Yes, Popeyes. Now, I imagine some of you think it must be Shooting Fish In A Barrel Week here on Edible Reading, that I’ve gone for the easy option of punching down for those sweet, sweet clicks. And who can blame you? Fried chicken restaurant Popeyes is the latest, though by no means the last, big American chain to touch down in Reading, continuing a trend that began with Five Guys ten years ago and which, if anything, is accelerating. You know this already, I’m sure: we’ve also had Chick Fil-A, Wingstop, Taco Bell and, of course, Wendy’s.
And, just as with Wendy’s, from the moment the news broke about Popeyes our local press – what’s left of it – went completely gaga. OMG Popeyes is coming to Reading! it gushed last March, followed by It’s going to be in the old Gap store on Broad Street! in November. I especially loved the photo caption – always a Berkshire Live speciality – saying “Popeyes is an American restaurant that sells fried chicken” (who writes them, Mr Chips from Catchphrase?)
“Customers can now sign up for updates about when the new Reading Popeyes will open and a lucky few are in with a chance of being invited to the grand opening of the store” said an article, suspending any remaining critical faculties. But why sign up for updates when you can just read Berkshire Live as it pumps out more free advertising for a well-backed business which doesn’t need it?
So a couple of months ago Berkshire Live confirmed that Popeyes was opening on the 23rd February, and that the first two people in the queue for the first three days would win a year’s supply of chicken sandwiches. It must have been a slow news day on the 22nd February because it ran almost exactly the same story again: copying and pasting from TripAdvisor is bad enough, but copying and pasting from your own website must be a new low.
I hope after doing all that free advertising for Popeyes the drones at Reach plc at least got some free food in return, you might be thinking. Well, don’t worry – they did! “I was lucky enough to be invited down to the Reading restaurant for a sneak preview of what the international chicken chain has to offer”, an article began. “With celebrity fans including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, I’ve been eager to try their famous Louisiana cooking for quite some time.”
You might be astonished to find that our local Reach plc publication absolutely loved its free food: I know I was. “I tried Reading’s Popeyes and was blown away by one thing” said the headline, although the article then raved about both the chicken sandwich and the Cajun fries, so even that was an inaccurate report of their own meal. By my reckoning Berkshire Live sounds like it had two meal deals, so it sold its soul for twenty quid: that’s roughly what it’s worth. “If I was walking through town, wondering where to stop for a quick bite to eat, I’d head straight there” it concluded. Talk about a plot twist!
Not to single Reach plc out, the Reading Chronicle managed an even more glowing writeup of its free scran, although one that copied out more of the accompanying press release. “This burger is put together like a piece of art…” it enthused, with a touch of hyperbole. “Every bite makes you want another and by the time you know it you’ll be buying another portion.” Pretty potent stuff for a chicken burger you might think, but apparently, it had the author’s “jaw hitting the floor”. The overall impression was that Popeyes made Pulp Fiction’s legendary Big Kahuna burger taste like the contents of a warm food recycling bin. Two local journalists can’t be wrong, can they?
So yes, the scene is set for me to give Popeyes the time honoured kicking that I’ve doled out, over the years, to the likes of TGI Friday, Taco Bell, even Wingstop. But here’s the thing: my antipathy towards big American chains and the homogenisation of Reading is on the record and has been for years. And yet, on the other hand, I really love fried chicken. Always have. I love it in all its forms, from a crafty KFC to Blue Collar’s legendary Gurt Wings, from Bristol’s Wing’s Diner to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken to Clay’s Kitchen’s payyoli chicken fry and everything in between. The crunch and yield, the seasoning and the sauce: there’s nothing else out there quite like it.
It’s a proper Achilles heel and if I found a good one I doubt I’d care if the restaurant serving it was the property of a holding company co-owned by Elon Musk, Tim Martin and Scrooge McDuck. And all the talk and hype about Popeyes, about how its chicken sandwich “broke the internet” back in 2019, raises at least the possibility that it could be a game changer. So we have a classic scenario: what happens when an irresistible force (my love of fried chicken) meets an immovable body (my disdain for big American chains)? If you know the answer already you were one step ahead of me when Zoë and I stepped through those doors on Broad Street on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon.
