A Good Bird

Pop’s Hot Chicken brings a spectacular sandwich to American Eat Co.

Austin Counts
Pop’s Hot Chicken employee Richard Orozco serves two hot chicken sandwiches to hungry customers on the restaurant’s opening weekend at American Eat Co.

Beloved food truck Pop's Hot Chicken intended to quietly open their first brick and mortar location at American Eat Co. at the beginning of this month. But once word spread on social media, lines of customers eager to try owner Peter "Pops" Yucupicio's take on the Nashville hot chicken sandwich have formed with no signs of letting up.

On a near-daily basis, Pop's is selling out of their delicious hot chicken sandwich at their new location, according to Yucupicio. It's a good problem for any restaurant to have.

"Even without announcing our opening we've been slammed," Yucupicio said. "We're hoping to get things under control with these lines, but it's been hard keeping up with the demand."

While Yucupicio's hot chicken looks similar to a typical Nashville hot chicken sandwich, the taste of Pop's Hot Chicken encapsulates the flavors southwest. The chicken is breaded in a traditional southern style, but fried closer to a chicharon and topped with slawvacado, a coleslaw using only avocado and lime. Pop's also makes a creamy chipotle sauce as their version of Nashville's comeback sauce—traditionally consisting of cayenne sauce, ketchup, mayo and Worcestershire. To kick the heat up a notch, Pop's uses a dried Carolina reaper powder as seasoning. There's five different heat levels a customer can choose from, ranging from no heat to Xtra Hot Plus.

"Some people like (hot chicken) a little spicy and some people just can't get enough spice," Yucupicio said. "We had one person that said the only thing he wanted to taste was heat and we gave him what he wanted. He ate the whole thing, too."

Yucupicio said he discovered his love for the hot chicken sandwich after a road trip to the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, in 2014. His buddy suggested they make a 80 mile detour to Nashville to try the famed sandwich at its birthplace—Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. Yucupicio instantly became hooked on hot chicken, he said.

"It just blew my mind. Ever since I got back from that trip I was craving (a hot chicken sandwich)," Yucupicio said. "Then two years ago when Howlin' Ray's opened in L.A., the same friend said, 'We should check it out.'"

Yucupicio and his friend would take weekend day-trip pilgrimages to the Los Angeles hotspot and had no problem waiting in line for hours to get their hands on some spicy yardbird.

"I started craving it so much I started working on my own recipe to make it for myself," Yucupicio said. "There was no place to get it in Tucson. I knew other people would want these if I could start selling them."

By 2018, Yucupicio quit his job with the Pascua Yaqui tribe and bought a used food truck from Craigslist to begin serving his style of hot chicken. But before he opened, Yucupicio said he went back to Los Angeles to meet with Johnny Ray Zone, owner of Howlin' Ray's.

"(Johnny Ray) was so cool about helping us out. He invited us to the back of his kitchen to see his process," Yucupicio said. "I took notes to try and replicate (the sandwich) over here. We try to do it as close as possible but with our own southwest vibe."

Most Tucsonans know Yucupicio from his food truck located weekend nights in front of the Hippy Gypsy on Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street. He said he usually sells out of his hot chicken sandwich within two to three hours of being on the block. With the new location, Yucupicio said his biggest challenge is staying stocked from 11 a.m. when they open until the doors close at 9 p.m.

"It's our first time trying to operate for a full day. We've been selling out at about 6 p.m.," Yucupicio said. "It's opening week and we're trying to get our staff trained and it's a lot different from the food truck."

Owning and operating a food truck has its challenges, according to Yucupicio. If the truck breaks down, Yucupicio not only has to pay for repairs, he also loses the product that's been prepared for whatever event he may be selling at.

"That's why I'm really thankful to be at American Eat Co. because there have been a couple of times when we've had to cancel an event because we couldn't get from point A to point B," Yucupicio said. "But I think we're getting into the groove and figuring things out. My staff doesn't seem too panicked, but it's a learning process."

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