Boston feels about as far away from the Deep South as you can get. But that hasn't stopped the city from serving a whole lot of fried chicken — because we’re hip to this nationwide soul food craze, too. Highland Kitchen bathes its bird in buttermilk, Redd’s in Rozzie tosses it in mole poblano, and The Coast Cafe claims its crunchy, herby poultry is the best in New England. But a few area chefs have turned up the heat; putting a Nashville specialty — hot fried chicken — on the menu, and their patrons heat tolerance to the test.
Down in Tennessee, the dish is traditionally eaten with a slice of white bread and braised collards to temper the alarming amount of cayenne pepper the chicken is brined in and then glazed with. Think you’re up to it? Here’s where you can get the hottest dish in town. Just don’t come to us crying.
Don't let the faux dive-bar facade fool you, State Parkis turning out seriously tasty food. The kitchen plates its three-piece Nashville hot ($19) atop a slice of house-made pain de mie (thin crusted white sandwich bread), next to a mound of garlicky kale and a finishing touch of bread-and-butter pickles. Coated with a paste of ghost chilies, hot cayenne pepper and the moderately spicy Peruvian aji amarillo chili, the chicken has been on the dinner menu year-round since the restaurant opened in 2013. “We wanted a spicy option for our fried chicken but were looking for something different from the more common buffalo sauce,” said Chef Tyler Sundet. “We landed on our version of Nashville hot chicken excited by the depth of flavor in the spice and also that it was something not usually on menus in this area.” At least it wasn't back then. (pictured above)
Bartender Dan Pirello has taken a lot of orders for it and seen the spectrum of reactions, he said, from “‘No, dude, I’m fine’ and then they’re crying and have to go to the bathroom every five minutes to people who don’t even have a sip of their water and eat the whole thing and are totally fine.” (Those who fear they can’t handle the heat can ask for sauce on the side.) What to wash it down with? Narragansett, Pirello said. “Just beer. Like, the dictionary definition of beer. We have a bunch of those here.”
State Park - One Kendall Sq., Building 300, Cambridge, 617-848-4355, statepark.is
The Indo is a gastropub so comfortable with its fusion-comfort food, there’s no mention on the menu of this hot fried chicken ($19) being “Nashville-style” or “authentic.” Rather, it’s the product of Executive Chef Patrick Gilmartin, who in 2015 overhauled the menu to be more locally sourced, having been on a spice kick. The heat comes primarily from cayenne pepper blended with brown sugar and duck fat. “It is definitely hot, but it's not an overwhelming heat,” Gilmartin said. “I like to think of it as the kinda heat that just makes you want to take a sip of beer and go back for more.” Right now, he’s serving it with collard greens, mashed potatoes and pickled jalapenos. “I liked the idea of a hot pepper being the ‘cooling’ element on the plate,” he said. (This summer, watch out for the return of coleslaw, he added.)
And which of the bar’s many craft beers should we be sipping with it? General manager Jenna Figuerido suggested Bear Republic Racer 5, “a well balanced, super hoppy IPA and always on tap.”
The Independent - 75 Union Sq., Somerville, 617-440-6022, theindo.com
The Coast Cafe
Though chef Tony Brooks said he hasn’t heard of Nashville-style hot fried chicken, “hot” is one of four flavors (fried, jerk and BBQ are the others) his chicken boxes come in. Forgoing flour, Brooks fries marinated chicken fingers ($9.99), wings ($8.99) or breast and thigh pieces ($7.49) in oil and then flips them in the house hot sauce so the skin stays crunchy. “The sauce doesn’t overwhelm the crunchiness,” he said. It’s the hottest dish on the menu — an 8 out of 10, he said — much spicier than the restaurant’s herb-infused, lightly breaded and fried classic.
Coast Cafe - 233 River St., Cambridge, 617-354-7644, coastsoulcafe.com
Colonel Sanders’ “Authentically Nashville! Also Authentically Hot!” chicken meals are mild, heavy on the smoked paprika and light on the cayenne pepper. When the chain launched its “spicy bird with a savory burn” nationwide in January, its food truck stopped at every Nashville in America, except the one in Tennessee (the locals were skeptical anyway). But KFC’s take is an entrypoint for Yankees easing their way up the Scoville scale. A meal for one ($5.49 to $5.99) comes as a single breast, drumstick-and-thigh combo or as three tenders, with a buttermilk biscuit and cup of coleslaw (and supposedly a sprinkling of pickles, though this reporter’s recent order at the Allston location was handed over ungarnished).
KFC - 30 N. Beacon St. (Allston), 695 Columbia Rd. / 465 Washington St. (Dorchester), kfc.com