It’s hard to believe the interior had ever been a Gap, that much is true. But beyond that I’m not sure what there is to say – there are big touch screens at the front on which you can place your order, there’s a counter right at the back and there are loads of very functional-looking wipe-clean tables, most of which are occupied at any given time. If it sounds like I’ve described McDonald’s, there’s a reason for that: it’s not that different from one (and I actually went to the McDonald’s on Friar Street a few months ago – after an afternoon and evening on the sauce, in my defence – so I vaguely know what I’m talking about).
So yes, it’s a big cacophonous space where you sit, eat your food and sod off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s not pretend it’s a masterpiece of interior design that will make you long to linger. It’s almost designed to be just insufferable enough that you vacate your table nice and quickly so they can make money off the next group to plonk themselves down there. Someone on Twitter said to me that the interior was much nicer than KFC. I’m not sure it is, really, I think it’s just a lot newer.
Although you can order at the big touchscreens – and I hope for their sake they’re more effective than the ticket machines in Reading Station – there’s also a QR code on the table so you can grab a seat and look at the menu at your leisure. Not that it will take long, because Popeyes does chicken, chicken and chicken. Oh, and something called a Creole Red Bean Sandwich, for vegetarians who are dragged to Popeyes by friends or family who don’t much like them. But beyond that, it’s just how you want your chicken: in a bun, on the bone, on the wing or as tenders. The only other permutation is whether you want it regular or spicy.
Oh, and the sandwiches are either normal or “Deluxe”. Want to guess what Deluxe means? It means they charge you an extra pound and give you cheese and some lettuce. I know we’re in the middle of a salad shortage, but when did salad become a luxury item? Is it only a luxury to people who are going to Popeyes for dinner? It’s a puzzle. Anyway, sandwiches are six or seven pounds, if you bundle them with fries and a soft drink you’re spending something like a tenner. I don’t eat in Popeyes’ peers often enough to tell you if that is especially expensive in relative terms, but in absolute terms it’s pretty affordable.
We decided to try a little of everything so we placed our order, which came to just under twenty-eight pounds, all in, and waited the grand total of six minutes before a tray was brought to our table. They bring you the food, but you have to go up and get your own drinks – I’m not sure why. Weirdly they also charge twenty-five pence extra for fat Coke, although I’m not sure how they enforce that.
The fact that everything I’m about to describe are iterations of the same dead animal in one of two different coatings might make what follows a tad monotonous. Let’s whip through it. I’d chosen the classic sandwich, the one that allegedly broke the internet. Those two local articles I’d read raved about how huge it was, as if they’d somehow deep fried some ostrich; it’s not a meagre burger, but it’s not colossal. The one thing the articles did get right was the crunch: the crunch Popeyes achieves is quite something. It does have that almost-brittle snap spot on, and the coating adheres to the burger perfectly. That’s the good news.
The bad news, and I’m not sure how they managed this, is just how little it tastes of anything. It’s all very well raving about how huge and thick the burger is, but if the coating is bland it just means that however tender the flesh underneath is the whole shebang feels like a bit of a chore. And that, sadly, is how I felt about it. With KFC, there’s no mistaking that blend of herbs and spices. It’s not for everyone, and it’s probably just as well I don’t know what goes into it, but it tastes of something. It leaves you gasping for a cold drink, it dehydrates the inside of your mouth with every bite. But it tastes of something, and afterwards you feel like you’ve done something disreputable but indulgent.
Popeyes’ burger, on the other hand, could have been produced on a 3D printer and I’m not sure I’d have been any the wiser. A splodge of mayo and some watery slices of gherkin weren’t going to change that.
