There are two KFCs in central Oxford – one on Cowley Road and the other on Cornmarket – and until a few years ago their hegemony over the fried-chicken market seemed secure. Since then, the kebab vans have upped their game, and the little independent shops have also improved the general standard. By the time Popeyes arrived here in 2023, KFC was already in its twilight.
Popeyes has revolutionised the Oxford fried-chicken scene. It only arrived in the UK three years ago but has rapidly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. I can say without exaggeration that, in eighteen years of eating fried chicken far and wide, I have never – never – had anything better than Popeyes; and that, by the end of this decade, Popeyes will have overtaken KFC as the largest chicken dealer in both Oxford and the whole country.
Now, the spicy chicken burger is the highlight of the menu. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of chicken burger: there is the flat, plasticky “steak” burger that you find in the kinds of shacks which, the next time you go there, have been closed down by the Food Standards Agency; and there is chunkier, better-quality “fillet” sold by KFC and others. Popeyes’ burgers are in the latter category. Twelve hours before serving, the fillet is marinated in a crisp, darkish batter of aromatic herbs which sprawls out in fat ridges; then is lathered with spicy mayo and topped off with gherkins (only if you’re keen on gherkins); before being slapped in between two hot brioche buns.
When funds are running low, of course, and a big burger is out of the question, Popeyes’ Saver Meals provide, for £2.99, a light yet agreeable stomach-filler. There are four types of Saver Meals to choose from. I usually go for the spicy chicken strips with fries. (Their fries, by the way, are fresh, slender and as good as can be expected, but aren’t in the same league as the chicken).
The other Saver items involve wings. Wings are usually the standard unit of measurement when discussing chicken shops – like pints for pubs – though the ones from Popeyes have, historically, made quite a poor showing. They all used to be stiff and tasteless, as the chicken pieces still are. But this problem was later solved by the introduction of the Ghost Pepper Wings (£5.25 for five). These are dusted with a zingy seasoning which rubs off on your fingers like Pringle powder, but which is punchier than any of the other things and lingers for longer on the tongue. If your tolerance for spice is low, they come with your choice of Popeyes sauce (Ranch Sauce is the best, though they are all good in their way, and all come in attractive-looking pots) which cools the flavour quite well.
There are also a range of vegetarian options, and various sides, drinks, and desserts. And, if you’re a regular, it all works out as more cost effective, because, whenever you buy something, you get a barcode from which you’re guaranteed to win anything from a free ice-cream to a free year’s worth of chicken sandwiches (or most often something in between, like a burger meal).
Now, I’ll finish with a warning that Popeyes may have unaccountable effects on your health and mind. You may well find yourself under the grip of violent cravings in the middle of the night – or, worse, in the middle of a tutorial – which send you marching suddenly off to 36-37 Queen Street. You might end up having to mortgage your bed and your laptop in exchange for more spicy chicken burger meals. Moderation is the word. I would try my best to restrain these fatal attractions…as much as humanly possible once that batter has passed the lips and that sauce has touched the tongue.