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Though We Pretend Not to See: The Dirty Little Chain Secret We All Share 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014

My neighborhood fast food joint, the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen on Divisadero Street, sits across the street from a standard bearer for farm-to-table California slow food and just down the block from a bakery with notoriously priced toast made from hand-milled grain. In 2014 San Francisco, when rents are through the roof and formula retail is actively legislated out of existence, this place shouldn't even exist. But Popeyes has occupied this prime corner spot since 1986. With another 22 years left on its lease, it's very possible Popeyes will exist longer than me in this city.

Until then, it's the straightforward chicken that keeps me coming back. The batter folds over and over onto itself, forming tiny, crispy fractals of crust and chicken skin that keep the meat moist, even when the staff attempts to abuse it by letting it bake under a heat lamp. Countless hangovers have been combated with orders of Cajun fries, which are battered and seasoned before taking a dip in the fryer. The mashed potatoes are drenched with gravy and studded with chunks of bacon. The buttermilk biscuits beg to be dipped in those little plastic ramekins of BBQ sauce. In eight years' worth of trips to Popeyes, only the Chicken Waffle tenders (a promo item that was good in theory but overly sweet in practice) have let me down.

When the restaurant's leaseholder went looking for a potential subtenant earlier this year, it inadvertently set off a wave of hand-wringing blog posts coated with a greasy film of gentrification worries. But after operating on this corner for nearly three decades, this dilapidated franchise location avoided becoming another punch line with subway tile. It closed for a week earlier this month, and re-opened with an updated look — part of a nationwide update — that includes two flatscreen TVs, a touchscreen soda fountain, and wood paneling that is not so much "reclaimed" as recycled and laminated to look like actual lumber. A shelf of glass jars display Popeyes' proprietary blend of spices and dried chilis in an attempt to infuse the place with folksy charm under the fluorescent lighting. It's a pale approximation of current restaurant trends, like someone tried to rebuild a hip big city restaurant from memory on a quick trip to Home Depot.

Most of those hand-wringing blog posts, I believe it's safe to assume, went unread by the much of the restaurant's regular clientele, who didn't appear to be too concerned with the ins and outs of commercial leases when I settled into a back booth to people-watch on a recent Tuesday, the restaurant's busiest day. People line up well before noon for the day's $1.49 two-piece chicken and biscuit deal.

National-chain fast food gets a bad rap around the city, but you wouldn't know it from the people who forgo the neighborhood's sidewalk cafes and locally sourced barbecue joint to wait in the restaurant's greased, slightly spicy air. The lunch rush featured the regular parade of neighborhood eccentrics to postal workers and doctors and nurses from the hospital nearby, lined up in their scrubs. People of questionable mental health wait alongside people who just arrived from yoga class. Two employees from the muffler shop down the street discussed the restaurant's renovations. The younger one, sporting spiked hair and a goatee, was happy for the changes. The old look, he said, felt "outdated."

The crowd at dinner was equally diverse: A pregnant woman ordered carry-out alone. Families fresh off a shopping trip to Target shared a booth with their purchases. A dudebro on his way to a baseball game barked into his smartphone, "Yeah, it's nice in here, with the spices and shit." A group of youngish guys in Google windbreakers spoke in foreign accents and huddled around a pile of chicken boxes. A man in glasses and chinos carried an 826 Valencia tote and looked a little ashamed as he scurried out. One man brown-bagged a microbrew from the corner store, while another appeared to be falling asleep on his stool. A woman stopped to talk with a man pushing a shopping cart outside before she hopping into her Mercedes — both of their vehicles were carrying boxes of Popeyes.

In the middle of a food scene where dining out is a competitive sport and even our comfort foods have to be interpreted by some rising star chef to meet the needs of increasingly particular eaters, Popeyes is a refreshing paean to unflinchingly middlebrow food. A place where anyone in San Francisco can drop the pretense and a little bit of pocket change to enjoy some damn good fried chicken and a buttermilk biscuit. It's a stable reminder of a simpler world outside our overpriced little bubble. At least until the city starts taxing fountain Cokes.

About The Author

Andrew M. Dalton


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