Hometown Hungers: Hot on the Trail of Nashville-Style Hot Chicken

Photo By: Ashlyn Allison

Photo By: David Danzig

Photo By: Andrew Hyslop

Fired-Up Fowl

Talk about a revenge fantasy: A legend as spicy as hot chicken holds that the dish was invented when Thornton Prince’s girlfriend wanted to teach him a lesson. She doused his fried chicken in cayenne and waited for him to howl. Instead, he loved it enough to ask for seconds, eventually opening Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. Now, the city is nearly as well-known for its spicy fried birds as for its country music, with spots like Pepperfire, Hattie B’s and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish competing with Prince’s to dole out red-coated white and dark meat to masses who love to feel that burn. As Bolton’s owner Dollye Ingram says, “I call it blessings from the pepper.” Here are a few top spots outside Music City to try hot chicken.

Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Birmingham, Alabama

This popular food truck has spun off a brick-and-mortar location in Uptown. Owner Zebbie Carney is no newcomer to Nashville’s fiery flavors. “I'm from East Nashville, born and raised,” he explains. “I grew up eating Prince's Hot Chicken.” While working as an executive chef in Birmingham, Carney was left at a loss when it came to satisfying his hot chicken cravings in the city, so he started a food truck featuring the spicy bird. Long lines quickly proved that he wasn’t alone in his love of hot chicken. To build heat, the kitchen infuses a spice rub in oil. The spice level ranges from Southern (no spice) through Mild, Hot, Hot Damn and Stupid Hot, all available on a slew of chicken styles, including wings, tenders, popcorn chicken, sandwiches and quarter, half and whole birds. How hot does Birmingham like it? “It depends on where we are when people order the Stupid Hot,” Carney says. “Sometimes Stupid Hot EVERYTHING is flying out the door and other times people will not touch it. We do sell more Stupid Hot than expected.” Carney recommends cooling it down with the house banana pudding or a glass of milk.

Go to: Eugene’s Hot Chicken

Howlin’ Ray’s, Los Angeles

Howlin’ Ray’s brings devilishly spicy chicken to the City of Angels. The high level of heat hasn't deterred lines of fans who'll regularly queue for two hours to grab the finger-staining, tongue-sizzling chicken. Chef Johnny Zone, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, fell for hot chicken during time working at Husk in Nashville. Zone sources top-quality, hormone-free chicken to serve in a variety of pieces — including a quarter, half, whole bird or boneless breast — spiced Mild, Medium, Hot, X-Hot and Howlin! and served by themselves, on waffles each weekend and in a sandwich. Dampen the fire with macaroni salad and peach iced tea.

Go to: Howlin' Rays

Bub City, Chicago

This Nashville-inspired bar is beloved for its craft beers, country music and sidewalk seating. Southern fare includes fried pickles, barbecue and a meat-and-three lunch. The buttermilk fried chicken is available Nashville Hot, using a wet rub of cayenne pepper and spices mixed with fat and stored hot. The chicken is fried to order, then dipped into the hot, spicy vats for a fiery coating. This Nashville heat can be added to tenders, wings, a leg-thigh-breast combo and a fried chicken sandwich, which is served with chips and a side of slaw to help soothe burning tongues.

Go to: Bub City

Tumble 22, Austin

Fire in the Hole is the hilariously apt name for the spiciest chicken at this Austin trailer. Dreamed up by local chef Harold Marmulstein after he spent time in Nashville, the restaurant cooks chicken to order, coating the birds in a special secret blend of seasonings with a proprietary spice dip. The name comes from what happens next: To fully spice the chicken, it is tumbled 22 times in the mix, coating the crisp bird in a choice of four sauces, Wimpy, Hot, Dang Hot and Fire in the Hole. About a dozen people go all-out with the spiciest blend each day. Those who regret it can cool off with the house sauces, which include classic ranch, sweet chile yogurt, cilantro-mint and the remoulade-style Comeback Sauce. The most-popular order is the O.G. Classic Chicken Sandwich, which tops a fried chicken breast with kale slaw, pickles and mayonnaise.

Go to: Tumble 22

Oddbird, Atlanta

Extra coatings of a spicy paste up the heat index of chicken at this Atlanta pop-up, which regularly appears at West Egg restaurant (Check Twitter for updates.). The paste is made with cayenne, smoked paprika, chile powder and jalapeño, according to co-owner Jennifer Johnson. Since spice perception varies based on the palate, Johnson’s team tried to create a universal rating on a scale from one to 10. “As we developed our Oddbird menu, we did our best to create an ‘objective’ rating,” she explains. “For our Hot to rate a six or seven, and our Too Hot to rate a nine or 10.” The restaurant serves its hot chicken in a biscuit or a sandwich, but the most-popular hot chicken is served over buttermilk waffles. Johnson recommends offsetting the burn with an IPA or a house boozy milkshake, such as the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Boozy Shake.

