Shelley Davis claims he is Nashville’s champion hot-chicken eater. I have no reason to doubt him. I discovered him standing at the front counter at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, placing his order for the Extra-Hot Breast Sandwich. Anybody who’s ever eaten hot chickeneither at Prince’s or at the now defunct Columbo’scan tell you that even the mild version is enough to clear your sinuses. Eating the extra-hot version has to be pretty much the same thing as flame-swallowing.
Yet, there stood Shelley Davis and his co-worker Victor Thornton, ordering the extra-hot chicken. When they ordered, a hush fell over the room. Once a week, they stop by to pick up an order for the crowd at Whaley Paint & Body. Davis earned his title as hot-chicken king by eating more extra-hot chicken, faster and with less liquid relief, than anyone else.
I asked Davis and Thornton if they had worked their way up from mild to extra-hot. Nope, they just plunged right in. Thornton distinctly remembers his first time: “We were driving back to the shop, and I was eating the chicken, and I was starting to sweat, so I wiped my eyes, and, man, that stuff got in my eye and I almost wrecked the car. We had to pull over.”
Since Columbo’s went out of business a few years back, Prince’s is, to my knowledge, the only place in town that cooks and sells this peculiar specialty. For the past several years, Prince’s has been located on Ewing, off Dickerson Pike. (Take I-65 North to the Dickerson Pike exit and turn left onto Dickerson. Turn right at the second lightEwing. Prince’s is located in the strip center on the right. You’ll find it anchored between a dress shop and a hair salon.)
Apparently, for devotees, it isn’t hard to find. When we arrived, three businessmen in suits and ties were already there; we were followed by a dozen or more male and female barristers from Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, the fellows from Whaley’s, and other workers from nearby plants and businesses.
Though it’s nothing fancy, Prince’s is no shack either. Behind its nondescript storefront, there are brightly painted turquoise walls and a green-and-white rubber-tiled floor. The tabletops are covered with cheery tropical-print oilcloth. The decor features a subtle chicken motif.
The menu board above the order window proclaims the prices: breast sandwich, $2.95; leg sandwich, $2.40; half chicken, $5.35; whole chicken, $10.75; potato salad or cole slaw, 75 cents; baked beans, 95 cents. French fries, I believe, are about $1.
While we placed our order, we got the chance to peek in at Malcolm D. Peoples, who was manning the skillets. We saw two stoves, at least four huge cast-iron skillets encrusted with spattered grease, and probably a zillion pounds of lard. All the skillets were going at once. Peoples wouldn’t reveal any of Prince’s top-secret cooking methods, but I watched as he dredged the chicken pieces in flour, threw a ladle of lard into the skillet, and then added the chicken. Then he lost me. Going into the skillet, the chicken looked perfectly normal. Coming out of the skillet, the chicken was either a slightly ruddy brown or a glistening near-black, depending on the spice level. You can bet that Prince’s buys its cayenne in bulk.
The menu board only offers mild or hot options, but you can order your chicken mild, medium, hot, orif you’re out of your mindextra hot. Most of our party of 14 or so took the mild route, either because they were Prince’s novices or because they claimed they had engagements that evening and had to be a little cautious. I decided to give the medium a shot; Jonathan and Albie went for the hot.
The mild version definitely has a kick, but it’s manageable. After two bites of the medium, however, my eyes started to water, my nose cleared, and I became a soprano for the first time in my life. Four bites in, I got up and bought another soda from the vending machine. Meanwhile, across the table from me, Albie, who had already been perspiring from the heat level in the room, was dripping sweat onto the table. His face was bright red, and his breathing was labored. I had started looking around for a doctor in the house when Albie grabbed his plate and made a dash for the door. Outside, in his huge loaner Cadillac, he turned the air up full blast and contentedly finished the rest of his chicken. Jonathanas in, “Give it to Jonathan, he’ll try anything”remained in his booth, calmly, polishing off his hot breast sandwich.
At Prince’s, the chicken comes with two slices of white bread and several pickle slices. Most regulars ask for more bread to help slake the fire. The fabulous cole slaw is another good coolant, and the potato salad is above average. The baked beans are generously sweetened with brown sugar. I liked the french fries (also cooked in the black cast-iron skillets), but I couldn’t really indulge myself. I had already gone off the lard meter just with the chicken.
Two hours after eating, my upper lip was still tingling, but a slight hangover from the night before had vanished. My guess is that, when it comes to Prince’s chicken, 85 percent of the heat is in the skin. If you’re feeling that you can’t take another bite, you might want to dig into the actual chicken meat instead.
Finally, here are more tips to keep in mind when you venture out for the Prince’s Hot Chicken experience:
1. Be careful what you wear. I dropped a sliver of chicken skin on my nice black-and-white-checked summer frock. Within seconds, a red, greasy stain the size of Rhode Island was spreading across my lap.
2. Be careful what you drink. According to Shelley Davis, it’s best to stay away from the carbonated beverages, because “the fizz will kick up that heat again, and you might explode.” Try lemonade instead.
3. Wash your hands thoroughly after eating. If any speck of spice gets in your eye, it could render you sightless.
4. If you must travel any distance by car, train or plane after eating Prince’s Hot Chicken, start the trip immediately after finishing the chicken. Otherwise, wait 24 hours.
5. Don’t eat hot chicken and drive at the same time.
Prince’s Hot Chicken is located at 123 Ewing Dr. (226-9442). Open noon-midnight Tues.-Thurs.; open until 4 a.m. Fri. and Sat. No credit cards. Prince’s will be closed on July 4 and, possibly, for the entire weekend. Call ahead.