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Nashville's Old School and New School Hot Chicken Go Head to Head

Southerners may lay claim to superior skill when it comes to frying chicken, but they can’t rightly take ownership of the battered bird: Fried chicken exists in some form in nearly every culture on the planet. Nashville, though, does have dibs on the genre known as hot chicken. Sure, a flicker of pepper or chile may be a standard part of most recipes. Gus’s fried chicken in Memphis famously swats the taste buds with a cayenne backhand. But Nashville hot chicken is something else altogether. The final product comes doused in a shellac of lava capsicum (often laced with lard), turning it a deeper, scarier crimson than Buffalo wings could ever hope to achieve.


Prince's Hot Chicken

These days the Nashville metro area is littered with hot chicken joints, each closely guarding their spice blends and fiery additions. To taste the prototype, a trip to Prince’s Hot Chicken is mandatory. Current owner Andre Prince Jeffries can’t say exactly how long the family has been in the chicken business (she estimates since the 1940s), but she tells a great tale about founder Thornton Prince III. It seems Thornton was fond of the ladies, and after staying out too late one Saturday night he came home in the morning to find his girlfriend preparing the traditional Sunday chicken. But she had a surprise for him: She’d saturated the chicken with chile powder to inflict pain. Instead, he loved it, and eventually began selling his version.

Prince’s Hot Chicken

Fact or no, the truth is in the taste, and Prince’s delivers. It resides in North Nashville, about seven miles from the city’s center, in a nondescript strip mall. The place is nothing to look at, but you’ll have plenty of company—even late on Fridays and Saturdays, when the restaurant stays open until 4 a.m. A line usually snakes through the room, slowly making its way toward the counter window at the Day-Glo teal back wall. Don’t arrive in a hurry: The staff makes each batch of chicken to order. There are half a dozen tables. Many people take their meal to go, but for maximum savor—when the chicken is hot in temperature as well as seasoning—stake out somewhere to sit.

My scalp felt prickly. I was suddenly gushing sweat, and so were my friends.

Choose among four heat levels: mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. The bird sits on pieces of grocery store white bread, topped with a few pickle coins. Extra hot is known to cause whole-body discomfort (many of Prince’s employees stick to mild); my group took the middle road with medium and hot. It took about 40 minutes from the time we arrived until our first bite. The medium, for those of us who appreciate spice but don’t crave daredevil extremes, smoldered pleasantly. My mouth thrummed, but it didn’t set off alarms. The hot, however, took it to the edge. First there was a fleeting "no big deal" reaction: The spices felt gritty-dusty against the tongue, and I registered the skin’s crispness, the vegetal flavor of the chiles, and the juicy flesh underneath. Then the fire began raging and the involuntary reactions kicked in. My nose tingled. My scalp felt prickly. I was suddenly gushing sweat, and so were my friends. Bites of creamy (otherwise mediocre) potato salad became our burn salve. All that said? We polished off both chickens. Not so much the sides of flaccid crinkle fries and cloying baked beans—but those aren’t what hook the devotees, anyway. Open Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m.-4 a.m., Saturday 1:30 p.m.-4 a.m. Cash only.

Hattie B's

For comparison, I also visited a relative hot chicken newcomer. Hattie B’s opened in 2012, the brainstorm of the owners of Bishop’s Meat and Three in Franklin, 20 minutes south of Nashville. The Bishop family had begun experimenting with serving hot chicken on their cafeteria line and found it soon became one of their best sellers. Nick Bishop Jr. and his father, Nick Sr., wisely chose a location in Midtown Nashville, where families and office workers trail out the door at lunchtime. The instant success begat a second location earlier this year near Tennessee State University.

Hot chicken with pimento mac-and-cheese and greens

Hattie B’s is also counter service but adds some true restaurant comforts to the hot chicken oeuvre. There is both indoor seating and picnic table-style communal seating on a covered patio. Homey sides like dusky greens and custardy, pimento-studded mac-and-cheese are made with obvious care. (Skip the crinkle fries here too, though.) Local brews flow from the taps.

This was the sauciest version of hot chicken I’ve encountered

The chicken comes in five levels: Southern (as in no heat, a thoughtful option for the chile adverse), mild/medium, hot, damn hot, and Shut The Cluck Up. As at Prince’s I ordered medium and hot, and I found the burn at Hattie B’s original location softer in both cases. Lovers of Sichuan cooking would likely handle the damn hot variation with ease. The hot version did sting, but through the cayenne’s blaze the nuances of black pepper, garlic powder, and paprika helped round out the flavors. This was the sauciest version of hot chicken I’ve encountered; the fat paper towel roll on our table dwindled fast. Slurping down a root beer float, the dessert of choice, helped smothered the flames.

Does Hattie B’s give Prince’s tough competition? Nah, but it’s handy to have an intown option that does hot chicken justice and also furnishes some urban amenities. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Photos: Bill Addison

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack

123 Ewing Drive, , TN 37207 (615) 226-9442 Visit Website

Hattie B's Hot Chicken

2222 8th Ave, , TN 37204 (615) 970-3010 Visit Website
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