Hot Chicken Power Rankings: Nashville's top three spots

0:46 | eats
Andy Staples’s Hot Chicken Power Rankings
Monday July 17th, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even five years ago, using the phrase “hot chicken” outside middle Tennessee would have produced a quizzical look followed by a question. You mean spicy Buffalo wings, right?

Now? Hot chicken has gone mainstream. National chains make their own version, and regional chains hoping to become national chains have formed to offer this Nashville creation that requires cooks to use a peppery rub or slather their chicken in an ultra-spicy pepper paste before frying to create a heat that burns through to the bone.

Like all good regional dishes, hot chicken has an oft-repeated origin story that probably isn’t the whole truth. But since we love to eat our mythology, we keep telling it. It goes something like this: Thornton Prince III was a man who struggled with fidelity. One morning, after Prince had stumbled home from yet another misadventure, Prince’s girlfriend exacted her revenge by using all the pepper she had to make Prince’s fried chicken. He loved it so much that in the 1930s, he started a restaurant that served the stuff.

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Prince’s descendants still run the restaurant that bears his name, but is the original still the best? I decided to test the top three purveyors of hot chicken to find out.

Before I embarked upon this quest to create the definitive Hot Chicken Power Ranking, I made some ground rules for myself. First, I had to try the hottest variation on the menu. This is revenge food, after all. I wanted to taste the spite of a cook scorned in each bite. Second, I needed to test the other temperatures to determine the ideal level for the mainstream palate. The winner would be the place that could produce delicious fried chicken with a kick as well as rage in poultry form. On to the rankings…

3. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish

Courtesy of Andy Staples

This longtime competitor of Prince’s sits in a low-slung building—which isn’t slung as low as Bolton’s dilapidated former home a few feet away — not far from downtown. Bolton’s website warns diners that while the chicken is spicy, “it won’t cause you to lose your composure.” This is a direct shot at Prince’s, which prides itself on melting tastebuds.

The red sign hanging on the wall at Bolton’s suggested this might not be entirely true. “THE SPICE IS A DRY RUB,” the sign reads. “PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE RUBBING YOUR EYES OR BABIES! NO REFUNDS, RETURNS OR EXCHANGES. CHOOSE YOUR SPICE LEVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK!”

I ordered Extra Spicy (the hottest level available) and waited.

Hot chicken comes staked to a piece of white bread with pickles either on the side or on the toothpick holding the entire creation together. The bread soaks up the grease, and that combination makes a hearty side dish that can also cut help strip away spice that lingers inside the mouth. Unfortunately for Bolton’s, I didn’t need the bread to cut the heat. It was obvious from the color of the chicken that Bolton’s didn’t want me to lose my composure. But I wanted to lose a little composure, so I had to dock Bolton's for the lack of heat. Also, the chicken inside was a tad dry. I tried medium chicken as well, and based on those two the best temperature for mainstream consumption appears to be Hot.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid Bolton’s altogether, though. I also tried the Medium catfish, and this alone is reason to make a pilgrimage. Order extra bread and toss in a few pickles for one of the best fish sandwiches you’ll ever eat. Unfortunately for Bolton’s, this is a hot chicken power ranking and not a fish sandwich power ranking.

2. Hattie B’s

Courtesy of Andy Staples

Hattie B’s is one of the chains trying to spread the gospel of hot chicken throughout the south. Unlike Bolton’s and Prince’s, which have occupied their locations for decades, Hattie B’s locations are new and slick. This will turn off the hipster diners who crave an “authentic” experience, but I only care how the food tastes. 

The lines can grow long at Hattie B’s, especially on Sundays when the place offers waffles instead of white bread to accompany the chicken. But there is a trick to avoid the wait. The west Nashville location offers online takeout ordering, so my friend and I ordered about 23 hours before we ate. At the appointed time, I walked past all the saps waiting in the boiling heat and spent approximately 45 seconds inside the restaurant before emerging with a bag stuffed with hot chicken and waffles.

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I tried the Medium and the Shut The Cluck Up variations, and I was pleasantly stunned at how faithfully Hattie B’s hewed to the spirit of the dish. When I walked through the gleaming new dining room before picking up my order, I had assumed the place would dumb down the recipe to satisfy the tourists. That wasn’t the case. I worried I’d get a sanitized version of the original revenge recipe, but Shut The Cluck Up delivered that happy pain with crispy skin and juicy meat. Judging by the wallop on the front end of each bite, someone at Hattie B’s had been delightfully wronged and took it out on the chicken. The waffles were an inspired idea — Hot Chicken Takeover in Columbus, Ohio, also offers this combo daily — and the thicker bread provided an even better base/capsaicin stripper. Hattie B’s provides syrup, but it isn’t necessary. Just dunk the waffle pieces in the grease.

The ideal mainstream temperature at Hattie B’s is probably somewhere between Medium and Hot. This would pack some heat but wouldn’t offend anyone who likes a little kick. Still, it doesn’t quite hold up to the original at …

1. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

Courtesy of Andy Staples

In the video embedded here, I accidentally left off one “extra.” I ordered extra-extra-extra hot, and the lady working the cash register asked me if I knew what I was getting myself into. I’d been to Prince’s before, and I knew that Medium was hot and Hot could potentially liquefy internal organs. This was the hottest thing in the place, and she wanted to make sure I wouldn’t come back whining because I couldn’t handle the heat.

You can watch for yourself and judge how I handled it. The XXX Hot kicks like a mule at first bite, but its true power emerges after about five seconds. A cayenne bomb detonates somewhere toward the back of the mouth and then mushrooms through the entire body. But here’s the thing. After that first bite, your mouth is coated so thoroughly in pepper paste that it forms a new baseline. Suddenly, the crisp of the skin and the juice from the meat come bursting through. It’s more than fried chicken; it’s a heightened state of consciousness.

The bread under the XXX Hot does help rip away some of the heat, but if Prince’s wanted to make some real money, the proprietors would sell milk for $15 a pint. No one would pay that price up front, but after a few bites, diners would be throwing money over the counter for even a drop of mouth-coating moo juice. 

Meanwhile, the Medium at Prince’s remains the ideal for the average palate. It’s hot enough to know that woman was really mad at Thornton Prince but still approachable for those who don’t enjoy a little suffering with their elation.

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