Go to: West Egg Cafe

The Budlong, Chicago

The tongue-lashing chicken from The Budlong is the result of a multi-day, four-part process to create the best texture and flavor for hormone-free local chickens. A dry brine is followed by a wet dip and a dry dredge, then an overnight rest before the chicken is fried and coated in a top-secret mixture of spices. The restaurant offers hot chicken platters, tenders, a tenders-topped salad and a sandwich, all available Naked, Classic, Hot or X-Hot. The fried chicken sandwiches are the most-popular order. “Our chicken sandwich is a skin-on breast, fried to perfection and pasted with your desired heat level,” explains owner Jared Leonard. “It’s plated on a brioche bun with housemade comeback sauce, housemade pickles and farm slaw.” Leonard estimates that about 20 people order the X-Hot each day at each of the three locations. For those brave enough to go all in, he recommends balancing out the burn with a cocktail like The Founder, with rum, peach and ginger ale, or the bourbon-based Gentleman Johnson.

Go to: The Budlong

Royals Hot Chicken, Louisville, Kentucky

A short drive from Nashville, Royals in Louisville has mastered hot chicken. All chicken brines in a spicy, acidic mix for 24 hours. It’s then dried and double-floured to form a thick, crisp coating. Out of the fryer, the birds are dunked into spices and hot oil for a full fire immersion. Heat levels start at Mild, then creep up to Medium through Hot, X-Hot and Gonzo, and can be added to chicken and Southern-fried tofu. “Currently Medium is just barely edging out Hot as our most-popular heat level, but Hot is definitely trending towards becoming the most popular heat level as our customers get more adventurous,” says chef and owner Ryan Rogers. He estimates that only three percent of diners go for Gonzo. “We’re frequently told that the Gonzo is the hottest thing most people have ever had,” he says. “It contains a sizable amount of the three hottest chile peppers in the world, amongst a few other ‘tamer’-by-comparison spices.” Rogers recommends cooling off with the house milkshakes and soft serve, though he abstains. “Personally I love the burn, so I just wait it out.”

Go to: Royals Hot Chicken

Bird & Bone, Miami

This Southern-tinged restaurant, which is nestled in The Confidante hotel, serves hot chicken in sandwich form at lunch, and in various forms over waffles at breakfast and dinner. Chef Richard Hales brines the birds for 24 hours, then dredges them in flour and buttermilk to fry. Cayenne dominates the spice blend, with salt, dry mustard, smoked paprika and garlic powder in warm oil to adhere the blend. To assemble the popular sandwich, Hales stacks hot tenders and housemade pickles on cult-favorite Zak the Baker brioche slathered with local honey and house mustard. Hales’ first taste of fried chicken inspired him to add it to the menu. “All my restaurants use plenty of chile, so it was a natural progression,” he says. Hales recommends following the hot sandwich with “ice cream and lots of it!”

Go to: Bird & Bone

Peaches HotHouse, Brooklyn

Peaches is a New York destination for hot chicken. The kitchen prepares three spice levels — Regular, Hot and Extra Hot — with about 20 percent of customers opting to go all-in on the burn. The chicken is brined overnight with hot peppers and spices. The birds are then seasoned to-order with additional Hot or Extra-Hot spice. In lieu of the typical fiery oil dunk, Peaches dry-rubs hot chiles onto the skin just before serving, to keep the texture crispy with a juicy interior. As for how to quell the fire, Co-owner Craig Samuel says “Our hot pepper rub is water soluble, so trying to abate the heat with water is futile. Bread helps,” he offers. “But honestly, if you ordered it Extra, you wanted it Extra, right?”

Go to: Peaches HotHouse

Cackalack’s Hot Chicken Shack, Portland, Oregon

With a food cart, a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a stall at the airport, Cackalack’s makes sure hot chicken is never too far from reach in Portland. Owner Erik Mitchell spices his chicken in a three-layer dredge with buttermilk and starch, using cayenne, garlic and onion powders, paprika and mustard, along with a secret ingredient. The chicken is served over salad or waffles, as a platter or in a variety of sandwiches, available naked, hot or XXX, with double habanero. The most-popular dish, the Blazer sandwich, features a boneless breast slathered in house-made Cackalack sauce and accompanied by slaw and house-made pickles. Cajun fries keep the spice fest rolling.

Go to: Cackalacks Hot Chicken Shack