Chicago’s restaurant world is well aware of the buzz surrounding Popeyes fried chicken sandwich, and how the fast-food giant this week temporarily pulled the item from its menu. Some are creating their own sandwiches, others are standing behind civic pride and asking customers to patronize independent restaurants. Still, others have sunk their teeth into the hype and even made sandwich deliveries to colleagues to spread the love.
Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel of Majani, the vegan restaurant with locations in the South Shore and inside One Eleven Food Hall in Pullman, on Wednesday introduced a meatless and dairy-free version. Emmanuel’s been vegan for 40 years. Last week he started to experiment with a wheat, soy, and pea protein. He tops the battered and fried vessel with a chipotle and green sauces that provide heat and a fresh herbal flair. The vegan buns are made in Gary, Indiana at Organic Bread of Heaven. The item will stay on the menu for about a month. If the item sells, it could become a fixture.
“We’ve obviously been watching the direction of the plant-based market for a long time,” Emmanuel said. “Now that we see big corporate food getting in the game it’s clear a company like ours has the potential to complete. The chicken sandwich was our way of reminding the market that we’ve been doing this long before those guys.”
Over in West Town, there’s a friendly competition between two of the neighborhood’s best restaurants, Funkenhausen and Split-Rail. Funkenhausen’s co-owner, Daniella Caruso, loves Popeyes’s bone-in chicken and biscuits. But a recent visit where she and her husband (chef Mark Steuer) chewed on some rubbery chicken fingers swayed her from trying the sandwich. She finally gave in on Thursday and wasn’t impressed.
Before Steuer started at Funkenhausen, he cooked at Carriage House and the Bedford in Wicker Park. Caruso saw an opportunity.
“I’m a huge fan of his fried chicken and particularly his chicken sandwiches but he hasn’t made them since Carriage House which was five years ago,” she said. “So in part, this was my selfish attempt at getting him to make me a chicken sandwich.”
Caruso contacted Split-Rail’s Zoë Schor (she hasn’t tried the sandwich; Popeyes has been sold out). Split-Rail specializes in fried chicken and will soon open along with other chefs as part of the Time Out Market food hall in Fulton Market. Didier Souillat, Time Out’s CEO, last week said Schor’s fried chicken was his favorite food in the hall.
To have fun with customers, Funkenhausen and Split-Rail have added chicken sandwiches to its menus through Sunday. They’re urging diners to pick between the two and post comments on social media.
“Even though people may be getting swept up in the Popeyes sandwich zeitgeist, I think the people in our city are incredibly Chicago proud,” Schor said. “It’s fun and funny to go along with it on social media, but I think part of the reason we’re doing this is that nobody actually thinks Popeyes is going to have a better chicken sandwich than one of ours. Chicago folks are proud of Chicago restaurants.”
Schor’s attitude matches with Chicago’s most popular chicken chain. Harold’s Chicken Shack decided to enter into the fray by declaring itself the city’s fried chicken king. Local attorney and writer Exavier Pope agreed with the sentiment and wrote that that “if Harold’s Chicken came out with a spicy chicken sandwich fried hard with mild sauce and extra pepper” that the “debate would be over.”
Listen, if Harold’s Chicken came out with a spicy chicken sandwich fried hard with mild sauce and extra pepper, this whole Chick-fil-A vs Popeyes vs Wendy’s debate would be OVER.— Exavier Pope (@exavierpope) August 20, 2019
The hype has spread through the country, but Popeyes has actually been selling the sandwiches since May at its Chicago locations. That’s when barman Carlos Matias (Band of Bohemia, Acadia) began posting about the sandwich on social media. He offered to start delivering the sandwich to friends in a Facebook post dated May 24. He’s delivered to people including Finom chef Rafa Esparza: “I’m about to start personally delivering Popeyes NEW spicy chicken sandwiches to your doors,” Matias wrote back in May. “Just so y’all can see, it’s real. Real god dang good.”
Now that publications like the New Yorker have recognized the sandwich, Matias feels like a tastemaker: “I think it’s time to come out of retirement with all the ‘new’ press coming out,” Matias wrote a week ago. “The OG’s know who advocated for the [spicy chicken sandwich] before it went national. LET’S GET IT CHICAGO!”
While Popeyes sorts out its supply chain issues, there are plenty of other Chicago restaurants that serve fried chicken sandwiches. Then again, for super fans like Matias, it’s just not the same without a little Cajun Sparkle.