A Few Thoughts on Popeye’s “Ghost Pepper Wings”

I’ve recently come around to Popeye’s. In a big way.

The “Louisiana Fast” fried chicken chain, which I had previously only understood to be a great place to go if you wanted the chance to see a gun in real life, has completely converted me into a frequent customer. Their spicy, crunchy, craggy fried chicken, replete with an array of interesting dipping sauces and vaguely Cajun-style sides, makes The Colonel and his lame offerings seem like little more than a second-class punk.

It’s this new devotion to the chain that made my ears perk up, when I first heard their plans to roll out a limited-time “Ghost Pepper Wings” combo, priced at just $5.99 for six wings, fries, a drink, and a biscuit. From the press release:

Capturing the flavor of the elusive ghost pepper, Popeyes Bonafide® wings are marinated for 12-hours in an exotic blend of peppers, taking the intense flavor all the way to the bone. Then our tender, juicy, bone-in chicken wingettes and drumettes are battered and breaded in a southern style crispy coating and fried up fresh.

I have something of a history with the elusive bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper) chile, and particularly with regard to its application as a sauce for chicken wings. Though it’s crazy-spicy at over a million Scoville units, it’s also got some fruity notes, once you get past the heat, making it really, really interesting in moderation, or when combined with something sweet.

Still, it’s much too hot a pepper to use in any kind of mass-market product, which is why previous attempts to integrate the pepper into fast food have resulted in dumbed-down, mild sauces that have little in common with the chile’s notorious reputation.

Popeye's Ghost Pepper Wings

If anyone was capable of rolling out a new Ghost Pepper product, though, I had faith in Popeye’s ability to pull it off. So in the name of science, I plunked down my six bucks, and gave them a try.

The first thing you notice is the craggy coating on each wing. Popeye’s chicken really shines in this department, and giving the coating some honest-to-goodness skin to cling to results in salty, crunchy bliss. There are two major problems with this product though: The size of each chicken wing, and the fact that they’re simply not very spicy.

Popeye's Ghost Pepper Wings

Seriously? Look at that little fella. He’s only a little bigger than a quarter. After the McDonald’s Mighty Wing debacle from last year, where overpriced, artificially fattened, ‘roided-up frankenwings were priced at around a dollar apiece to the collective yawn of the fast food public, I understand needing to scale back price. But there’s simply not a lot of chicken here, and I finished my six-piece still hungry for more.

Popeye's Ghost Pepper Wings

The bigger problem is the spice level. Look, if you’re going to try to capitalize on the fact the words “Ghost Chile” happen to sound really cool and mysterious together, you need to bring a significant amount of spice, or you shouldn’t bother with this ingredient. Instead, these wings were about on par with a Spicy Crispy Chicken sandwich from Wendy’s, or, for that matter, only ever so slightly spicier than Popeye’s own “Spicy” variety of chicken and tenders.

Kinda spicy, sure. But when I read the words “Ghost Pepper,” I want my notions of personal safety to be called into question. And unfortunately, like a dentist riding a Harley, this product seems content to merely associate itself with the image of danger, instead of being actually dangerous itself.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

10 Comments

  1. Ahh good to know! I have been meaning to try these. I love hot spicy food but my husband said they would probably be too hot for me and educated me on the “ghost pepper”. I immediately googled this topic to see what people were saying about them and found your review. They do look small and now I’m not as nervous about trying them. I will probably end up agreeing with your review and if these aren’t of any significant spicy level, what is the point? We shall see!

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    1. Currently eating them now and they have a little spice to them but certainly not what one would expect with the infamous ghost chili as one of the ingredients. Tasty for sure and totally worth the $3.99 that I spent for the wings and a biscuit, but not very spicy.

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  2. I too Googled the new wings and came across your review. I must say I had my suspicions about a fast food joint propping up the mythical mysticism of the bhut pepper… Hell, in previous encounters with this demon seeded multi-hole burning, a warning or “fun disclaimer sign off” was required by the patron..?

    Congratulations sir! You have saved me $5.99 and a trip in the 9 degree weather in Lancaster, PA! 😉

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  3. I tried these today and while I was pleasantly surprised that there was any noticeable capsaicin level at all (“spicy” being a relative thing at Popeye’s), I still had to put hot sauce on them. And yes, I’m still hungry after 6 of these minuscule things. Sticking with my 3-piece spicy with beans & rice from now on.

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  4. I was actually afraid to try them until I read your review. Unlike you brave souls, I’m actually not a huge fan of hot food. Instead, I love spicy food. Hot by itself is a negative for me because it does nothing but numb my tongue, making it difficult to taste the other flavors (or even textures!). But tone down the hotness and add some spiciness — especially sourness and tanginess — and you might have a winner. Hot and Sour soup is one of my favorite soups. And the admittedly wimpy Red Devil hot sauce is my favorite condiment, because of its balance of hot and sour.

    I now plan on trying a box. It’s $3.99 here without the french fries. I hope the special recipe adds something more than just hotness.

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  5. I tried them once and loved them! I was afraid they’d be too spicy to enjoy but was so pleasantly surprised! Alas, they are now sold out and not coming back! Very disappointed! Bring back Ghost Pepper Wings!

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