By Matthew Rudy
Buffalo has its wings, but Nashville is a little more equal opportunity when it comes to chicken. The Music City's signature dish is "hot chicken," a catch-all category that includes the bird in all of its guises -- breasts, wings, drumsticks, strips, tenders -- marinated in buttermilk and doused in various amounts of cayenne pepper before being deep fried.
Like New York City pizza, everybody has an opinion about which establishment is the best (or hottest). Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is the grandaddy of the bunch, and visiting is like entering an archeological dig that's in the middle of excavation. It's set in a grimy strip mall in a decidedly less-fashionable part of North Nashville. Take your cue from the dining room full of people tearing up over molten breasts and wings that are stacked like firewood over pickles and white bread on picnic-style styrofoam plates. They're the ones who ordered "medium" heat.
As good as the chicken is at Prince's, it takes a special commitment to soldier the wait, crummy service and paleozoic chairs. To get a more modern (and equally delicious) experience, head toward downtown for Pepperfire. The decor is no great shakes here, either -- you order at a makeshift front window in what appears to be an abandoned cinder-block fast-food restaurant. Pick your cut of chicken and heat level (mild to XXtra hot), order a couple of sides and leave your cell number with the cashier. The chicken is prepared to order, and you get a text when it's ready. Which is good, because if you touch your phone with your fingers after you eat, you could scar your corneas forever.
At both Prince's and Pepperfire, medium was still as hot as anybody from the Northeast should ever order. The extra-hot chicken comes out an angry, devil-face red and is served with a stern warning from the counter staff. Slices of plain-jane white bread seem like a wasted accessory until you realize that spicy chicken is best eaten with a handle. Some foods are hot for the sake of hotness, and all you can taste is the heat. Prepared well, hot chicken starts with the heat and morphs into the juiciest fried chicken you've ever had. At least in medium guise. I wasn't brave enough to bite into the XXtra hot without a pair of goggles and nowhere else to be the rest of the afternoon.
If you're intrigued (and brave), the annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival hits Nashville July 4. Bring an iron stomach and a pail of milk and conduct a taste comparison among the seven vendors -- including both Prince's and Pepperfire.