The Bird That Bites Back: How Nashville Hot Chicken is Made

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Do you know the story behind hot chicken? [Photographs: Justin Chesney]

Hot chicken is indisputably Nashville's iconic food: simple in concept, its aggressive flavor isn't one you'll soon forget. Hot chicken takes something unassailably Southern, heavy, and indulgent—I'm talking regular fried chicken—and makes that dish seem like sissy food. Nashville's take puts the hurt on—it's fried chicken reborn with a fiery spirit, sweet-mean, as if the contents of Granny's picnic basket were somehow crossed with a young Mick Jagger.

The magic comes in the mingling of fat and heat. Take fried chicken's fat-crisped crust and electrify it with a blistering spice blend, then place the meat in a spongy cradle of white bread. The bread soaks up the hot chicken's juices, becoming just another delivery system for the heat, and the spicy grease lingers on your lips: the afterburn is an initiation to the habit that is hot chicken.

Like the city that made it famous, Nashville hot chicken is sizzling in the limelight these days, making obligatory menu appearances all over town, adapted in clever ways. And it no longer requires a pilgrimage (which is not to say that it's unworthy of one), having flown its coop to show up in New York, Atlanta and Portland, with other landing spots sure to come.

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But all roads travel back to Prince's Hot Chicken, a hole-in-the-wall joint on Nashville's north side. By all accounts, Prince's is where hot chicken was born, and the legend goes like this: More than 70 years ago, Thornton Prince came home after a night of tomcatting to find his lady waiting at home, none too pleased. To teach him a lesson, she doctored his Sunday morning chicken with a wallop of spice. "Hot peppers from the garden, I'm sure," says Andre Prince, the restaurant's current owner, and great-granddaughter of that fabled philanderer whose infidelities birthed the now-iconic dish. "She was furious—but he liked it! He liked his punishment. It's just a rumor," she adds; "I wasn't there, have mercy. But I know how the Prince men are. They're known for being ladies' men."

A family favorite was born, and the Prince men began moonlighting as hot chicken restaurateurs. They called their place the Barbecue Chicken Shack, though the chicken was not barbecued but fried in large cast iron skillets. Only one spice level was offered back then, Andre recalls; today, you can order yours plain, mild, medium, or extra hot. As a young girl, Andre wasn't allowed at the restaurant during its night-only business hours (all the men also worked day jobs). "But my father would always have hot chicken for us on Sunday mornings," she recalls. "I looked forward to getting up and seeing that greasy brown bag on the stove." The Shack occupied several locations around town before Andre took over the business some 35 years ago and changed the name to Prince's Hot Chicken.

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To eat at Prince's is something of a rite of passage for new Nashvillians or passers-through. On my last visit, I chatted with a couple driving from Denver to West Virginia: they'd heard about Prince's on TV, couldn't miss it. (They got the hot, and were happy.) Prince's location, far off the tourist track or business-lunch circuit, hardly deters crowds, nor does the line that often stretches out the door.

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Over the years—particularly since former Mayor Bill Purcell proselytized about the hot chicken he loved, and founded the Music City Hot Chicken Festival, at which Prince's is among the vendors every year—the restaurant has been thrust in a media spotlight, though little there has changed. A signed poster of Guy Fieri hangs on the wall now. Andre tells me that once, when watching a televised interview with Fieri at his home, she spied the cast iron skillet she had given him during his visit, hanging on the wall.

Andre demurs, not unkindly, when I ask about specific ingredients or process. The steady attention shown to Prince's has clearly been a factor in the rise of hot chicken's status from little-known local fave to national trend, and she's stopped letting media peek inside the kitchen. She'll tell me they use deep fryers now (the old cast-iron skillet technique would be far too slow) and vegetable oil; she'll tell me the chicken is "constantly being marinated." She'll tell me they still use Colonial white bread, as they always have (though, to her disappointment, Nashville's Colonial Bakery has been acquired by Sara Lee). But that's about all I'll get out of Andre about the making of the famous Prince's hot chicken.

"We gotta touch each piece," she says. "It's all done with love. Just that magic touch—have mercy! I must be doing something right, 'cause they want it. Now you see hot chicken places everywhere." She laughs.

Has she fielded requests from those who would love to help her expand the Prince's realm? "All the time, all the time," she says. "I would like to franchise, but we've got to get some things in place before we can do that." If additional locations are in the cards, Andre wants to keep them cozy like the current one: "People like closeness, you know? They do. I like the small atmosphere. Sometimes you can just be too big."

Meanwhile, every new restaurant in Nashville includes its own spin on hot chicken, and there are more places to find it than ever before. Which brings us to Hattie B's.

