Hot chicken is having a moment – and not an entirely uncomplicated one. Without much advance notice, the spicy, cayenne-blasted take on fried chicken went from regional Tennessee specialty to national phenomenon, all in the span of a year or two.
But you cannot talk about a dish that got its start almost a century ago in Nashville’s segregated, African-American neighborhoods without acknowledging that many of us are arriving very late to the hot chicken party, and that decades of institutionalized racism is part of the reason.
It may be an uncomfortable thing to confront, but it’s important, because sometimes, foods commonly viewed as discoveries have actually been hiding in plain sight for years. (I’m looking at you, pho, hummus and quinoa, just to name a few.) Don’t forget, too, that 2016 kicked off with Beyonce’s proud announcement that she’s got hot sauce in her bag (swag), so it feels as if there is something inescapable about Nashville-style hot chicken finally getting its long-overdue turn in the spotlight.
In Portland, we have Jason Loring, chef and owner of Big J’s Chicken Shack, to thank for giving the dish a star turn on the menu of his new Thompson’s Point restaurant. Bookended by Stroudwater Distillery and Bissell Brothers Brewing, the space features just a few long, communal, wood-and-chrome tables abutting a feature wall made up of wood planks and corrugated metal. Between those details and the subway-tiled wall by the register where you order your meal, it’s an acoustically bouncy room that gets noisy when it is crowded.
But really, you’re not supposed to treat that space like a traditional dining room. Loring’s plan (and that of his neighbors) has always been to encourage diners to use the distillery and brewery as their home base, with Big J’s as a conveniently located source of snacks. “We’re not really a full-service restaurant. People get confused, but that’s just supposed to be a waiting area,” he explained.
At both other businesses, as well as at Cellardoor Winery, servers will take orders for food from Big J’s and deliver it to your table along with your beverage. This works well both in theory and practice, with one notable exception: I consider myself a pretty lenient grownup, but even I would think twice before taking a child for a meal in a distillery.
If I did have a little one in tow, I would very likely head directly for Big J’s version of the modern child’s perfect food: chicken tenders. Like all the chicken at the restaurant, except for the panko-crusted cutlet on the delightful Mugsy’s Friend Cat-su sandwich ($7), the chicken tenders can be ordered in three styles: traditional, Portland Hot and Nashville Hot. The traditional-style tenders were coated in a lively, peppery breading that delivered great crunch, with an irregular surface that seemed precision-engineered to absorb the funky, tangy coconut sweet and sour dipping sauce. Disappointingly, the breast meat inside was dry, cooked just a bit too long.
Tenders or a grilled chicken breast also come with Big J’s salads, such as the Asian Cobb ($11), a colorful, mostly Japanese remix of the classic chopped salad, featuring avocado, bacon, wasabi peas and a soy-tinted hard-boiled egg. The salad comes with a creamy garlic dressing slicked reddish orange with crispy chili sauce, making this Cobb substantial and satisfying, not the passive-aggressive effort at a salad you might expect from a fried chicken shack.
Other sides range in quality from overcooked and chewy thick-cut sweet potato fries ($4), to one of the single best items on the menu: a creamy, curry-flavored slaw made from shaved Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, raisins and apples ($4 small/$7 large) – good enough on its own to make a vegetarian happy to join you for dinner.
All the same, Big J’s is really all about hot chicken. Perhaps the best way to try it is by ordering a Single Wide assortment ($16), with four pieces of chicken (two dark and two white meat).
My dinner guests opted for two pieces prepared Portland Hot-style, and two prepared Nashville Hot-style. While the menu describes the Portland Hot as “a toned down version of the Nashville Hot,” which is purportedly so hot that it is served with a rubber glove, the two are distinct in flavor, texture and appearance – more like third cousins than siblings.
Both versions are fried with a sweet, formidably crunchy crust that comes off the meat in large pieces, like a suit of plate armor. No matter how different this may sound from your idea of what fried chicken should be, a heavy-duty crust is not a bad thing. First, it protects the chicken inside, which regardless of style, we found to be moist, steaming hot and fully cooked. Second, it creates a crisp shell that can withstand sitting out for quite a long time without going soggy. Loring calls it “indestructible.”
He and his senior staff, Rebecca Ambrosi-Riker and Frank Anderson, designed their recipe to blend flavors from Southern fried chicken with the muscular structure of Korean fried chicken. They certainly got the texture right, because three hours and a cool-down in the refrigerator after my visit, the Portland Hot thigh I took home paradoxically tasted even crunchier than it did in the restaurant.
Still, the sweet, sticky, almost candy-like coating – much more Pusan than Portland – is unexpected. “The first time I ate here,” a fellow diner collecting a take-out order said, “I didn’t know what I was eating. But I keep coming back.”
Just as surprising, but for completely different reasons, is the scarlet-and-brown Nashville Hot. The spice blend – heavy on the cayenne, chili powder and garlic, and basted onto the chicken with lard and brown sugar – finds its way onto every soft surface of your mouth in a microsecond. Taking your first bite is like getting stung in the mouth by a scorpion.
The accompanying rubber glove (which I did not receive with my order) should provide a hint as to the intensity of the fiery assault, but a quick look around at other patrons reveals that there are still people who feel ambushed by the level of spice. They are the ones patting their brows with napkins and coughing as the Scoville units ratchet up in the backs of their throats.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Nashville-style chicken is all about daredevil dining; after your mouth acclimates to the peppery heat, other layers emerge – salt, umami and rich golden amino flavors. Each subsequent bite is a little less about fire, and a little more about giving in to a seductive complexity that keeps you eating long after your lips are numb and your fingers stained orange.
If you need something to cut the heat, starch helps. The chicken boxes are served with either Robinhood Meetinghouse cheddar chive biscuits or sliced white bread, and it’s hard to recommend one over the other, because the square-cut biscuits (also available in a box of two for $4) tasted fine, but were too dense and undercooked in the center.
Another option is to order your hot chicken as part of the chicken and waffles ($11). Here, an aromatic and lemony whipped citrus herb butter and Maine maple syrup are served with weird and wonderful Hong Kong-style waffles, with thin, lacy edges and a honeycomb pattern of puffy, half-walnut sized “bubbles.”
While these waffles don’t hold syrup well (there’s nowhere for it to nestle), they taste fantastic, with almost no sugar at all, which allows them to cut the sweetness of the Portland Hot. They also give your tongue a little respite from the fire of the Nashville Hot chicken – a dish that will keep enticing you back to Thompson’s Point with its tractor beam of pleasure and pain, even if you, like much of the world, never knew it existed until now.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: