by adding vinegar to milk. And not having white vinegar, I used balsamic. Probably not ideal, but seemed a better choice than wine vinegar. I added Frank's Red Hot, paprika and cayenne, and poured it into a zip lock bag to marinade in the fridge overnight.

Marinaded chicken thighs ready to dredge

Retrieving it the next day when ready to cook, I made a dredge of flour, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Moving the marinade into another contained. I proceeded to do a double dredge -- dry, wet, dry, moving half to a plate and the other half to my funky new baking tray with rack.

My oven pre-heated to 450 degrees, in the chicken went for 12 minutes. Meanwhile, I heated vegetable oil in my deep dryer to 350 degrees to deep fry the other half of the chicken.

Ready for the oven.

After 12 minutes, I opened the oven and took out the chicken to turn it over and put it back in to bake for another 15 minutes. Meanwhile, all the smoke inevitable set off my smoke alarm, making me race to open my balcony door to the eight degree Ottawa afternoon and begin waving my jacket in the direction of the smoke detector, which is on the ceiling far to high to hit the button on. I retrieved standing Costco fan and turned it on 15 minutes later with the door open when it was time to open the oven again -- this time, stress-inducing alarm averted.

With both batches of chicken done, I surveyed the results.

Not hard to tell which is which, though the pan does give it away.

Meanwhile, I had two brioche buns from TruLoaf, my local bakery, then I had buttered and toasted in my cast iron pan. I also mixed mayo with hot sauce, garlic power, paprika and cayenne that I smeared on the top and bottom buns. And it's not traditional, but some aged sharp cheddar on the bottom buns.

Baked and fried chicken sammies.

So, as we sat at the outset, the fried chicken was obviously better. The meat was jucier, the batter adhered better and was crispier and crunchier. The baked still had a smidge of flour in spots, lost some of the coating, and the chicken wasn't as juicy. 

In fairness, I baked a kind of dredge that was designed to be fried. If I had done a spiced flour, egg wash, bread crumb dredge, the results would likely have been more conducive to baking. But I wanted to keep the prep the same as a control -- you know, science. 

Anyway, a tasty lunch either way. And I don't deep fry very often, not to worry. I don't even care for french fries. Smash burgers tomorrow, and then back to healthy for the work week. Stay healthy and stay safe.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Eating off the Hill: Dumpling? Dumpling! opens on Bank Street

The pandemic has been tough on many restaurants and other retail businesses -- there are more than a few closed storefronts on Ottawa's Bank Street. I'm happy to report though that one new business that has been "coming soon" for most of COVID-19 has made it to a grand opening -- Dumpling? Dumpling!

As you can probably deduce from the name, they serve dumplings. They also have a Nepean location, which I have never been to. I am not a a dumpling connoisseur and I haven't eaten a lot of dumplings in my life, so I can't made any judgements on authenticity or anything. All I can say is whether I liked them, and whether I'd eat them again.

They have a pretty large dumpling-centric menu, with different varieties in the categories of pork, beef, chicken, shrimp and vegetarian. There's also drinks, braised dishes, soup and sides. An order of 15 starts at $13.99 for boiled or steamed, with an $1 upcharge for pan fried or deep fried and if you want multiple flavours in an order.

Stopping by on my way home from work the other day to get some takeout for dinner, my plan was to do the combo for $16.59, which gets you 10 dumplings, a soup and sides. However, as the person ahead of me in line tried to order the combo and was told it was for dine-in only (they were open for that, but no one was taking them up in it) I was forced to change my plans.

So I instead asked for an order of dumplings, pan fried, half pork and Chinese cabbage and half beef and curry onion. I sat down to wait, and watch the gentleman hand-making dumplings behind the counter. Good to see proof they're not just frozen pot stickers from the grocery store. It took about 20 minutes to prepare my order, and I went home to eat.

Getting home, I saw that they had given me beef and coriander instead of beef and curry onion -- I shall strive to enunciate more clearly next time. My order came with a variety of sauces of unknown (to me) provenance (except the soy sauce), chop sticks, a candy and a fortune cookie. With taxes and tip, it was a bit over $20 all-in.

It was certainly filling, although for $20 it should be. Shared with some sides would probably be a good way to go. I tried the sauces but none really did it for me. While not soup-dumpling level, they were juicy as my shirt discovered biting into the first one. I was more strategic with the rest of them. I liked the crisp of the pan frying, and they were flavourful and meaty. A friend commented that they looked thick/doughy; I don't have a lot of basis of comparison but they were fine within my limited dumpling experience. It's definitely a carby dish.

It's a short walk away so I'll definitely try them again, and will do the combo when I safe dining indoors. A filling dish, but I need to discover some sauces I like, and maybe get a side or variety and same half the dumplings for lunch the next day. 

Glad to welcome them to the neighbourhood. They're next to Wolf Down (tasty German/Turkish donair kebab sandwiches), at Bank and James.

