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Hot chicken is the next phase of the fried chicken craze

There’s nothing hotter than fried chicken — except hot chicken. The Nashville dish is making a splash in NYC.
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    How Prince's does hot chicken.

    |Facebook

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    Carla Hall

    |Provided

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    The sides at Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

    |Provided

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    Chef David Santos

    |Evan Sung

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    Santos' hot chicken sandwich

    |Michael Tulipan

Every time is seems like fried chicken’s 15 minutes are up, it finds a way to reinvent itself and restart the clock.

Two of last year’s best openings — Birds & Bubbles, where it’s served alongside no less than flutes of bubbly, and the intensely Southern charmed Root & Bone — leaned heavily on the crispy bird to make their names.

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And it was back this summer, this time on a roll. First (and most notably) came David Chang’s Fuku, whose spicy-fatty fried chicken sandwich is solid enough to build the next great fast-casual empire on. Then Shake Shack introduced its own version, while the line outside the city’s first proper Chick-fil-A on Sixth Avenue is so perpetually long that they've had to implement a theme-park-style system to manage it.

Now that thoughts are (slowly) turning to comfort food, there’s yet another take on fried chicken making a play for glory: hot chicken. Originally from Nashville, the dish is shrouded in some mystery because the restaurant where it was (allegedly) invented, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, doesn’t let cameras into its kitchen, much less provide a list of ingredients.

Consequently, methods vary among restaurants there (and most do have it on the menu), but the dish most commonly gets its heat with oil brushed onto the buttermilk-marinated chicken after it is fried, traditionally in a pan. A small mountain of cayenne pepper dominates the spice profile, with chili powder, paprika and a touch of sugar thrown in as well.

The concept actually arrived in New York City years ago at Peaches HotHouse in Bed-Stuy, which slings a notoriously hot version made with ghost chilis. But hot chicken hasn’t caught on much outside its hometown.

Carla Hall's 'love letter to Nashville'

“It’s funny, because I didn’t think of it as being a thing,” says chef Carla Hall, the “Top Chef” favorite born in Nashville who’s opening her own hot chicken-focused restaurant in December in Brooklyn. “It was just something that we ate, it wasn’t a trend. It’s one of those Nashville things, like sweet tea and caramel cake; I didn’t really come to appreciate them until I went to other places.”

Though the best fried chicken was found at her grandmother’s table, Hall, 51, says it was never hot chicken. She created her own recipes, with six degrees of heat, for Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, a cozy 26-seat affair at 115 Columbia St., with a takeout window and just enough fryers for chicken — so no hot fish, she says with a sigh.

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“The thing that we’re doing that probably isn’t as traditional is we’re adding a little more sweet, and maybe a little bit more savory to the heat so it’s not just gratuitously hot,” she says. “I don’t want to take a bite of something and all of a sudden I can’t eat anything else.”

The restaurant’s concept found her, Hall says, when she walked into the space and immediately thought of the meat-and-three concept popular in the South, where diners choose a protein and three sides. She actually hadn’t wanted to open a restaurant — she has a bakery at Gansevoort Market in the works and owns a catering business — but "what I realized at that moment was that it wasn’t that I didn’t want a restaurant; I didn’t want a fine dining restaurant."

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Besides the chicken, Hall is looking to rehabilitate the image of Southern sides, with an all-vegetarian supporting cast of dishes like baked mac ‘n’ cheese, collard greens, coleslaw and a mixed sweet-Yukon potato salad.

The restaurant won't open until the second week of December, but you can preview an abbreviated menu now at Hall's Barclays Center booth during events.

The narrow focus of Southern Kitchen also suits her personality. “I feel like I can do one thing, and one thing well, so the single-concept restaurant does well for me because I don’t get scattered. I have the “or syndrome” — I want to do this, or this, or… and it makes me crazy.”

David Santos resurrects a Louro favorite

At Greenwich Village’s Bark Hot Dogs, the buns and franks are making way for a reprise of chef David Santos’ hot chicken pop-up this Friday from 5-7 p.m.

Santos, 36, who has been without a kitchen since his well-loved foodie experiment Louro closed in June due to a rent hike, got the counter space from owner Joshua Sharkey, a good friend from college and fellow Bouley alum.

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Diners at the pop-up, which started in September, can get their hot chicken in sandwich form on a Martin’s potato roll with housemade pickles and ranch dressing, or order a whole bird in advance ($55 with three sides) through Eventbrite.

“I’ve always been a fan of fried chicken, and I love spicy food too, all sorts of spicy food whether it be Mexican-style spicy or Thai spicy or whatever it may be,” Santos says.

Those two things collided when he saw his friend Sean Brock visit Prince’s on an episode of “Mind of a Chef,” and he began to do research to figure out the history and flavor profile of the dish. The use of pork fat in the spicy oil intrigued him, and he began serving hot chicken about a year ago at Louro’s Sunday night Nossa Mesa supper club dinners.

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The restaurant version kept it traditional, but for the pop-up he’s working on a version made with schmaltz, the rendered chicken fat common in Jewish cuisine. “Not everybody eats pork, right?” he points out. “Also, I love chicken fat. The flavor profile doesn’t rely heavily on the fact that it’s made with pork fat; it relies much more heavily on the spices I put into it.” He also adds some fresh ingredients, as well as a Portuguese twist with olive oil and piri piri.

Santos’ hot chicken has three intensities: mild, hot (he calls it a “very comfortable hot”) and the extra hot, which should be heeded as such.

That he’s dabbling in the fast-casual world just as it’s heating up is a coincidence, but he’s a fan of the concept. Louro’s 100-hour weeks took a toll on him, physically and mentally, and this project is giving him a chance to concentrate his efforts to create a memorable dish.

“[Single-concept restaurants are] so individualized: This one thing, this is all the chef does, all day, and you’ll have the best of this if you go there,” he says. “That’s a pretty cool idea, if you just take one thing and make it great."

 

 

 

 

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