7541 Old Hickory Blvd. (near I-24 West); 876-9002
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
One look at itty-bitty Lorrie Morganwho might tilt the scale at 105 on a bad dayand you can presume that she doesn’t eat much of her own hot chicken. She wasn’t eating any the day we were at HOTchickens.com, the new restaurant owned by the blond singer and Nashville native. Instead, the lovely Lorrie was seated in one of the comfy wooden booths nibbling bites of a salad she had taken out from, dare I say it, Applebee’s. There are no salads on her restaurant’s menu, and nothing else green either, unless you count the whole dill pickles you can purchase for a dollar.
Morgan’s duet partner and beau Sammy Kershaw, seated beside her and enthusiastically chowing down on a big plate of chicken, definitely wasn’t counting calories that day. He was also enjoying an order of potato salad, which restaurant employees will tell you is his very own recipe. That announcement from our waitress naturally prompted some snickers among the set of smart-aleck media types at our table, who well remember Sammy’s plan a few years back to harvest the pheromones from his own sweat and concoct what he hoped would be an irresistible Sammy Kershaw cologne. We couldn’t detect anything but potatoes and dressing in the creamyand very goodpotato salad.
But we did speculate on the effect of said cologne on Miss Morgan, who has been romantically involved with Mr. Kershaw for some time, an illicit entanglement that was the subject of some very serious and steamy allegations in Sammy and the now former Mrs. Kershaw’s very contentious divorce trial a few weeks ago. With the drop of Judge Muriel Robinson’s gavel, their marriage was recently terminated, and Sammy and Lorrie are free to engage in whatever type of conduct they wishwhich includes dining together on a pretty frequent basis at HOTchickens.com.
Anyway, long before Lorrie knew Sammy, she was a devotee of hot chicken, that peculiar Nashville delicacy which addsdepending on your stated preferencea tolerable or a tongue-blistering, throat-scalding, stomach-scorching amount of cayenne pepper to good old-fashioned fried chicken. Anyone who has ever visited Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack on Ewing Drive knows this, thanks to the autographed 8-by-10 of Lorrie that hung on the wall there for years. But food commitments, like marriages, sometimes run asunder, and La Morgan has apparently decided to strike out on her own.
For years, Prince’s (operating since the ’40s in different locations) was one of several hot chicken places in Nashville; Columbo’s at the foot of the Shelby Street bridge was another. Popeye’s offered a fast-food version of hot chicken, and Jody Faison even sold hot chicken in the back room of Faison’s for a while. Everyone does it a little differently, and every place has its own loyalists, but until now, Prince’s was the sole survivor of the hot chicken wars.
At Prince’s, the chicken is fried in big, black, grease-encrusted cast-iron skillets on a standard stovetop just like one you may have in your own kitchen, only much busier. Try as I might, I couldn’t get Malcolm D. Peoples, who was manning the skillets the last time I was there, to tell me how they did it. But I did surreptitiously peek through the customer window into the kitchen and observed Peoples dredge the chicken pieces in flour, throw a big ball of lard into a skillet, then add the floured chicken pieces. With considerable finesseand disregard for his personal safetyPeoples monitored the crackling chicken, turning the pieces as necessary, ladling more of the melted grease on top as he saw fit. By the time the chicken came out of the pan, it ran the red color spectrum from a pale scarlet to nearly black, depending on whether the customer had ordered mild, medium, hot, or extra hot. I suspect that the cayenne pepper must be added to the grease in the skillet and that each pan is devoted to a different heat level.
Morgan got her recipe for hot chicken not from Prince’s, but from her dad, the late Grand Ole Opry legend George Morgan, who got it from Bolton Polk, a former Prince’s employee who went on to do his own thing at Columbo’s. At Morgan’s restaurant, the chicken pieces are deep-fried; then after draining, a thick, russet-colored sauce that also ranges from mild to extra hot is ladled onto the chicken. Plain fried chicken is also available.
The meal is served in the traditional hot chicken (and hot fish) tradition: a breast or leg quarter laid atop two pieces of white bread with a few dill pickle chips on top. The bread is meant to absorb some grease, which it does in less than three seconds.
Just how hot is the hot chicken at HOTchickens.com? We tried all five degrees: plain, mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. The plain is a nice option for small children and people on restricted diets. The extra hot is just silly, so hot it roars through your mouth like an out-of-control brush fire; after two or three bites, all you can do is sit with your tongue dipped in your cup of sweet tea. The mild is the equivalent of Popeye’s and will just leave you feeling like a weenie, wishing you had ordered the medium. Go for itthe medium is about perfect for most hot chicken fans, just enough to make you feel like you’ve taken a walk on the wild side, but not so much to leave you wishing you hadn’t. The hot is strictly for people who douse their eggs with Tabasco sauce, cover their pizza with red pepper flakes, and pile their burgers with jalapeño peppers. You know who you are.
How does HOTchickens.com compare to Prince’s? Morgan’s chicken has a delicious crispy coating, and the deep-frying method keeps the meat moist and juicy. And unlike Prince’swhich can take foreveryour order is out of the kitchen in a jiffy. The large dining room is welcoming and cheery, decorated in a country motif with gingham cafe curtains and lots of ceramic chickens; the staff is consistently friendly and very capable. Still, our panel of experts was unanimously in the Prince’s chicken corner, thanks to the cooking method employed: We prefer skillet-fried over deep-fried, and to have the heat incorporated during the frying, rather than ladled on top after the fact.
One thing that will bring us back to HOTchickens.com is the out-of-this-world fried hot chicken-liver sandwichenough to give a cardiologist a heart attack, but not a bad choice for a last meal. Sammy also told us that they are experimenting with hot shrimp, which sounds fantastic. Side dishes include fries (which you can order plain or hot), the aforementioned potato salad, and baked beans, which are on the sweet side.
It never hurts to repeat the advice for eating hot chicken offered by Shelly Davis and Victor Thornton, two Prince’s regulars who often order extra-hot:
1. Do not drive and eat hot chicken simultaneously.
2. Cover your clothing with napkins. One teensy crumb of hot chicken inadvertently flicked onto a white shirt or dropped into a lap will instantly spread into a red greasy stain the size of Rhode Island.
3. Wash your hands thoroughly after eating. One speck of spice in your eye will render you sightless for hours (see #1). HOTchickens.com brings wetnaps to the table, but I would err on the side of caution and scrub at the sink as well. Lasik eye surgery will not cure hot chicken burns.
4. If you must travel any distance by car, train, or plane, either do so immediately after eating hot chicken, or wait 24 hours.
5. Be careful what you drink with your hot chicken. Go for tea, lemonade, or even milk. Avoid carbonated beverages because, as Shelly Davis warns, “the fizz will kick up that heat and you might explode.”
Field correspondent Jay Barron reports that the Pie Wagon, a meat-and-three diner conveniently located on 12th Avenue South near Demonbreun, is serving hot chicken for lunch on Tuesdays. Sounds like the perfect thing to go with their exceptional deviled eggs.
Speaking of pie, Alicia Banks has opened B&C Pies at 1997 Nolensville Rd., just south of the entrance to the Tennessee Fairgrounds. She learned her pie recipes from her mother, Mantlean Banks, and claims to be cooking the best sweetpotato pies in town since 1947. I can’t attest to that, but I can say that her sweet-potato pie, sampled in the mini version ($1.50), was the best I’ve had since 1981, which is how long I’ve been here. Banks also makes pecan, lemon, chess, and fudge pies, available in 9-inch sizes for $8 ($7 for the fudge). To place an order, call 254-1121. B&C is open six days a week.