Other than barbecue, no other food evokes the South more than fried chicken. Southern cooks all have their secret recipes, the Colonel notwithstanding. I was going to be in Nashville. Eating its hot fried chicken is as essential as going to The Grand Ole Opry and the Parthenon.
As the story goes, the dish was concocted by a jilted lover who figured she’d teach her womanizing boyfriend a lesson by serving him a surprise breakfast. She slathered fried chicken with a nuclear paste made with plenty of cayenne pepper. As it turned out, presumably without so much as a missed heartbeat, Thornton Prince loved the chicken so much that he convinced his brothers to help him perfect their own recipe and open a restaurant in the 1930s. It eventually became Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which went on to become a Nashville institution. Today, it is run by Prince’s great-niece Andre.
How spicy is the chicken? How does the proportion of 3 tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper to a tablespoon of lard sound? The chicken is served on top of white bread which soaks up the Godzilla sauce and grease, with sliced sour pickles served on the side.
Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
Bolton’s is set back in what looks like a narrow parking lot, except the lot is completely blocked off. Customers can park along a row of spots just north of the restaurant, which looks to be made of cinder blocks. The interior has been freshly painted in black and red. The paint was so fresh the men’s restroom door had to be propped open to air out the paint fumes. When you place your order at the window, you’re given a number and you get seated. Since the chicken is made-to-order, it takes about 20 minutes to get your food.
Bolton’s claims to make one of the spiciest fried chickens in Nashville. I ordered mine extra-hot. The chicken leg quarter arrived at the table in two shades of red, a distinct dark red paste layer and a brighter red dusting on top. Perhaps the ‘extra-hot’ has a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper? The skin was ultra-crispy.
With my first bite …
The pain was searing.
It was like injections of wasp venom by a thousand tiny needles jabbed into my tongue.
Tears welled up in my eyes.
My lips and tongue burned relentlessly.
Noxious gases went up my nose and felt like fire flaring out of my nostrils.
I gulped down cold water.
When that didn’t help, I tried to douse the flames with cole slaw.
I blew my nose once, maybe twice.
I sat for a moment to recover.
This shit is f–king hot!
Then I took my second bite … And so it went until the gasping end. Underneath the radioactive shield, the chicken meat itself was very moist and, from what I could tell, tasty. Buttermilk does wonders for fried chicken. Wow, did I get an endorphin rush. I can’t say I enjoyed myself. The pain detracted from giving the chicken its proper due. For now, I’ll say it was good (☆☆½); the rating might’ve been higher if I had been able to taste the chicken.
But, this experience changed my plan. After meeting more than my match, I no longer was going to order extra-hot anywhere else.
As an aside, my wife picked the plain (i.e., no spice) fried fish (whiting). The fillets were very thin, which after frying produced fish that wasn’t very moist at all, almost dry. You could literally pick up an entire one without its bending. Thicker than the one coating the chicken, the batter was too crunchy. There was still a spicy sprinkling of cayenne pepper, which made us wonder what ’no spices’ meant. She enjoyed the yellow mustard and pickles as counterpoints to the fried fish. Even if the fish was tasty, it failed to impress. (☆☆)
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
I wanted to make sure I stopped at the place that started it all. The parking lot was completely full but luckily someone was just pulling out. Inside, there was a good lunch crowd. The walls were a vast sea of turquoise. Like at Bolton’s, you order at a small window and get a ticket. After I learned my lesson at Bolton’s, I got the ‘medium’ spicy chicken this time. It would give me better than even odds of tasting the chicken without cauterizing my taste buds.
The word is that Prince’s, after a light dusting of flour, fries its chicken in lard, which explained why the skin was so flavorful. It was also shatteringly crispy. The chicken wasn’t as red all around as Bolton’s. The dark paste of cayenne and lard covered some of leg quarter, making me wonder if the hotter versions just have more paste. Even so, the hotness wasn’t just in the paste. The flesh was moist and tender. Two slices of white bread were underneath. Sour pickles were a good foil for the grease. This was a much better experience for me. (☆☆☆)
After the barbecue taste-off in Memphis, I grew weary of eating the same thing over and over. I had intended to try the chicken at 400 Degrees as well, but my spirit wasn’t in the chase any more. Instead, on Friday, my wife and I had New York-style pizza for lunch and Thai food for dinner.
I enjoyed the chicken, at least at Prince’s. Sensibility aside, I could never make a consistent diet of it though. It’s likely that, going along with my aging body, my tolerance for especially spicy foods is waning, so I would never get the extra-spicy chicken again. Nashville’s hot fried chicken is truly a regional specialty, one that seems confined to the city itself. There isn’t the plethora of restaurants that serve it like there are barbecue restaurants in Memphis, but enough are around to choose from.
Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
2309A Franklin Pike
Nashville, TN 37204
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
123 Ewing Dr.