Popeyes’ fries, especially their Cajun fries, also come in for a lot of praise. I quite enjoyed them, actually – they had good crunch and the dusting of Cajun seasoning (yours for an extra quid) definitely added a dimension. But they were lukewarm when they arrived and cold not long after that, one of the most basic things fast food restaurants have to get right. KFC used to get a lot of stick for its fries and it worked on improving them: they’re still not best in class, but they’re not noticeably worse than Popeyes’. Zoë dunked hers in some ranch dip, which apparently improved matters.
Being fancy, Zoë had gone for the spicy Deluxe burger – just look at that luxury iceberg lettuce – and had similar feedback to mine. “It’s okay, but it’s not that spicy and it’s really not that special. To be honest, I prefer the McSpicy.” McDonalds put the McSpicy back on its menu permanently in February, apparently: it’s almost like they knew Popeyes was coming. If I went to Popeyes again, I’d be tempted to order this just to see if it supplied the so what factor, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, that’s unlikely to happen this side of Christmas.
For completeness we also had chicken without bread in a slightly different shape or, as the menu likes to call them, tenders. And again, the disconnect between looks and taste couldn’t be starker. These look the part: they look like they’re going to taste amazing. And when you bite into one, your teeth tell you you’re in for a treat, with that almost audible crunch. And beyond that? Nothing much.
If you dip them into something, they at least taste of the dip but that, I’m afraid, is as far as it goes. I tried them with a “Bold BBQ”, which really wasn’t, and a “Red Hot Honey” dip which I rather liked, despite it not being especially hot. It was more like a sort of sweet chilli number, and perfectly agreeable (I looked on the label on the lid of the plastic tub: the main ingredient was water).
Zoë also had some chicken wings, thrown in as part of a promo the restaurant was doing. I almost forgot she’d ordered them, in the course of writing this, but that’s okay because I think she almost forgot eating them too.
So, let’s recap. The sandwich may have broken the internet, but this review will not. Throughout my meal, my jaw remained resolutely undropped. I didn’t have one bite after another until, as if possessed by some kind of hypnotic superpower, I wandered over to the touchscreens, zombie-like, to order another portion. Sorry to piss on anybody’s (Cajun) chips, but if this restaurant was half as good as Berkshire Live and the Reading Chronicle said it was, it would be ten times as good as it actually is.
And yet this isn’t a hatchet job, and the mark below isn’t savage. And why’s that? Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s so boring. It’s not terrible food – not like Taco Bell, or Wingstop – it’s just bang average with a thick dusting of weapons-grade hype. I’ve always thought chains opening in Reading shouldn’t be a problem if they do something nobody else does, or if they do it better than everybody else. The best chains, like Honest, understand that.
But on either of those counts, Popeyes falls flat on its face. You can get a chicken burger in countless places, and most of them are easily as good as theirs. Honest’s has gone from strength to strength, even Blue Collar Corner is doing one at the moment – it’s a little bland, but at least it’s chicken thigh and it’s still probably more exciting than Popeyes. And speaking of Blue Collar, if it’s fried chicken you want Gurt Wings is in the market Friday lunchtimes and their tenders knock the spots off Popeyes’,
I’m not even angry, and I can’t bring myself to hate Popeyes. It’s good that people are excited about it, even if that’s mainly because they’re excitable, and bringing new jobs to the town centre can only be a good thing. But while I was eating it, and as I cogitated on it afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Is this all it takes to get half a dozen articles in the local press, while newcomers like San Sicario get ignored?
It frustrates me that people think Reading is so easily mugged off with the latest shiny thing, that nobody wants to look beyond the obvious to the people and places that make this town so interesting. Why even now are we, as a town, so happy to settle for second best? I can already picture Reading Borough Council’s bid for city status in 2026: Look, we’ve got a Popeyes!
Just this once – and these are words I never thought I’d say on the blog – I’ll leave the last word to Beyoncé. She may have got a lifetime loyalty card from the restaurant, but that was back in 2003. What does she say nowadays?
“I can’t really eat it anymore.”
Popeyes – 6.5
107-108 Broad Street, RG1 2AX