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Eating off the Hill: Gongfu Bao's fried chicken bao

Lest you think after my last post that I'm on a very unhealthy fried chicken kick, this lunch was from a few weeks ago. And I wouldn't put it in the same comparative category as the fast food chicken sandwich wars. Though it is perhaps an interesting ethnic derivative.

Anyways, four or five blocks down the street from me is Gongfu Bao, which I have walked by to and from work for a few years. It always seemed busy and interesting but I never had a chance to stop in. But they're open for takeout, so I decided to try them for a take-home lunch a few weeks ago.

Their namesake bao is the primary attraction and comes in several varieties: braised brisket, tofu, pork belly, spiced pork and fried chicken. The other options being more traditional, I thought the fried chicken sounded the most interesting. Though I'll be back for the pork belly in the near future.

The bao are sold in pairs, two of the same, so for $13 I got two fried chicken bao with gai choy relish, pepper salt mayo and fried basil.

I think they forgot to fry my basil, but the fried chicken breast was crispy, juicy and substantial, and the bao was fresh and soft. My one down note was the gai choy relish. I don't care for relish or other picked things but thought this was worth the chance. Probably better than your standard relish, but still just not my thing. If you like relish though, I'm sure it's great. 

Anyway, it felt substantial and was tasty and I enjoyed the chicken, but it felt very one-note. Last year we had a Vietnamese place just down from the campaign office in Scarborough -- Banh Mhi Metro -- and I would go and get some bao when I needed a break from samosas. What I liked about the ones there was that there was some veg to go with the meat, for a more varied and complex dish. Gongfu Bao could benefit from some slaw. Still, a nice lunch.

Anyway, to accompany my bao lunch I ordered the Wonton Chip and Dip, listed on the menu with Gongfu spice & dip of the day for $5. Seemed like a mayo base with some chipotle-like. Basically, chips and dips with a bit more substantial crunch. Was tasty and certainly left me full.

Will be back to try some of the other dishes, like the braised brisket and pork belly baos, but will hold the relish. it would be nice if they would let you mix bao in your pair. The dishes don't seem authentic, but they are good.

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Eating off the Hill: KFC is cannon fodder in the chicken sandwich wars

 It seems like all the cool stuff comes to Canada late. That's certainly the case with the fast food chicken sandwich wars, which have already been fought and won in the United States. I thought the new NAFTA or whatever its called meant we would have chicken sandwich free trade?

The battle has primarily been waged between Popeye's and Chick-fil-A. It's been a viral sensation with long lines, fights over limited supplies, and lots of Instagramming. While there were entries from other traditional players like Wendy's and McDonald's, these two were the primary competitors. Each upped their game, and it's generally agreed Popeye's came out on top with a buttery toasted brioche bun, larger breaded chicken breast, pickles and the option of regular or spicy mayo.

In Canada, Mary Brown's has a contender, which I reviewed when last in Scarborough.

We only have two Chick-fil-As in Canada (both in Toronto) and while we do have Popeye's, they've made us wait for the hero sammy. It's been testing in the select Alberta markets since the spring, and will go nation-wide on Sept. 14th -- looking forward to it.

KFC has tried to jump on to Popeye's hype though by beating it to the Canadian market with its own hero chicken sammy -- the "famous chicken sandwich." According to KFC, its "buttermilk marinated and hand breaded in KFC's famous Extra Crispy seasoning, and is then topped with sweet chunky pickles, creamy mayonnaise and sandwiched between a lightly toasted potato bun." You can also get it with "double spicy mayo." So, being a chicken sammy fan, I picked a spicy one up yesterday and brought it home to eat safely. 

Short review: meh. And definitely not worth the $6.99 before tax.

I liked the bun, the spicy mayo was noteable but not overpowering, and the breading had the usual KFC seasoning. But there wasn't near rnough chicken for a sandwich at this pricepoint, and it was a bit dry. It was an OK chicken sandwich, but definitely not a worthy contender in the chicken sandwich wars and not worth the price charged. A little more spicy mayo would have been nice too.

Maybe my childhood memories are hazy, but I'm of the impression that KFC has had a major decline in quality over the past couple of decades. I remember going to KFC on my lunch break during junior high, using my paper route money to buy a big crunch sandwich. And while it's still on the menu, the big crunch used to be big. Maybe 40% bigger than this new famous sandwich.Much meatier. And I still remember fondly working accross the street from the Rideau Centre in the early aughts, going over to the food court on Twonie Tuesdays for an original chicken sammy and small fries for $2.00.

Anyways, nowadays KFC just seems to be going through the motions. One opened accross the street from my condo a few years ago, and it was good for about two weeks and then they just stopped trying hard.

Other warning signs at my local KFC: masks worn around the neck instead of the face in the kitchen (the manager not wearing one at all), and the manager loudly talking about ordering a pizza for the team. If they're not going to eat their own food, I'm not likely to be back any time soon either.

Anyway, glad I tried it but I wouldn't cross the road for this sammy again. Waiting for Popeye's!

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