Discovering the Finest Nashville Hot Chicken

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Nashville hot chicken

This article was originally featured in National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“Aw, bless your heart,” warmly remarks the hostess at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish as I place an order for their sizzling fried chicken legs, accompanied by crispy fries and slaw. It’s a familiar Southern expression that can convey both saintliness and subtle amusement. Exiting the modest family-owned eatery, adorned with a weathered fish mural, I settle at a picnic table.

“What spice level did you choose?” a woman at the neighboring table calls out. “Hot,” I reply. “Oh, bless your heart, that’s what he’s fussing about,” she remarks, gesturing towards her pacing and cursing friend.

The fiery, cayenne-infused style of Southern fried poultry, known as ‘hot chicken,’ is to Nashville what cheesesteak is to Philadelphia. This delicacy entails marinating the meat in buttermilk, coating it with a special spice blend, and deep-frying it until crispy perfection. Served between slices of white bread with a pickle on the side, the heat of cayenne, habanero, and ghost peppers overwhelms any attempts at balance.

Bolton’s, an institution since its establishment in 1997, greets me with a chicken blackened by the spices. Too scorching to handle, I throw caution to the wind and take a bite. The habanero spice immediately tickles my nostrils. It’s undeniably spicy, yet there’s a melodic harmony to this symphony of chilies. Before the habanero heat dominates, there’s a subtle sweetness. Surprisingly, the taste is reminiscent of botanical flavors as the spices dance across my palate and lips. Despite the perspiration-inducing experience, I cannot resist devouring more.

How did a dish that challenges the taste buds with its intense heat become an iconic Nashville staple? Like many quintessential Southern foods, fried chicken traces its roots back to African slaves who seasoned and cooked poultry with spices. Hot chicken first emerged in the 1930s when James Thornton Prince introduced it at his BBQ Chicken Shack, located near Tennessee A&I, a historically Black university now known as Tennessee State.

Nashville hot chicken can be found on a variety of dishes, from pizzas to salads, and the city even hosts an annual festival dedicated to this fiery delicacy.

After several relocations, the BBQ Chicken Shack settled close to the Ryman Auditorium, where it captivated the city’s country music stars during the post-war peak of the Grand Ole Opry. Over the following decades, Prince’s Hot Chicken (formerly the BBQ Chicken Shack) moved around Nashville before Andre Prince Jeffries, James Thornton Prince’s great-niece, took over and renamed it in 1980.

In recent years, Prince’s has sparked a hot chicken renaissance, inspiring numerous establishments throughout the city and beyond. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, situated on Lower Broadway, boasts an average wait time of 90 minutes throughout the day. In their bustling kitchen, line cook Leiby takes charge of the “dip station,” tending to cauldrons filled with fryer oil and spice rubs. His task is to continuously stir the vats and coat each order with the appropriate spice level, ranging from “Southern” (no heat) to “Shut the Cluck Up!!!”—a demonic concoction infused with ghost chilies.

“Any respectable starting point should be ‘Medium’,” declares Brian Morris, the restaurant’s chef and culinary director. Intrigued, I order a nugget platter that spans the entire spectrum, and I concur with his assessment: ‘Medium’ truly allows the spices to shine. However, the most flavorful experience is found in the ‘Hot!’ level, thanks to the delicate touch of habanero. ‘Damn Hot!!’ and ‘Shut the Cluck Up!!!’ are more for novelty than genuine pleasure.

Today, hot chicken can be found throughout Nashville, elevating dishes ranging from pizzas to salads. The city even celebrates the Music City Hot Chicken Festival every July. At Party Fowl, I indulge in hot chicken alongside bourbon-glazed beignets, while Dino’s offers a hot chicken sandwich accompanied by a $6 beer-and-shot special. Some argue that the dish has strayed too far from its origins. “I enjoy eating it. I get it—but we’re losing touch with it,” laments local chef Adam Terhune. “I’m not sure people associate it with the city anymore, but rather see it as just a flavor.”

At Adam’s restaurant, Commons Club, he pays subtle homage with two dishes: a deviled egg seasoned with hot chicken spices and topped with crispy chicken skin, and a spicy airline chicken breast (including a wing joint) accompanied by kale cooked in bacon fat, shallots, and apple cider vinegar. The chicken is seasoned with garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and brown sugar. Both dishes are delightful, with crunchy skin, moist meat, and a well-balanced spice. Adam explains that he wasn’t attempting to replicate hot chicken; for that, he directs people to Prince’s or Bolton’s, both of which remain family-owned establishments he’s proud to support.

To conclude my exploration, I visit Prince’s Hot Chicken, located in the Assembly Food Hall. While waiting in line, I contemplate whether the dish has strayed too far from its origins. However, as soon as I receive my hot chicken tenders with a side of coleslaw, such concerns fade away. The aggressive habanero engulfs my senses, hitting me like a slap in the face. Yet, like an addict, I cannot resist indulging in the soggy, chili-soaked bread. I’m reminded of Brian Morris’ words: “We’re just trying to create ravenous, hot-chicken lovers.” Well, they’ve certainly gained one more.

How to get there:

British Airways offers flights from Heathrow to Nashville. Dream Nashville offers double rooms starting at $304 (£244) for room-only accommodations.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here. (Available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Nashville hot chicken

What is Nashville hot chicken?

Nashville hot chicken is a popular Southern dish that consists of fried chicken marinated in buttermilk, coated with a special spice blend, and deep-fried until crispy. It is known for its intense spiciness and unique flavor profile.

How did Nashville hot chicken originate?

The origins of Nashville hot chicken can be traced back to the 1930s when James Thornton Prince began serving it at his BBQ Chicken Shack near Tennessee A&I, a historically Black university. It gained popularity over the years and evolved into the iconic dish it is today.

What makes Nashville hot chicken unique?

Nashville hot chicken stands out for its fiery heat, achieved through the use of cayenne, habanero, and ghost peppers. The chicken is typically served on white bread with pickles, offering a combination of intense spiciness and contrasting flavors.

Where can I find the best Nashville hot chicken in Nashville?

Some renowned places to enjoy Nashville hot chicken include Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, Prince’s Hot Chicken, and Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. These establishments have played a significant role in popularizing and perfecting the dish.

Can I find Nashville hot chicken outside of Nashville?

Yes, the popularity of Nashville hot chicken has spread beyond the city. You can find variations of this fiery delicacy in various locations across the United States and even in some international destinations.

What are some other dishes that feature Nashville hot chicken?

Nashville hot chicken has made its way into different culinary creations. It can be found as a topping on pizzas, incorporated into salads, or featured in sandwiches. The versatility of the flavors has allowed chefs to experiment and introduce unique twists on this classic dish.

More about Nashville hot chicken

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3 comments

ChickenFryMaster July 8, 2023 - 8:57 am

OMG, nashville hot chicken originted in the 30s? wow didnt knw that! gotta visit boltons & princes. im drooling just reading this.

Reply
FoodieExplorer July 8, 2023 - 11:35 pm

nashville hot chicken is evrywhr now! its spreadin like wildfir. hav to try it if u like spicy food. also check out the festivl in july!

Reply
SpicyFoodLover21 July 9, 2023 - 7:41 am

nashville hot chicken is the best!! soooo spicyyy! luv the histroy & flavors. gotta try it if u can hanle the heat lol

Reply

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