800px-Princes hot chicken

photo from Sean Russell in Knoxville, TN

Hot chicken is one of Nashville’s culinary treasures. Yes, the city has beaten biscuits, grits, jam, and all kinds

of BBQ, and even country ham, but so does the rest of the South, but Nashville really owns hot chicken. Hot chicken is not something for the faint of heart. It is said to put your tongue in pain, to make your eyes water, to make you beg for relief. It’s kind of like an open faced sandwich--a piece of hot chicken, the breast and wing or leg and thigh fried, on top of a slice of white bread, usually topped with pickles in place by toothpicks. The chicken’s spices and juices run into the white bread at the bottom, soaking it and creating a whole new level of flavor after the chicken is eaten. Hot chicken is quite unique to Nashville, which deprives any native of the city from satisfying their craving unless they find themselves back in the city limits.

One place where you can find excellent hot chicken is Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Andre Prince has good roots in the hot chicken business: local legend says that her great uncle actually invented the dish. She thinks that he was being punished by a girlfriend who decided to pour cayenne pepper all over his chicken. Instead of learning his lesson, the great uncle loved the chicken and brought all his friends around to enjoy it. He eventually made a business out of it called Thorton’s Bar-B-Q Chicken Shack and launched a delicious Nashville tradition. The Shack moved around Nashville before Prince took over and changed its name to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, a fact that she is especially proud of because they never did serve barbeque.

As guarded as the hot chicken cooks seem to be when it comes to their recipes, it’s no surprise that competition is fierce in Nashville. If you’re not going to get Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, another stand-by for local aficionados when it comes to hot chicken is Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish on Main Street. The original Bolton, Bolton Polk, learned the basics of hot chicken while working at Thorton’s Bar-B-Q. He then worked at creating his own signature recipe before opening his restaurant, Columbo’s.

When the restaurant closed, Bolton realized that he had no heirs of his own to pass along his secret hot chicken recipe. Loathe to let it die, he entrusted it to his nephew, Bolton Matthews, who has been using it faithfully ever since, at his own place, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish. He even continues to use the old cast-iron frying pans his uncle gave him, which impart the correct flavor and texture to the fried chicken. Hot chicken is not a fast food, with each batch taking about a half an hour, but for Nashville residents and visitors, the wait is worth it. The heat can be moderated somewhat, but purists don’t think it should be served anything but truly spicy hot.