Behind the Scenes at Hattie B's, The New Kids in Town

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Eat enough hot chicken and you're going to want—nay, need—more. Regularly. Possibly with more spice. (For her part, Andre Prince often cautions customers against the extra-hot, but they order it all the same.)

So it's no surprise that Hattie B's, a bold newcomer to Nashville's growing hot chicken landscape, has been an enormous success since opening their first location in 2012. In just a few years, Hattie B's has become every bit the go-to for a hot chicken christening as Prince's or fellow old-school joint Bolton's, and the owners haven't shied from sharing their recipe with the media (though hot chicken pros, like Andre, have often stayed tight-lipped about their particular spice blend). Heat fiends whisper to me that Hattie B's' hottest preparation, "Shut the Cluck Up," is a more-than-worthy challenger to Prince's extra-hot. ("Burn notice," the menu warns.) That said, Hattie B's is aiming straight for the masses, many of whom aren't exactly searching for self-immolation. "Hot chicken is something near and dear to native Nashvillians," says Nick Bishop who, with his father Nick Sr., owns the restaurant. "Why not share it with the rest of the country? We feel like we're the people to do that."

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Hattie B's, now with two Nashville locations, is done up in a peppy red, chrome, black, and white color scheme. At the newest location—a renovated Krystal's [a large Southern fast-food chain], where the drive-thru area has been turned into a covered shed with picnic table seating—a big red arrow painted on the exterior shows customers where the line begins. And as at Prince's, they do willingly queue out the door, waiting not just for the chicken but for sides like greens, red-skinned potato salad, pimento mac-and-cheese, black-eye peas, baked beans, and a vinegary coleslaw. The piece de resistance comes on Sundays, when Hattie B's makes the genius move of marrying two Southern classics: hot chicken and waffles, served with a fruit compote, if you wish, and a side of bacon cheese grits. Oh, and there's beer, including offerings from local breweries like Jackalope, Little Harpeth, Mayday, Turtle Anarchy, and more.

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Hattie B's recipes and proprietary spice blend were developed by executive chef John Lasater, recently named one of Forbes' 2015 30 Under 30 in food and wine. "We wanted a well-rounded blend that complemented the chicken and was also very hot," Lasater says. At first, they mixed their spices in-house, wearing masks to do so. But customers started to complain about the spice dust. Now they've outsourced that task to a Birmingham, Alabama company that mixes and packages the blends for them.

Lasater won't divulge what's in the blend except to say that the typical base for hot chicken spice is cayenne, sugar, and paprika. But he's happy to reveal his cooking process. They start with locally-processed chicken breasts, wings, legs, and thighs, and each piece of poultry gets double-breaded and fried, then hit with the special sauce that gives it its sought-after kick. This is what's known as a wet application—the spice comes in the final step as an oil-based liquid. Some hot chicken cooks use a dry application, notes Lasater; Bolton's, another fabled name in Nashville hot chicken (and fish), is one example.

Much fried chicken begins with brining, but since he's not dealing with whole chickens, Lasater opts for a sort of mini-curing process. He first readies his breading mixture, another proprietary blend of flour, spices, garlic, and salt and pepper, in a contraption that shakes it into fine crumbs and weeds out any large clumps. When the bottom of the sifting bin is removed, the breading falls into a bin beneath, and it's here that our raw breast takes its first dip in the breading.

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Once the breast is thoroughly coated, Lasater dunks it in a wash of eggs, water, milk, salt and pepper, and a splash of Crystal hot sauce.

Then it's back to the breading for dip two. "Always keep one hand wet, one hand dry." A double-dip in the breading ensures that the chicken will have a thick, crispy crust, traditional Southern-style.

Then the breast is off to the fryer. Hattie B's uses a soy-based shortening for frying, "the closest thing we can get to lard," Lasater says. "It has a nice creaminess to it that mixes really well with our breading blend."

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18 to 20 minutes later, the breast is cooked through and ready to exit the fryer. This is the magic moment: Lasater readies a bowl of that blend of dry spices. Into it he pours in the magma of chickeny shortening, fresh from the fryer, to make a sauce.

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"If the oil is hot, it keeps the crust crispy," says Lasater, "You bite into it and get that crunch."

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As traditional preparation dictates, the breast sits upon a slice of white bread (Hattie B's uses Klosterman's, a Nashville bakery), crowned by a couple of pickle chips. It's a fierce, mouth-watering sight: Hattie B's has an especially rich, red hue, and their portions are not skimpy. I think about how happy my husband's going to be that I can bring some of this home to him.

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I take my first bite, knowing that every encounter with hot chicken is a nudge closer into an enduring relationship. Once you're in, you're in. Welcome to hot chicken.