Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC as it is now known, was founded in 1930 in North Corbin, Kentucky, when Colonel Harland Sanders started selling his fried chicken out of a gas station. Eighty years and thousands of franchises later, those apocryphal “eleven herbs and spices” are still a secret, although Sanders himself is reported to have hated what KFC became, ranting “They prostituted every goddamn thing I had.”
Meanwhile, the second-largest (or by some counts, third largest) American fried chicken chain, Popeyes, popped up in 1972 in Arabi, Louisiana. Founder Al Copeland said that he named the shop after Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle from the movie The French Connection. Popeyes became known for its spicy fried chicken, although it makes both spiced and non-spiced versions.
KFC has about five times the market share as Popeyes, but the latter has something of a cult following. So which chicken would win in a head-to-head smackdown? We bought fried chicken thighs from both outlets to find out. In the interests of a direct comparison, the pieces were both plain old original–not spicy or extra crispy, no bells and whistles.
Value: KFC’s thighs are $1.99 each and weigh four ounces, while Popeyes’s pieces are $1.49 each and also weigh exactly four ounces–an uncanny coincidence that makes us think of Frankensteinian genetically engineered birds that grow thighs to exactly that weight. In any case, Popeyes is a better value.
First impressions: Popeyes’s chicken comes to you piping hot and very, very crisp. Nearly greaseless. If you attempt a bite, steam pours from the juicy depths of the thigh. It has that appetizing yet somehow unsettling fast food smell–like salt and MSG, in a good way.
KFC’s thigh arrives lukewarm and with a growing grease spot developing at the bottom of the box. It smells just about the same as Popeyes. If you attempt a bite, the breading will come off all at once, and your hands will feel like an oil slick.
Crust: Everyone agrees that a crisp, well-seasoned, not-too-oily coating is key to good fried chicken. The crust on the Popeyes chicken is robust, seriously crisp, with a strange, rippled appearance that looks like crushed cornflakes. It’s very salty and as crunchy as a potato chip, with structural integrity that lets you take a bite without all the skin coming off.
KFC’s breading is pathetic. It’s flaccid and weak, and will pull off in one grease-spattered bite. The supposed 11 herbs and spices are not discernible, except in a sprinkling of black pepper. It leaves a sandy residue on your tongue.
Chicken: Popeyes’s flesh is juicy and (bonus!) tastes vaguely of chicken. It’s also weirdly slick, almost slimy. But eaten with the crust, it’s awfully tasty.
KFC’s meat has an identical slick/slimy texture, a problem compounded by the lack of a crisp breading. It’s reasonably juicy, and tastes fine, although it is absolutely drenched in oil.
This is a bloodbath of a smackdown, as Popeyes’s fried chicken is superior to KFC’s in every way, from price to taste. The difference in quality is so stark that if you are struck with a hankering for fast food fried chicken, it is worth traveling the extra distance for Popeyes. You might as well get the good stuff.