HNC: Nevermind hot new country, here’s hot Nashville chicken
You know Nashville as Music City USA? Not us. We think of our Tennessee home as Hot Chicken Epicenter of the Known Universe.
Most any chain or mom and pop joint will give you the option of take-out chicken in a “hot & spicy” version; no big deal. But in Nashville, this homely notion — humble fried chicken infused with potent spices and escalating degrees of hot pepper — has been elevated to an art form, and has sparked a boisterous competition verging on clan war.
Its local history is told in mythical terms: Bo’s dawned, separating the hot from the mild; Bo’s begat Prince’s & Columbo’s, which begat Bolton’s, etc. Or like a romance novel, with revered founders of generations-old dynasties jealously guarding family secrets, divisive accusations of betrayal and treachery, stolen recipes whispered through burning lips… No wonder these birds taste so good.
For clarity’s sake: “hot chicken” is really just fried chicken with a lot of cayenne pepper and other spices (the secret guard-at-all-costs ones) in the dredging flour that makes for crispy and tangy-to-volcanic hot skin and well-seasoned meat underneath when you fry it.
Every single hot chicken restaurant offers precisely the same presentation: two cushioning slices of white bread and a handful of dill pickle chips. The whole kit ‘n’ caboodle is then wrapped in wax paper, toothpicked into submission and brown-bagged if the food isn’t to be eaten on-site.
The newest entrant into the fray is JOE’S HOTTTT CHICKEN (1432 Gallatin Rd., Madison). Autumnal-life newlywed owners Joe & Dixie do a hard sell, to the point of feigning ignorance that Prince’s or other rival chicken joints even exist — which is ridiculous. Look, no one’s going to wander into a small stand-alone building with opaque windows, risking possible seizure from one of those obnoxiously flashing strobes in the lower window corner, unless they already know they like hot chicken — and in this town, that means having visited Prince’s multiple times.
Maybe it’s worth a visit to Joe’s to see their Hall of Fame, satisfied customers (and savvy self-promoters) who’ve left behind business cards, glossy photos and other testimonial detritus. Best of show goes to the 8×10 of the man and his ventriloquist dummy — never mind that even pantomime consumption of food like this would leave a dummy’s face at best permanently mottled with grease stains, and at worst stripped of its paint. Just order yourself a chicken-strip sandwich and shoot the breeze with yeoman-employee Edward.
BOLTON’S (624 Main St., Nashville) certainly has the element of history in its favor. Owned and operated by a nephew of Bolton Polk, founder of the legendary, lamented Columbo’s, this East Nashville cinder-block walk-up shack is a spinoff of the family business that began in the 1940s and maintained its popularity for better than half a century. Thing is, this isn’t really hot chicken, per se; more like fried chicken with incidental spice.
The folks are friendly as hell, and they hand out cool trinkets: keychains, refrigerator magnets, etc. But we’d all be better off if they just got better birds. Bolton’s chickens tend to be scrawny and tough; and three pieces of tiny chicken are not as good as two normal-sized ones. The dirty grease doesn’t do them any favors, either; tasty fried food needs cleaner oil!
Bolton’s has kinda conceded the chicken thing, and concentrated on another phylum altogether: Fish. Fish they can do. Their catfish sandwich is a sunset-golden yellow, huge fillets poking suggestively out either side of slices of white bread that can’t contain it by half. Bolton’s is honest (if indirect) about it, too: Those magnets? Fish shaped.
Relative newcomer MR. BOO’S (511 Donelson Pike, Nashville) is out by the airport, next to a dry cleaners. “Boo” is short for Bouglea; Revenelle & Robello Bouglea form a branch of a Cajun family tracing their restaurant roots back to New Orleans in the early 1900s.
This clan understands the market value of mystique, for they are the most secretive about their methodology and ingredients. They do, however, offer an account (via Xeroxed fliers at the register) of their “discovery,” on their own Louisiana back forty, of a new kind of pepper growing wild — sometimes several inches in one night under a full moon and suspected of abducting house pets off their back porch. That’s fine, we admire good storytelling.
But even more than that, we admire good bread. None of that cheap Bunny Bread stuff here. Mr. Boo’s bread stands up admirably, defiantly even, to the assault of molten chicken juices. It even occasionally earns a draw, refusing (unlike every other joint’s bread) to turn mushy and fall apart. The folks at Mr. Boo’s steadfastly claim that the stuff comes from a bakery in Louisiana, baked special just for them and not available in any store, anywhere.
Mr. Boo’s also gets points for the scope of their pickled-sides department (all of which contain trace elements of the legendary Bouglea pepper). The counter is lined with huge glass-topped jars of pickled beets, pickled eggs, sometimes pickled okra, and always, irresistibly, pickled sweet green tomatoes.