The Best Nashville Hot Chicken

Dig into the lovelorn history of Nashville's iconic hot chicken dish, famous for burning mouths and causing tears—in a good way.

Nashville hot chicken is edible proof that sometimes what seems to be wrong can actually be oh so right—and that revenge isn’t always sweet.

Prince’s Hot Chicken, Nashville, TN

Legend has it that hot chicken was created in the kitchen of a scorned lover. “My great uncle was a very handsome ladies’ man,” recalls André Prince Jeffries, who has owned Prince’s Hot Chicken for 35 years. A former BBQ chicken shack, the restaurant has been in her family for 70 years and was the first restaurant to serve Nashville’s now-iconic dish.

“They didn’t keep records back then, so we don’t really know how it all started—it’s just a rumor,” says Jeffries, “but I do remember [my uncle] being that good-looking and I can imagine the story is true: He was having a fling among other flings and one woman learned of the others. She went into her backyard and picked some kind of pepper to put into his food—because he always liked to eat—and that’s how she chose to get back at him,” she recounts. “We know how women’s tempers flare, though we don’t know who she was. Anyway, that’s how the dish is said to have gotten started.”

Broken hearts burn, but that woman’s plans for revenge were foiled—fortunately, for future Nashvillians—when Jeffries’ great uncle fell in love with the dish that was intended as punishment. He craved it again and again, sharing it with friends and eventually adding it to the menu at Prince’s. “It caught on,” says Jeffries. “People like something exciting and it’s totally not boring, though it’s certainly not for everyone.”

Prince's Hot Chicken, Nashville, TN

So, what is hot chicken? “It’s different from what people think,” says Chris Chamberlain, Nashville native and author of “The Southern Foodie” series. The traditional preparation is an extra-spicy version of bone-in Southern fried chicken served atop spongy white bread with a pickle. The spice level is so high it could make a Cajun blush.

“It’s literally an infernal spice that was intended to punish from the very beginning,” maintains Chamberlain. “It’s heavy in cayenne. Eating it is like running a marathon: your body gets endorphins so you keep punishing yourself. Your stomach says ‘stop’ but your brain says ‘trek forward.’ By the third or fourth bite it hits your system and your stomach will do a flip-flop and you’ll break into a sweat—you’re getting into the groove!”

Hot chicken is blazing a trail on menus across the city. “When I took over Prince’s Hot Chicken, we were the only hot chicken place in town,” says Jeffries. “Now they’re popping up like popcorn. The popularity caught on.”

Hattie B's Hot Chicken, Nashville, TN

“In the last 10 years, it’s taken on cult status,” says Chamberlain. “There’s a certain amount of civic pride associated with it. It really is our iconic dish—a hot soul food. There’s an addictive factor to it. It’s a very communal eating experience because you’re sitting around and everyone is ordering the same thing—you don’t go to a hot chicken restaurant and order roast beef. You’re all eating the hottest chicken you can handle and are going through it together.”

The recipe has evolved since its debut. First, Jeffries introduced variations with different spice levels. “It used to be all just one way, but I started plain, mild, medium, hot, extra hot,” she says. “All of them sell. Mostly women are consistent about eating it hot. Men try it but back off eating it hot for some reason. Maybe it’s because women go through the pain of childbirth? It’s wild. Somebody should do a study on why that is.”

Now, restaurants vary the specific ingredients in the seasoning blend as well as how it is applied. Some sneak spice into the brine, others into the cooking oil and breading, while still others smear a spicy paste onto the chicken before or after frying.

“Everybody prepares their hot chicken a certain way,” says Nick Bishop Jr., who owns Hattie B’s Hot Chicken with his father. “Some skillet-fry, some use a dry seasoning blend, some use a wet sauce.” Though, like all hot chicken vendors, he won’t divulge his recipe, Bishop says he developed the spice blend to be palatable and flavorful while still packing the dish’s signature kick.

Hattie B's Hot Chicken, Nashville, TN

Hattie B’s first opened in August 2012 and grew to be so popular a second location opened two years later. “We had a meat-and-three outside Nashville and put [hot chicken] on the menu there because we were always big fans,” recalls Bishop. “It turned into 30 percent of our entrée sales, and we built the Hattie B’s concept around it with a simple menu of just hot chicken and six sides.” The Bishops incorporate different peppers in their spice blend to yield different heat levels, from Southern fried with zero heat to one dubbed “shut the cluck up burn notice.”

Hot chicken also inspires chefs to get creative with the classic recipe, like the hot chicken tacos at Urban Grub or hot chicken pizza at Two Boots Pizza. Chef Benjamin Hill, executive chef of Fleet Street Pub, offers a hot cornish hen. “I’ve always been a fan of Nashville-style hot chicken,” he says. “This is the only city that gets it right. In keeping with our English pub theme, we put our own spin on it using Cornish game hens instead of the breast or thigh. Of course, you still get the pickle and slice of toasted white bread—my favorite part, soaked in all those delicious, spicy drippings,” says a salivating Hill. “Normally it’s served with a little kick, but we’ll make it as hot as you like. To make the flavor a little more complex, we make ours with a blend of four different peppers, rather than simply using cayenne. Honestly, I have it for dinner more often than anything else on my menu.”

Trust an experienced local when digging into the beloved but challenging dish. “I recommend a rookie start at no more than medium—like running a marathon, you have to train,” advises Chamberlain. “Avoid air travel for 24 hours after eating hot chicken, or it will burn you twice. And don’t try to cool it off with a carbonated beverage—it will just make it worse. It’s best to cool off with milk or buttermilk.” Sides like coleslaw and salad can help, too.

A heart aflame with jealousy may have launched the hot chicken craze, but with a little caution and a lot of bravery you can indulge in Nashville’s most famous dish without the heartburn.

Hope S. Philbrick
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