We’re on the cusp of a trend. And according to Zagat and Food Republic, it’s the “hottest” food trend of 2016 — Nashville-style hot chicken. This devilish dish swept Nashville in 2007, when the first Hot Chicken Festival was held to celebrate the city’s “indigenous food,” but history and legend say that hot chicken actually goes back decades. Now, chicken spot Nashville Hot is open in Crescent Springs, Ky., with more on the way.
Nashville Hot is owned by a past president of local favorite Tom+Chee, David Krikorian. He intends to open several more locations this year, and a competitor, Joella’s Hot Chicken from Louisville, is opening soon less than a quarter mile from Nashville Hot’s spot.
According to a well-researched history in the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, hot chicken came about as a revenge dish, served by a cheated-on mistress to her wandering man. Instead of getting angry about his meal, the philandering Thornton Prince got famous, turning his spurned lover’s recipe into a restaurant. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack opened more than 80 years ago in one of then-segregated Nashville’s African-American neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the restaurant moved closer to the Ryman Auditorium that white folks were lured in by the delicious smell that beckoned after late nights at the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, Prince’s had to build another dining room in the back so the white Opry performers and patrons would have a place to sit in the still-segregated restaurant.
The director of the Southern Foodways Alliance says Prince’s chicken has become one of the “100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Positively Must Try Before You Die.” So off I went to Nashville Hot to give the dish my best shot.
On my first visit, I was pleasantly surprised. I hate order-at-the counter places because I always see what I wish I’d ordered after I’ve paid and sat down. And this place? Big-hair Country music and plastic carry-out utensils when you’re dining in — two more things that make me cranky. But the food made me feel better.
The chicken can be ordered in four spice levels with cutesy names: 1) Yankee Mild; 2) Midwest Medium; 3) Southern Heat; and 4) Nashville Hot. I “chickened out,” har har, and on the advice of the woman at the counter went with a level three. The dinners ($9-$11) come with two sides, and she recommended the Tennessee Caviar and the loaded baked potato salad and sold me some cobbler ($3) for dessert. There are multiple local beers available, including one from Covington’s Braxton Brewery on tap, as well as sodas and housemade milkshakes.
I loved the sides. They were original and fresh. The caviar is a cold black-eyed-pea salad with red and green bell pepper bits and just the right amount of purple onion. I’m not keen on potato salad, but Nashville Hot’s was as rich as butter and just delicious. The chicken really surpassed my expectations. The meat was very moist — it’s soaked in a buttermilk brine before frying — and the seasoning was aggressive but reasonable. I made liberal use of the cup of blue cheese dressing, dipping and gnawing my way to the bones, and took the very-sweet peach cobbler home for the next day’s breakfast.
But I was racked with guilt. A three? How can I review this place without trying their signature item? But how can I listen to more Country music and waste another ton of plastic? Then guilt won, and back I went. I ordered a chicken tender sandwich on Texas toast ($8) with hash brown casserole to go. When the man at the counter asked me how spicy and I said, “Nashville Hot,” he couldn’t hide his skepticism.
“I have to try it,” I explained vaguely.
“Well, I’m glad you’re getting it to go. You don’t want to be sweating in front of people,” he offered, not quite reassuringly.
Sweat? Oh, yeah. In fact, I have to say that eating this super-Scoville’d chicken is less about how it tastes than about how it feels. It’s a head rush. As I’d been warned, it wasn’t pretty. My nose ran, my eyes ran, my lips burned hotter than the most passionate kiss. My face was flushed and red, like I’d just stepped out of a sauna.
I knew better than to drink water and wash the heat into every corner of my mouth. Instead, I alternated bites of the chicken with bites of the casserole and accompanying bread and pickles. I kept going and polished it off. The two chicken breasts were meaty, juicy and freakishly good. I may hate myself tomorrow, but for now I’m feeling pretty buzzed.
GO: 564 Buttermilk Pike, Crescent Springs, Ky.; CALL: 859-360-6632; INTERNET: nashvillehot.com ; HOURS: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.