Nov. 6, 2011— -- The scene: There are a lot of unique regional foods in this country, but few as hyper-specialized as Nashville's "hot chicken." After all, just a few hours separate Tennessee's capital from one of the world capitals of all things barbecue, Memphis. Yet in Nashville, smoked pork plays second fiddle to this poultry dish you can find virtually nowhere else - even in Tennessee (though a less spicy version has appeared under the Nashville name at Peaches, in New York's Brooklyn).
Nashville even has an annual hot-chicken festival, but the entries are mostly homemade, since hot chicken is very much a family-kitchen tradition. Unlike other regional specialties I have encountered, including toasted ravioli in St. Louis and loose-meat sandwiches in the Midwest, hot chicken is not on bar and restaurant menus throughout the city. You pretty much have to go to someone's home or a hot chicken shack for it, and of the latter, there are only four major examples in the city.
Shack is a fairly apt description, especially for Bolton's, which is on the side of the road in a cinder block bunker with several incongruous additions. Prince's, the most famous of them all, has a shack-like feel inside, but is actually in a non-descript strip mall. 400 Degrees, I am told by someone from the visitor's bureau, "was the shackiest of them all," but recently moved into one of those modern multi-fast-food complexes that resemble a mall food court, a rather sterile setting next to a Quiznos. The upside is that it is the only hot chicken place in touristy downtown Nashville. The fourth, Pepperfire, is another true shack in the Bolton's tradition - though it takes online orders - but during my recent visit, my mouth was simply too burnt out for a fourth hot fried chicken meal (if any readers have been there, please share your review in comments below).
Reason to visit: Hot fried chicken, bragging rights.
The food: Prince's is the best known, especially after appearances on cable TV's Man vs. Food and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. It is also considered the birthplace of the genre -- legend has it that the current owner's uncle, who was a ladies man, angered his girlfriend with his dalliances to the point where she took revenge by spiking his fried chicken with fiery additives. As fate would have it, he loved it, and hot chicken was born. 30 years later, his niece runs Prince's. The eatery serves most of its food to go, since there are only 7 tables. You order at a window, cash only, with a very limited menu of chicken and a handful of sides: fries, beans, cold slaw and potato salad, along with extra pickle and extra bread options, since all chicken is served atop white bread and topped with pickles.
Like the other places, chicken comes in four flavors, mild, medium, hot and extra-hot, but this scale is relative, since they all refer to hot chicken. So even the mild is hot, and I had been warned by locals that anything beyond medium was a risk to my digestion. One of the Prince's family confirmed this: "I try to talk people down from hot and extra-hot all the time. It's not just the sweating while you eat it - it is 24-hour chicken. It doesn't leave you right away, and even if you get it down, sometime around midnight it will catch up with you." I was also repeatedly warned during my visit not to touch my eyes or face while eating, which apparently happens with frightening regularity and is akin to getting sprayed with mace.
Prince's chicken is hot. I like hot food, but the mild was perfect for me in terms of spiciness. I could eat the medium, but I was mopping my brow and the endeavor lost its allure. I could not imagine wanting to go higher up the thermometer. Their process is secret, but they assured me the heat is in the marinade, the breading, and even the oil they fry in is spiced. As a result, it's not just a surface burn, like with Buffalo wings, but rather a heat that permeated the chicken to the bone. The fire is in the skin and crust, but also in the innocent looking white meat. It's not slathered in hot sauce either, and looks just like fried chicken but with an evil red tint (the medium was more a threatening reddish-brown). The skin was very crispy and irregularly jagged, almost crunchy, and not greasy at all - minus the spices, it would have been excellent fried chicken. Basically it is a sweat-fest, and since the bread underneath quickly mops up reddish hot juices, the starch offers no escape.
The chicken at Bolton's was even hotter on the same scale, but quite different. It was a cayenne dry-rub heat, all spice powder and entirely in the breading and skin, which was far more smooth and chewy, less crunchy and irregular. It seemed to lack the marinade, and if you picked off the skin, the meat was relatively normal. Bolton's also has a much larger menu with lots of hot fried fish, along with ribs, pork shoulder, and wings. 400 Degrees was the only one with a sort of mild chicken, "zero degrees," and while their hotter levels were quite hot, they were each milder than their brethren. This, despite an intimidating sign that read, "Eat at Your Own Risk. 400 Degrees Specializes in Spicy Food. No Refunds. No Exceptions."
At all three, the chicken is cooked to order, which despite requiring a 15-20 minute wait, is a good thing, and they all have loyal customer bases and take great pride in what they are doing. Oddly, they also all serve crinkle-cut fries topped with a spice blend, which is not the Nashville fry norm, and none of them were good. My overall favorite was Prince's for both texture and taste, but at the end of the day, my conclusion was that while hot chicken is indeed its own food category, not just fried chicken with hot sauce, it is an acquired taste that will appeal only to hot-food lovers and masochists.
What regulars say: "The 400-degree is crazy, and I can't eat it, but I sell a lot of it," said Aqui Simpson, owner of 400 Degrees Spicy Restaurant.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No - unless you love really hot food.
Rating: OK (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, 123 Ewing Drive, Nashville; 615-226-9442; Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish, 624 Main Street, Nashville; 615-254-8015; 400 Degrees Spicy Restaurant, 319 Peabody Street, Nashville; 615-244-4467; www.400degreeshotchicken.com; Pepperfire Chicken, 2821 Gallatin Pike, Nashville, 615-582-4824; www.pepperfirechicken.com.
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.