Searching for Nashville Hot Chicken in Charleston 

Some Like It Hot

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Jonathan Boncek

As far as food trends go, Nashville hot chicken is on fire (yes, I wrote that and I'm not sorry). There are now dozens of joints around Nashville serving the spicy yardbird. There's even a hot chicken festival there on July 4th. And now restaurants are popping up outside of the South, along with national chains jumping on the bandwagon. If you're unfamiliar with the hot chicken concept, think crispy fried chicken covered in a dark mahogany red, fiery chile-saturated paste cooked into the crust with a splash of the hot fryer grease, ubiquitously served on white bread with pickles. It's not just any spicy hot chicken, and it sure as hell is not buffalo chicken. Please do not make that mistake.

It is, at least it is supposed to be, much hotter and with a distinct cayenne and parprika-fueled deep smoky chile flavor that differs greatly from the tangy orange buffalo sauce found covering wings everywhere. And thankfully, there's no ranch dipping sauce. Most places offer a scale of heat that can go from mild to XXX hot. Signs at more than one of the hot chicken purveyors warn that no refunds or returns will be accepted if you order out of your heat comfort zone. And they mean it. So choose at your own risk. Purists from Nashville debate the finer points of what is and what is not hot chicken, and some of them would scoff at the idea that it can even exist outside of their home town.

Like many great Southern food traditions, Nashville hot chicken was born in the African-American community and remained there due to legal, racial, and cultural mores. However, there were a few white Nashvillians who crossed racial lines to satiate their need for the burn. According to Timothy Charles Davis' Hot Chicken Cookbook: The Fiery History & Red-Hot Recipes of Nashville's Beloved Bird, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack used to pack their main dining room with African-American customers while white patrons had to use a separate smaller room in the back, reversing the practice from the other side of towns all over the South.

The generally accepted origin of Nashville hot chicken revolves around the girlfriend of gallivanting Thorton Prince III in the 1930s. After one of Prince's countless philandering nights, his girlfriend decided it was time to teach him a lesson. The following morning, she fried chicken for his breakfast and covered the bird in enough spices to exact her revenge. One problem, Prince loved it. He loved it so much he and his brothers opened the aforementioned Hot Chicken Shack and started blasting the taste buds of customers with his yardbird inferno.

There are rumors of other hot chicken joints in operation around the same time as Prince's start, but it's Prince's that has remained in business for something close to 80 years, and the current owners, the mother daughter team of André and Simone Jeffries, are hot chicken royalty. But there are other hot chicken joints in and around Nashville, including old school places like Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish (named after an ex-Prince's employee that started it in the '70s) and newer entries like the popular Hattie-B's, 400 Degrees, and Pepperfire. A word of caution to those making the trek to Nashville: do not order the Extra Hot at Prince's. Just do not do it. The warnings that surround it are legit. If you do choose to take on the risk, don't plan on traveling right after. As André once told filmmaker Joe York from the Southern Foodways Alliance, "It's a 24-hour chicken."

If you can't make it to Music City USA, variations on hot chicken are starting to make guest appearances and permanent placement on menus around town. In January visiting chef Todd Richards did a pop-up at Artisan Meat Share previewing his new hot chicken restaurant to be opened in Atlanta's Krog Street Market, while André Jeffries brought her famous bird to the Garden and Gun Jubilee in 2014. Though we can't compete with the number of hot chicken restaurants or the history that Nashville owns, there are a few places here where you can get versions of the tear-inducing, lip-searing, endorphin-rush fix — some true to style, some varying wildly from it. Hot chicken purists can find good examples in the Holy City and some that will have them crying fowl. (In alphabetical order.)

click to enlarge Artisan Meat Share - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Artisan Meat Share

Artisan Meat Share
33 Spring St.
Downtown

The meat masters at Artisan Meat Share have a hot chicken biscuit on the menu that comes with slaw, house-made pickles, and spicy grain mustard. It leans more towards a vinegary buffalo style than traditional Nashville hot chicken. While not exactly on point for the style, all those house-made non-traditional accoutrements come together for a big, multi-napkin, tangy, fried chicken biscuit experience that will leave you happy and ready for a George Constanza-style post lunch nap.

click to enlarge Chick's Fry House - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Chick's Fry House

Chick's Fry House
1011 King St.
Downtown

In November Chick's Fry House's Robert Stehling and Dave Uecke served Nashville hot chicken as a special every Tuesday for a month. As the month went on the heat level and popularity rose to the point where, by December, they decided to add it to the everyday menu. Their hot chicken is true to style and comes in two heat levels: hot and extra hot. The extra hot is easily the hottest in town and should appease anyone looking for a real experience. Smeared in dark red chiles and spices, it will stain your fingers and sear your tongue. You can get wings, legs, thighs, breasts, and tenders served up hot chicken style, all on white bread with sweet pickles. Bonus: Chick's has great sides and is one of the only places in town that serves Boylan sodas on tap.

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The Granary
624 Long Point Road
Mt. Pleasant

click to enlarge The Granary - ROBERT DONOVAN
  • Robert Donovan
  • The Granary

Chef Brannon Florie has a new item on the menu at the Granary in Mt. Pleasant that stays true to the spirit of hot chicken but changes it up to match his restaurant's MO. His take involves brining a dark meat quarter for two days in cayenne, fennel, herbs, sugar, and other spices then confiting the fowl in duck fat, frying it crisp, and coating it in a modified wet hot chicken rub that includes cloves, ancho chiles, cumin, and melted duck fat in addition to classic hot chicken spices. It's stacked on a toasted brioche bun with house-made butter and served with Florie's bread and butter pickles. While not traditional, it's mouth-tingling hot, sweet, crispy, and addictive.

Kentucky Fried Chicken
220 Spring St.
Downtown

KFC - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • KFC

KFC has a label on the plastic box containing their Nashville hot chicken that claims, "Warning: you are about to taste the best spicy chicken you've ever had." If you've never had Nashville hot chicken before, maybe. KFC's attempt is the embodiment of what hot chicken purists feared would happen should the Nashville icon become popular and commercialized — a watered-down version made palatable for the masses attached to a massive marketing campaign. It's not very hot and the spices are muted, tasting more like a cheap barbecue rub than hot chicken. The chicken is what you'd expect from a national chain, bland with no discernible texture to the crust outside of rubbery. Not to beat up on a chain that is obviously popular, but go elsewhere if you're looking for a real Nashville hot chicken experience.

Nana's Seafood and Soul
176 Line St.
Downtown

click to enlarge Nana's Seafood and Soul - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Nana's Seafood and Soul

In what seems like it should be a natural menu companion to their devil crabs, the Line Street Gullah-Geechie soul food restaurant is also cooking up some damn good hot chicken. Co-owner Kenyatta McNeil came up with a recipe that is a legitimate representation of the style and one of the better ones in town. The fatty yet not greasy dark-meat chicken quarter has a deep red hue. That lovely color comes from the amount of chiles and smoky spices in the paste that gets cooked into the crunchy crust. It will coat your fingers and lips. As promised, the heat is enough to give you the sweats but without crushing the rest of your day (or the next 24 hours). It comes served on white bread with pickles and a side of Nana's sauce for $5. At that price it's worth tacking on some lima beans and rice or mac and cheese. Those looking to feed their craving should call ahead (and bring another shirt) because as of this article's writing, it's only available occasionally.

Poogan's Smokehouse
188 East Bay St.
Downtown

Poogan's offers a Tennessee Hot Chicken Sandwich ($12) that comes on a lightly grilled roll with garlic pickles. You can add cheese, bacon, or a farm egg for extra. The chicken is crispy, juicy, and covered with a red medium-hot sauce that borders on a tangy buffalo style flavor. While the sauce and the optional additions to the sandwich aren't especially true to the style, it's a solid sandwich.

The Rarebit
474 King St.
Downtown

The off-menu offering from the Rarebit approaches the chicken a little differently than most of the other options listed in this article. The chicken breast is fried without a crust and then coated with a spice-packed dry rub of thyme, oregano, paprika, cayenne, lemon pepper, and others. Served traditionally on white bread with pickles, it's not going to blister your tongue, but it's enough heat to give it a tingle.

Sweeney's
3157 A Maybank Hwy.
Johns Island

New to the everyday bar and take-out menu, Sweeney's is offering whole buttermilk-fried and Nashville hot chicken" for $15. The bird is served in a white cardboard take-out box whether at the bar or if you take it to go. Stacked on white bread and scattered with pickles, it sticks to that tradition but the hot part is sweeter than most. The chiles are there but aren't packing much of a punch, and the spice mix is different from what I expect in hot chicken. That said, the chicken itself is juicy, salty, and tender with a little tang to it, so while I wouldn't put it in the traditional Nashville hot chicken camp, it's a pretty good bird.


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