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Popeyes has fast food with a side of soul

The man ahead of us is on a mission. He's practically skipping down a flight of stairs, intent on getting through the door at the bottom. As he pushes it open and the golden aroma of hot grease wafts out into the night, he turns to us in glee. "This is the place," he says with a cackle. "This is the best fried chicken in town."

It's sort of sad when some of the city's best soul food is a franchise. What does it say about our spiritual well-being? But it is undeniable that Popeyes fried chicken is pretty darn good. Coast Cafe in Cambridge gives it a run for its money, but KFC can't even get it to march. If we have to import a little soul from corporate headquarters in Atlanta, so be it. They'll probably have a Legal Sea Foods there soon enough. (Last month the shellfish imperialists annexed Pennsylvania, their ninth state.)

This particular Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits opened near Fenway Park at the end of March, the chain's only Boston outpost; another is planned for Dorchester in late fall. When its impending arrival was announced, there was a ripple of sheepish excitement among those who generally sneer at fast food: A love of Popeyes chicken seems to be a fairly common dirty little secret. Not for nothing was it the favorite food of Satan's son, played by Adam Sandler, in "Little Nicky."

When we bite into a piece of New Orleans Spicy fried chicken -- you can choose between that formula and Classic Mild -- we see why. The mild is juicy, nicely fried, and coated in extra-crunchy batter, but we see little reason to bother with it when there's spicy in the house. It's the same bird, but with a cayenne kick that elevates it to addictive. (The menu here is nominally Cajun, with nods to the likes of dirty rice and jambalaya. Popeyes got its start in New Orleans, but according to director of operations C. Bryan Thomas, only about 10 of the approximately 40 pre-Katrina stores there still exist.) Although Popeyes' biscuits are much vaunted, these do little for us. They're fluffy but flat in flavor. The sides aren't exciting, either -- corn is overcooked, and mac and cheese gummy. We don't care. Behind us on the wall, a mural features cartoon hens cavorting with jazz musicians as the birds add hot sauce to the pot they're about to be cooked in; even they're happy about the chicken here. (Note: Our previous experiences with Popeyes were on road trips, and quality varies greatly from branch to branch.)

At 10 p.m., the restaurant is full. Couples swap bites of sides, a group of teen girls sip sodas, solo diners gulp down wings and legs. It's fast food business as usual, except for one curiosity: There's only one white person here, something we've never seen before in a Fenway establishment. It's like a joke out of "Chappelle's Show."

"Do white people ever come in here?" one of us whispers to the cashier.

"Oh yeah," she says. "They come in. I'm surprised they do, but they do." The love of grease knows no boundaries.

And sure enough, when the Red Sox game starts to let out, the demographics shift back to standard Fenway. The first post-ball arrivals aren't here for the chicken, though. They head straight for the bathroom. Next comes a wave of people who, after an evening eating hot dogs, are ready for another round of Bad For You. Then a few clubby types show up, possibly making between-set biscuit runs -- within easy lurching distance of Lansdowne Street, Popeyes would be the ideal post-concert destination if it didn't close at 11.

Soon Popeyes is bustling. The interior is cramped; though the restaurant looks big from the outside, appearances here are deceiving. This is, after all, a Cajun-esque restaurant based in Georgia that, according to the website, is named not for the spinach-eating cartoon sailor but for the irascible, hard-drinking cop Popeye Doyle from "The French Connection" (a much cooler, much stranger inspiration).

For a chain restaurant, Popeyes has a lot of quirks. And yes, for a chain restaurant it has a lot of something else, too, mixed in with the New Orleans Spicy batter. I don't think it's MSG. It just might be soul.

Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits , 21 Brookline Ave., 617-236-7272; popeyes.com. $4.99-$9.99.

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