Some like it hot: Nashville’s hot chicken craze

From thick, juicy burgers to the coziest of cafes, Nashville offers a wide array of cuisines and flavors. But the hottest food craze around town isn’t for the faint of heart.

Hot chicken is a twist on the traditional Southern fried food most people think of. But it isn’t your typical buttermilk-based chicken. It calls for one extra ingredient: lots and lots of cayenne pepper.

Customers come in expecting to handle the heat, but this flaming poultry delicacy is all bark and even more bite.

“Some people add garlic or other subtle things, but it’s all about the cayenne,” said Nick Bishop, owner of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. “Some even add hotter peppers like habanero, but ultimately, it’s the cayenne.”

Cole Lafleur, a sophomore at Belmont, agrees – when it comes to hot chicken, the more spice the better.

“I feel like with hot chicken, the idea is quantity over quality in terms of how much same spice is put onto the chicken,” he said.

The popularity of this spicy meal has spread like wildfire with restaurants serving the dish with a handful of sides. It’s traditionally served with a slice of white bread and pickles, a plating choice that one Hattie B’s waitress, as well as her boss, finds a mystery.

“I think the bread is to soak up the grease and the pickles are for a cooling effect, but I really have no idea,” Bishop said.

Nashville’s love for hot chicken is celebrated every Fourth of July at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival, where people come out and wake up their taste buds.

One of the most notable Nashville stops for this fiery food is Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack on Ewing Drive. It’s tucked away in a strip mall with its name painted in bold letters on the front window of the restaurant.

From the minute you walk in the door, the aroma in the stuffy air holds hints of homemade Southern cooking. The tiles are scuffed gray from the countless customers that have made this eatery famous for years, and six cramped seating arrangements make the restaurant look filled to the brim. Meanwhile, people keep piling in to get their hands on a hot meal.

The chicken is the highlight of the limited menu and only sides like coleslaw and potato salad accompany the main staple. Spice levels for the menu’s superstar ranges from a plain version to what they call XX hot.

Even though there isn’t much to this shack, autographs and winning posters from food contests cover the walls, showing that the lip-burning food is surely worth the 45 minute wait.

Sam Denlinger, a sophomore at Belmont, tried hot chicken for the first time from Prince’s, and although she is a fan of spicy food, the highly seasoned delicacy even overwhelmed her senses.

“Holy mother of God,” said Denlinger, who tried the X hot. “My lips are on fire and my tongue feels like I burnt it.”

Minutes later, the cayenne proved to be stronger than expected. Denlinger proceeded to down three glasses of cold milk and a whole banana to try to beat the heat. But as she powered through the next couple bites, she was able to taste how well the chicken was cooked, beyond just tasting the spice.

“Those were actually really good chicken pieces,” Denlinger said. “I would totally go back for the plain chicken. It’s addicting.”

If you ever want to try this Nashville specialty, but don’t want to drive far away, Hattie B’s on 19th Avenue is the place for you.

New to the city’s scene, Hattie B’s has a trendier vibe with the same service concept of counter style. An open, outdoor deck is welcoming to all customers willing to take a bite of a bird and hang out under twinkling lights for a while.

With a larger menu and a range of spice levels from Southern/plain to “Shut the Cluck Up,” Hattie B’s offers standard hot chicken fare with a flavor they’ve created themselves.

“We needed new items at our other restaurant, so we started playing around with recipes,” Bishop said.

The now famous hot chicken got its start as a special in the family-owned restaurant, Bishop’s Meat & Three, where it became a top money-earner.

“We made 30 percent of our profits off of it. We just did it and jumped in to the new business.”

Although customers can choose their level of heat, Hattie B’s focuses on the chicken itself, rather than the extremity of the fire level.

“We don’t want to sacrifice heat for flavor,” Bishop said. “It’s not good if it’s so hot. It loses flavor.”

After trying their homemade plate of tenders, without cayenne, Denlinger was better able to savor the flavor.

“It’s still really well cooked, but this time, I can actually finish my meal,” Denlinger said.

Every customer who is willing to try hot chicken is taking a risk with their mouth, but the cayenne level comes complete with a different reaction. Some can handle themselves, while others throw in the towel mid-bite.

“I’ve seen guys come in here and have ‘Shut the Cluck Up’ and not even drink a sip of water,” Bishop said. “But I’ve also seen people sweating bullets and tears when people get it in their eyes. It’s awful, but also really funny to look through the window and see them.”

Whatever the reaction may be, hot chicken is on the rise. It’s slowly growing to places outside of the South and all around the country.

And as Nashville’s food claim to fame continues to reach a wider range of taste buds, it remains focused on the basics: tradition and cayenne.

“Hot chicken is an old recipe and we just have always stuck with it,” Bishop said. “It stays with you, and it’s just the kind of food I was raised on.”

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