Nashville Hot Chicken Makes its National Debut

The ubiquity of the Philly cheese steak sandwich and the fact that a Key Lime pie is as easy to procure in most grocery stores as a carton of eggs is proof that some regional dishes are so inspired and so universally irresistible that they simply can’t be contained to the provinces of their birth. Right now another regional dish seems to be going for its big break: Nashville hot chicken.

Hot chicken has been on many a southerner’s radar for a number of years now, but in the past few months the dish and derivations of it have popped up on the menus of no fewer than three national chains and many more independent eateries across the country, with eateries from New York to Los Angeles paying homage to the down-home classic. This emergence on the national scene has many folks asking what the heck “hot chicken” is anyway. We’ll tell you, but first a little history.

Spices of Spite

Hot chicken traces its origins to a Nashville restaurant that’s still considered the most authentic source of this unique poultry preparation in the world, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, now located in a humble strip mall six miles north of the city’s Downtown.

The original batch of hot chicken was supposedly concocted in the 1940s by the girlfriend of John Thornton Prince. Prince, a notoriously promiscuous rambler, had spent one too many nights away from home. Fed up with his infidelity, the woman whose identity is unfortunately lost to history cooked a batch of chicken she hoped would be so unbearably spicy that it would serve as a punishment for Prince’s rowdy ways.

Her plan backfired. Either her recipe wasn’t extreme enough or Prince had a superhuman tolerance for heat. Whatever the case, Prince loved the new dish so much that he set about the business of developing a recipe that he could share with the masses, serving it first in a restaurant he founded with his brother in 1945 called Bar-B-Que Chicken Shack.

Prince’s grand-niece, André Prince Jeffries, inherited the restaurant in 1980 and shortly thereafter changed the name to the more accurate version we know today. In 1989, Jefferies moved it to its current location and continues to run the restaurant to this day.

The Henhouse Heats Up

Whether that origin story is rooted in fact or not, hot chicken has certainly been at the center of the Nashville culinary scene for decades. A number of clones have popped up over the years aiming to capitalize on the popularity of the dish. None have reached the legendary status of Prince’s, but most every short list of places that serve truly-authentic Nashville hot chicken nowadays includes Hattie B’s, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, 400 Degrees, and Pepperfire.

So what exactly makes Nashville hot chicken different from its similar spice-laden cousins? The traditional recipe starts with chicken quarters marinated in either a brine solution or good ole buttermilk to tenderize the meat and impart a richer flavor. The chicken is then coated in a spicy breading and fried, traditionally in a cast iron pan, though most restaurants now opt for a more manageable-on-a-large-scale deep fryer. While the chicken is still hot out of the fryer, it is slathered in a tongue-torching paste that’s traditionally made with lard and copious amounts of cayenne pepper and other spices, topped with pickles, and served to the customer on a piece of white bread.

Hot Chicken Flies the Coop

Nashville hot chicken may have recently reached its point of cultural saturation, becoming the latest local culinary trend to be co-opted by several national chains. Among those, the most significant by far is KFC, which began testing hot chicken in the fall and took the item nationwide in January. They offer it as bone-in pieces, as well as breast tenders for the dark-meat adverse.

O’Charley’s entered the hot chicken game recently as well. A Nashville-based chain, they opted to turn their city’s signature dish into a casual-chain-friendly breast filet sandwich served on a brioche bun over a bed of coleslaw and topped with the obligatory pickles. Authentic or not, their dish accompanies fried green tomatoes, farmhouse chopped steak, and Savannah crab cakes on their revamped “Southern-Inspired” menu.

Captain D’s, another chain that calls Music City home, cashed in on the national trend early with Nashville hot fish in a run than lasted from October through the end of 2015 and included only a handful of participating restaurants.

Whether Nashville Hot Chicken has what it takes to become an American staple à la New York style pizza is yet to be determined. What’s certain is that regional cuisine is fertile ground for national chains and independent restaurants alike to draw inspiration for their own dishes. Menu item R&D is expensive and time-consuming, and the return on investment is not always stellar, so as long as our United States culinary landscape remains diverse, we’ll occasionally see local favorites like hot chicken get their 15 minutes of fame on the letter boards of restaurants in cities far from home.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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