Friday, August 6, 2010

Chicken fight

Earlier this summer, someone from the Village Voice wrote about "Nashville-style hot chicken" on a menu in Brooklyn.

Then my friend Dana at the Nashville Scene wrote about the Village Voice writing about "Nashville-style hot chicken" in Brooklyn.

Then someone from New York magazine wrote about Dana at the Nashville Scene writing about "Nashville-style hot chicken" in Brooklyn.

So I couldn’t help myself.

I wanted to write about it, too.

Is the chicken hot enough in Brooklyn? Can they take the heat? Are New Yorkers total hot chicken wimps? While these questions have been raised, I wonder if we should all just wave a greasy white napkin in surrender.

I don’t consider myself a hot chicken expert, and I’ve never attempted to make it. But I have had my share of Prince’s Hot Chicken, and in one of the most interesting afternoons of my existence, I took Thomas Keller there for lunch (More on that here.) So while I was in New York for the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party this summer, I had to check out the Nashville-style chicken for myself at Peaches HotHouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Yes, a few differences should be noted.

At Peaches HotHouse the chicken is pleasantly orange. Like a sunset.

At Prince’s it’s rusty-brown like a paint chip from the walls of hell.

At Peaches HotHouse the chicken rests on a sturdy mattress of egg bread.

At Prince’s it sits on a standard-issue slice of white bread so thick with grease you could wring it out.

At Peaches HotHouse there are no windows for placing an order. No paper plates with celebrity signatures nailed to the wall. No vending machine in the corner. And -- brace yourselves purists -- no skillets for frying (they use a fryer instead).

So what about the heat?

When I visited Peaches HotHouse, I had to box up my chicken mid-meal and run off to the airport. I ended up missing my flight. So while waiting to speak with a ticket agent, I scarfed down the rest of it without a single…drop…of…water.

But all things considered, I love what the guys in New York are doing.

The crisp crust balances a bit of burn with a touch of sweet while holding together the moist, juicy insides. The chicken comes alongside a mound of mouth-cooling macaroni salad. Nice touch. And the egg bread, albeit it sans grease, adds sophistication. Lord knows we could stand to lay off the grease in Tennessee occasionally.

When it comes to heat, I spoke with Ben Grossman, one of the owners of Peaches HotHouse, who said truly “hot-hot” Prince’s-style versions can be cooked to order on request.

“The chicken that we serve up here is probably more like a medium down in Nashville,” he said. “But we do offer two more varieties of hot, hot chicken which you need to ask for. I remember when I was eating down at Prince’s I could only take a few bites.”


But then Ben almost earned a bless-your-heart merit badge when he added that he and his partner Craig Samuel – both Brooklynites – have a “Southern spirit.”

Ben said he learned about Prince’s through a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary (watch it here), and he visited Prince’s, Bolton’s and 400 Degrees on a trip through the South. His version of Nashville-style hot chicken on the Peaches HotHouse menu is his best-selling item. But it also makes up only about 20 percent of actual sales, because these guys (they’re classically trained chefs) have plenty more on the menu such a spicy-sweet watermelon and arugula salad with lime and ginger.

I appreciate that Peaches Hothouse isn’t trying to rip off our hot chicken – rather they're paying homage to it with their own version. And I like knowing that Nashville now has something to export besides country music.

Hot chicken on a stick at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival in July.

The line at the festival for Prince’s was outrageous. We waited for Bolton’s instead.


What to do after a hot chicken festival?

Drink moonshine!

For a different kind of burn...

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