Surprise: Popeye’s shrimp ‘n’ chicken are on the leader board

Hushpuppy Butterfly Shrimp (foreground) join fried chicken, buttermilk biscuit and jambalaya at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.
Hushpuppy Butterfly Shrimp (foreground) join fried chicken, buttermilk biscuit and jambalaya at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.

We’ve been watching the lively TV ad campaign for Hushpuppy Butterfly Shrimp at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen for awhile, and have read the print ads: “It’s impolite to stare, unless staring at Hushpuppy Butterfly Shrimp. That’s Southern Hush-pitality.”

Bad pun, but we decided to become victims of Madison Avenue anyway and try some for ourselves. You get eight fat shrimp for $5, along with a side dish. The promotional item will be “at participating restaurants” for another three weeks, a store manager told us.

For context, hushpuppies are deep-fried balls of seasoned cornmeal, indigenous to the Southern states. They can be sublime. Further, to “butterfly” a shrimp is to cut it deeply along the back with a parting knife, opening the body wide but not slicing it in half. The result is a shrimp that has “wings” like a butterfly.

Thus, we logically concluded that Popeye’s shrimp had been shelled, deveined and butterflied, then dipped in hushpuppy-like batter and fried. That’s how they looked when we picked up our little plastic baskets at the Popeye’s counter, along with well-seasoned crispy-creamy Cajun fries and surprisingly good buttermilk biscuits. On our next visit, we’ll pass on the sides of tasteless mac ‘n’ cheese and bland jambalaya (what is that really?).

Using black plastic “sporks,” the three of us speared the shrimp, dipped ‘em in cocktail sauce and munched away. Hey, these aren’t bad. Hey, these are pretty good — crunchy, moist and sweet, with a hint of heat and the distinct taste of hushpuppy. A thumbs-up, but let’s keep it in perspective: It’s fast food.

Some weeks ago, a friend of ours confided that he breaks his vegetarian vows when it comes to Popeye’s fried chicken, calling it “the best in Sacramento.” Out of curiosity, we ordered a three-piece dark-meat combo and were shocked by how good it was. The non-greasy pieces were hot and juicy, with a touch of heat and salt, tastier than the Hushpuppy Butterfly Shrimp.

“This is 10 time better than you-know-who’s fried chicken,” said one lunch pal.

“Thank goodness I don’t live near a Popeye’s, I’d gain 20 pounds,” said the second.

The chicken chain began in 1972 with a single restaurant and now has more than 2,000 globally, both company-operated and franchised. Founder Alvin Copeland found success after he spiced up his bland fried chicken and changed the name of his Chicken on the Run store to Popeye’s, after Gene Hackman’s cop character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle” in “The French Conncection” (1971). It was not, as many believe, named after Popeye the Sailor Man, who has been eating spinach since 1929.

Several Popeye’s operate in the Sacramento area, including the very tidy, efficient and welcoming store we visited at 7229 Stockton Blvd.; 916-392-0701.

P.S.: If you’d prefer high-end buttermilk fried chicken from Food Network star Tyler Florence’s family recipe, the next time you’re in San Francisco track down his $25 bird at Wayfare Tavern. Taste and compare it to Popeye’s, as we did. Just sayin’.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe