Some Like it Hot (Chicken)

A guide to fiery fowl.

Story by Chris Chamberlain

If Steve Harvey asked the contestants on “Family Feud” to name one dish that typifies Southern cooking, the number one answer would doubtlessly be fried chicken. We love a crispy eight-piece box of yardbird around these here parts, but sometimes Southerners crave poultry that’s a little more piquant.

Maybe you think you’ve had spicy chicken at fast food spots like Popeye’s or Bojangles. Bless your hearts. While both of those establishments serve some serviceable chicken, you’re still missing the boat. (An aside: I never eat at Popeye’s north of Meridian, Mississippi because they just can’t seem to get the dirty rice right.) For the real deal, you have to seek out smaller independent restaurants that still use cast iron skillets and possess a heritage of putting out chicken that will make you sweat. Here’s a guide to the three major types of peppery pullets and where to find them across the South. And yes, I have exhausted my thesaurus with words for “chicken” at this point.

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

You can’t make good spicy chicken without starting with great fried chicken, and for more than 60 years the Bonner Family has been frying up some outstanding chicken at Gus’s. The recipe and the business started in tiny Mason, Tennessee, just off interstate 40 between Memphis and Nashville. Before open kitchens were in vogue, patrons at Gus’s could watch family members dredging chicken and frying it fresh just across the counter from where they ordered. This no-frills restaurant still only offers a few seats, but the juke box is filled with great soul classics to listen to while you wait.

The crispy skin gives way with a crunch on the first bite, releasing a peppery aroma and flavor that encourages a second bite, even if you’re still suffering from the heat of the bird straight from the skillet. Each plate is served with slightly sweet beans and coleslaw to offset the spice and white bread for sopping up the juices. For generations, Gus’s chicken was one thing that brought all the elements of the area together, be they rich or poor, black or white, which was a rare occurrence in rural Tennessee in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Gus’s has grown into a chain with almost 30 locations stretching from Michigan to California, but the original outpost in Mason is still the one worth a poultry pilgrimage. However, if you’re not willing to make the drive from Memphis, the downtown Memphis restaurant on Front Street has been an authentic representation since 2001, so it’s got its own layer of grease on the ceiling from years of fryers pumping out delicious chicken. The tourists have discovered it, so it can get crowded, but you’ll be waiting with like-minded folks in search of fine fowl.

Gus's Fried Chicken - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: David Meany

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

Prince's hot chicken - Foodie Travel USAWhile Gus’s will definitely give you a kick in the palate, it is tame compared to Nashville Hot Chicken, especially the example served at the originators of the genre at Prince’s. Unfortunately the long-time location north of downtown Nashville is still recovering from a fire caused when an SUV smashed into the non-descript strip mall where it is located last December, but there is another family-owned outpost south of town.

The origin story of Nashville Hot Chicken stretches back to the 1930s: Legend holds that Thornton Prince was fooling around on his girlfriend with another girlfriend. The aggrieved paramour decided to get back at Prince by heaping so much cayenne pepper on his lunch of fried chicken that it turned infernally dark. To her surprise (and Nashville’s culinary history’s great benefit), he liked it. He asked her to make it again. Then he invited friends over who loved it so much that they ordered him to open a restaurant to serve it. So he did.

The rest is history, with hot chicken becoming a world-wide sensation served in restaurants around the globe. It even shows up in national chains like KFC and as a flavor of potato chips, much to Nashvillians’ chagrin. But the question is, how hot is it?

In short, it’s as hot or hotter than you can possibly stand. At Prince’s, the heat spectrum ranges from mild, which will still make your taste buds stand at attention, to XXXHot, which they’ll generally only serve to you if they know you. The diabolical chicken is served with pickles to help cut the heat with acid, and the definition of “sandwich” is stretched pretty far as it’s generally a bone-in breast or leg quarter plopped atop two pieces of spongy white bread. If you think that bread’s gonna save you, think again. The grease and pepper from the chicken soaks into the bread leaving it stained orange and peppered with, well, pepper. Locals call it “The Devil’s Cinnamon Toast,” and it should be treated with caution.

So why eat it? Like a runner’s high, your endorphins fire when encountering the first few bites triggering a fight-or-flight reaction across your whole body. After the first expertly-fried pieces reach your gullet, your stomach may flinch or flop as if to ask, “Why are you doing this to me?!” Plunge on, brave warrior. The buzz grows as you power through the chicken, hopefully heeding a few indiscreet pieces of advice that will make the experience easier to endure. First, keep one hand and napkin free for wiping your brow and another one dedicated just to handling the chicken. You don’t want to get any of those spices in your eyes unless you want to cry tears of joy and agony at the same time. In a related note, the second piece of advice seems counter-intuitive. After eating hot chicken, wash your hands before going to the bathroom. ‘Nuff said. Thirdly, no air travel within 24 hours of hot chicken consumption, or at the very least make sure you have an aisle seat. You’re going to want to be somewhere comfortable for a few hours, because as the current proprietress of Prince’s Andre Prince Jeffries warns, “Hot chicken will burn you twice!” Really, it is worth the ride.

Slappy’s Chicken

The “dipped” chicken of the Carolinas is about as different from the Memphis or Nashville versions mentioned above as their unique Piedmont-style barbecue is from the sweet smoky ‘cue of West Tennessee. Winston-Salem is the home of Texas Pete hot sauce, and that is a critical ingredient in the slightly sweet peppery sauce that characterizes Piedmont barbecue. So it’s a logical conclusion that the residents of central North Carolina love their fried chicken dipped in a version of that elixir.

Slappy’s is basically a shack on the south side of town, with just a few tables and a counter for ordering. The chicken is perfectly fried, and you can order it “dry” without the sauce, but what’s the point of that? The sauce has an additive effect as you plow through an order of chicken, gradually building the burn, but not to the infernal levels of Nashville Hot Chicken. Instead, the perfect blend of sweet and savory, spicy and acidic combines with juicy chicken for a memorable experience.

Order your quarter bird with a side of side of creamy mac n’ cheese, some smoky collard greens and a cold, sugary Cheerwine soda for the perfect inexpensive taste of the Piedmont. You’ll want to go back again and again!

Slappy's Chicken - Foodie Travel USA

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Chris Chamberlain

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Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink and travel writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

2019-11-22T20:53:00+00:00August 13th, 2019|Categories: Cuisines, Featured, Producers & Purveyors, Regions, Soul Food, Southeast, Southern|Tags: |0 Comments

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