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.
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.
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.
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.