Move It on Over, Popeye’s! This Is the Sandwich that América Has Waited For
By Al Giordano
I’ve titled various chapters of my life “the summer of cucumber sandwiches.” Sometimes in summertime, when so many others are on vacation and spending money, cash is in short supply for the rest of us, but payroll must still be met, so in order to make sure no one else on the team goes hungry, one spends at least part of the season on a diet of sandwiches featuring cucumber slices plus whatever other condiments one can rustle up.
Cucumber sandwiches are great! They can get one through to Labor Day when one can start doing business and raising money again. After all, little happens in the USA between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And even though I’m not physically back home, that’s from where I raise the resources to get good works done.
In the Summer of 2019, the news media was ablaze with reports that everybody back in North America went nuts over a new chicken sandwich offered up by the Popeye’s Louisiana fast food restaurant chain. Lines formed around entire city blocks and the product quickly sold out in many locations.
For a spell we had a branch of Popeye’s restaurants here in Mexico, but it didn’t last. As fast food places go, it’s not bad. The red beans and rice and popcorn shrimp have long proved a great snack on the fly. So here I was in 2019 unable to sample the taste craze of the summer. What’s a po’ boy to do? But to play in a rock’n’roll band? And to make one’s own version of the best chicken sandwich to keep up with Popeye’s?
Cue to narrator’s voice: “Introducing the Pop-Al’s ™ Chicken Sandwich…”
The first innovation I made to the concept of this culinary delight was to change up how the chicken itself is deployed. I confess that I’m not a fan of thick chicken breast as a sandwich feature. It’s the least juicy cut of the fowl and it fries up so tall as to push other ingredients out to the sides of a sandwich. No! I want a sandwich constructed so that the ingredients and flavors all fit on the same stage – in this case a toasted sesame seed bun.
So, I went to a local butcher and said, “slice and pound the hell out of that cut for me, please.” Hammering on any cut of meat breaks down the toughness of the muscle and the cartilage and makes the dish more tender.
For the batter to fry around the chicken I went with one of my favorite recipes, that of the Korean-American chef who goes by her video-game handle of Maangchi (it means “hammer”) and her recipe for street market Korean fried chicken, known as Sijang-Tongdak.
The batter has a relatively small portion of wheat flour, an equal portion of roasted soybean powder (the secret to its crisp texture and nutty flavor) and leans more heavily on potato starch than on flour, which soaks up the chicken flavor while protecting the patties from being overcome by the oil they are fried in.
I added to the Korean batter recipe, prior to dipping the chicken and frying it, the 13 “secret” herbs and spices that Kentucky Fried Chicken uses in its product: salt, pepper, thyme, oregano, basil, ginger, dried mustard, celery salt, paprika (normal, not smoked), garlic salt and a more generous dose of ground white pepper. Dip the meat once into dry flour with the spices, then add the egg, whip well, and double-dip it into the batter.
And before frying the pounded chicken patty I cooked bacon in a cast iron pan, to add flavor to the subsequent fry. The bacon is put aside until needed later in the prep. And before adding oil to fry the chicken patties I brown the hamburger buns in the bacon fat and put them aside for down the sandwich assembly line.
In reality, the thin chicken patty that results – it doesn’t need to cook long because it’s already pounded and tenderized and very thin, just cook it until the batter is golden and crispy to taste – serves like the middle slice of bread in a club sandwich, think of its utility that way, separating the bottom set of ingredients from those on the top shelf. And it accomplishes it while leaving room for those ingredients to shine alongside it.
And when the fried chicken patties are done, set them on paper towel and prepare the rest of your “club” sandwich.
For the bottom half of the now-toasted bun I prepare it in the Barcelona style of “pa amb tomàquet” (“bread with tomato”), in which one slices a bell tomato in half, squeezes it over toast, and drizzles the seeds and juice well into the slice. The rest of the tomato can be sliced to serve as a bed for the fried chicken patty. After a little salt and olive oil is drizzled over the tomato infused bread slice, I slice what is left of the tomato and make a bed upon to lay the fried chicken patty.
The chicken patty – which in the final minute of frying got a slice of American (or any other) cheese melted onto it – goes atop. And atop the cheese goes the crispy fried bacon slices – generously! But only half the sandwich is done yet!
What I did not want to do at this level is add a gob of mayonnaise or even homemade aioli or some kind of oil-based dressing. There is already so much fat on this sandwich, it needs balance, not more of the same! So atop the bacon strips I placed sliced red onion. And atop the tart red onion slices I added the “secret sauce.” Ready for it?
The “secret sauce” of the Pop-Al’s ™ Chicken sandwich is simple: guacamole (just plain mashed and ripe avocado with a little salt and lime juice) but mixed with sweet pickle relish (one teaspoon of relish for every tablespoon of guac). That’s because a chicken sandwich needs pickles for that vinegar-acidity to balance out the fat. Add some shredded lettuce (romaine hearts are my fave but your crispy lettuce of choice will do).
Then the toasted sesame-seed top bun is laid over it and very gently, with fingers pushing lightly down on both sides of a sharp, corrugated knife, slice lightly through – let the knife do the work, simply moving it like a saw back and forth slowly – and very shortly you will see the beautiful cross section of this colorful and tasty sandwich.
This sandwich offers an irresistible balance of protein, fat, acid and starch. More importantly it gifts an explosion of flavor.
And if you don’t feel like going to all the trouble of preparing it, don’t worry. You can stand on line for hours at the nearest Popeye’s instead!
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