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    The first time Ryan Rogers had hot chicken was in 2013, a few months after his restaurant Feast opened in New Albany, “I had a hitched a ride down to Memphis, TN with a friend that was headed there for work and I spent the entire time eating barbecue and Gus’ Fried Chicken, but on the way back to Louisville I told my friend we had to stop at this place called Hattie B’s in Nashville that I’d heard about. So we did, I got the Shut The Cluck up - amongst many other things - and then I couldn’t drive because I couldn’t stop shaking. The hot chicken endorphin rush is real and I was hooked.”

    That endorphin rush must be real, because Louisvillians can’t seem to get enough. Louisville has always been a town to jump on board with food trends - this year, we’ve seen many a gourmet doughnut and consumed so many cones of artisanal ice cream - but Nashville Hot Chicken is different. It’s enraptured the city enough to gain solid footing here. But how? And why?

    It took almost 70 years for hot chicken to claw its way out of Nashville’s black neighborhoods and enter the mainstream. In 2007, the spicy style of serving up fried chicken made its way into the mouths of Nashvillians-at-large. The city’s mayor, Bill Purcell, was stepping down after two terms and looking for a way to celebrate the city’s upcoming centennial. He’d developed a love for hot chicken long before, even referencing Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack as his second office. To celebrate the food, he started the Music City Hot Chicken Festival. Now, the festival serves over 10,000 attendees.

    If you’re interested in a deeper history of hot chicken, the racial tension that led to its birth and the scorned-lover story that serves as the dish’s origin story, this article from The Bitter Southerner is worth the read. 

    Now, Nashville hot chicken has flown the coop and made its way up I-65, finding a home in Louisville. There are no fewer than three restaurants open - or slated to open - dedicated to hot chicken, and I can name at least three other restaurants that have Nashville’s signature dish on their menus. Meanwhile, I have no idea where to get a bowl of burgoo, a dish that originated in our own great state. Why is hot chicken so popular and how did we even hear about it?

    My first sighting of hot chicken was at now-defunct Loop 22 (owners have since turned the space into Migo, a taco joint). The restaurant specialized in rotisserie chicken, but branched into hot chicken when chef Eric Morris made it a special. Morris carried the recipe over to Epic Sammich Co., where you can buy it as the Honky Tonk Flame.

    Honky Tonk Flame | Epic Sammich Co.

    “I’ve got to give a little credit to one of my guys there - to my sous chef. Loop was very chicken-oriented. We had rotisserie, we had our signature fried chicken and we wanted to do variations on it. I was speaking with my sous chef - his name is Adam Mace, he’s now the sous chef at Rye - and he brought it up. He was like, ‘Nashville hot chicken!’ ...We didn’t know a ton about it, but we read and did our research. It’s obviously very big in Nashville, that’s where it came from. We saw how it was done and we wanted to put our own spin on it, as you do... At  first, I think we just called it hot chicken and no one really understood what it was - ‘What does that mean? Spicy, or is it like, temperature?’ But then we changed it to Nashville Hot Chicken and that was fun. People had questions... We started educating people, and that became, honestly, one of our biggest sellers,” says Morris.

    Two years after Loop 22 opened, Manny & Merle put hot chicken on the menu as part of the restaurant’s expansion into Southern staples.

    “We were expanding the Manny's menu to include menu items inspired from the South, so it was a natural fit to include hot chicken,” said Tony Palombino, owner of Manny & Merle, as well as the new Joella’s Hot Chicken, which specializes in serving up hot chicken. “Our sales increased over 100 percent, with a significant portion of that [being] chicken. The success of the Hot Chicken at Manny's was the inspiration to open up Joella's.” As of the writing of this article, Palombino plans to open Joella's Hot Chicken in Cincinnati and Lexington. 

     


    Joella's Hot Chicken

    So, what is is about this spicy fried chicken that’s got the city all hot and bothered? Is it the excitement of something new? The thrill of a new challenge (the hottest heat level is pretty damn hot)? Or is the chicken just that good?

    Palombino fell in love with the flavor, “What impressed me the most was it was hot (spicy) but also had tons of flavor, which to me is the perfect balance.”

    What makes up the signature taste of hot chicken? According to Morris, “They have their rules - there are rules about hot chicken that make it hot chicken: It has to be dunked in lard… Then you have your heat, the most important is cayenne… You have Hattie B’s and Prince's - these are just people making old soul food and using what they had around. Cayenne’s abundant, lard, brown sugar to run down the heat - it stemmed from soul food.”

    To Morris, the love of hot chicken is about the experience as well as the flavor, “Everyone in Kentucky loves fried chicken. But everyone in Kentucky has had fried chicken for forever. But putting a little twist on it, giving it a backstory, I think really makes it more marketable, more sellable. And you get to have fun with it, give different variations of heat. It’s almost like a game to consumers - ‘Well, how hot do you want to go?’ At the end of the day, though, it’s still nothing more, in a sense, than wings are.”

    Perhaps more appealing than anything, is the down home feel of eating hot fried chicken, with all the sides.

    “That’s a trend that’s coming back now - the cheap, country-style soul foods that are making a comeback, because they’re so cheap to make. Collard greens and cornbread are making a resurgence. We did all that at Loop - I tried to do as much soul food as I could there because it’s really good food and it’s been overshadowed for so long, all it takes is for someone to kind of redefine it. To think about it outside the box, using the same base ingredients, but making it your own… I think that’s where hot chicken falls into place, in that realm of old, cheap soul food. But, just having fun with it,” says Morris.

    The return of these traditional, homestyle dishes is something that seems to be speaking to diners, as Palombino has already seen at Joella’s, “The response has been tremendous, the emotional buy in the brand/product has exceeded our expectations. Most guests are not familiar with Hot Chicken and are pleasantly surprised with they have it for the first time.”

    It’s not just Morris and Palombino who have embraced the resurgence of soul food. At Royals Hot Chicken, Rogers plans to make country fixings from scratch, from the chicken to the delicious sides. As for what to expect from Royals when it opens in December (tentatively - Royals has faced some challenges renovating the interior of their space), Rogers says, “We take all of the food, not just the chicken, we’re doing seriously just like we do at Feast BBQ; there are no canned goods or pre-made dressings coming in our door and going out to our guests, they deserve better. The menu features classic Nashville Hot Chicken sides like Black Eyed Pea salad made from soaked and cooked Black Eyed Peas with a brunoise of fresh vegetables, but we’ve also taken a bit of leeway on other southern sides by offering Pimento Cheese Grits using organically milled corn from Louismill, and pinto beans with kale greens with benne. We’ve always been a restaurant group that has been focused on the execution of a complete meal and our sweet potato/marshmallow fried pies and apple fried pies aren’t something that should be missed.”

     


    A peek at the interior of Royals | Royals Hot Chicken

    And the sides are really important, says Rogers, “I’m a sides junkie, I think they really tell the true nature of the restaurant because so many people glaze over them when it comes to quality, so I usually order the majority of them - or at least any of the ones that seem obscure.”

    Too vague of a recommendation for you? You can take Palombino’s advice, “You can't go wrong with mac & cheese and sweet vinegar coleslaw.”

     


    So many sides | Joella's Hot Chicken

     

    Cover photo: Shutterstock/Maiia Vysotska
    ​All other photos as attributed

    Michelle Eigenheer's picture

    About Michelle Eigenheer

    A Louisville transplant beginning to appreciate all the city's small things.

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