I gotta be honest with you. When it comes to spicy food, I’m a big-time wuss.
Jalapenos? Jala-bout no thank you. Sriracha? I’ll stick to ketchup. Hot wings? Only if it comes with a gallon of milk.
But you see, it’s not my fault. I gotta point the finger at my parents on this one. Growing up, the closest thing to hot sauce in our fridge was Kraft BBQ Chicken ‘n Rib sauce.
However, after booking a trip to Nashville in October, I knew it was time to step up my game when I heard the city was famous for its hot chicken.
For those unaware of what it is, hot chicken is ultra-crispy fried chicken loaded in a spicy coating that usually consists of cayenne pepper, paprika and garlic powder (among other things) that’s served with slices of white bread and pickles.
Even though moderately hot foods had kicked my butt my entire life, there was no way I was missing out on trying that. In the months leading up to my trip, I was adding hot sauce to nearly every meal. I was basically going to the gym, but, for like, my tastebuds. By the time I boarded the plane to Music City, I was confident that enough had been done to indulge in a hot chicken meal.
But, before I took the ultimate test, I needed a confidence booster. My first date with Nashville’s favourite dish came at the luxurious Hermitage Hotel which is in the heart of downtown. Opened in 1910, this 5-star hotel has hosted superstars such as Babe Ruth and Johnny Cash over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved to have been the latest superstar to catch some z’s at the Hermitage, but it was slightly out of my budget as rooms are over US$300 per night (instead, I stayed at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel, which I would highly recommend as they’re in a great location and have a rooftop pool). However, the good news is you don’t have to have a superstar budget to be able to afford to eat at the Hermitage’s restaurant, the Capitol Grille.
For US$25, you can indulge in their version of hot chicken, and trust me, for that price, I felt like I robbed the place. It was some of the juiciest chicken I’ve ever had (they cook it in duck fat). If you’re looking for chicken that’s going to melt your face off, this isn’t for you. It had a tiny kick, but overall, it’s very mild and very delicious. Also, their chicken isn’t served up on a chunk of white toast like most places in the city. Instead, it’s served up on some creamy red skin mashed potatoes that would put your aunt’s Thanksgiving version to shame. So, if you’re not entirely sure you can handle the real deal hot chicken, or if you just want to tell your friends you’re a baller and ate at Nashville’s most famous hotel, I highly recommend the Capitol Grille.
If you know a bit about Nashville, you’re probably assuming I took the plunge at Hattie B’s or Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. After all, they’re the most well-known places in town to burn your mouth — and they’ve both been around forever. We drove by Hattie B’s several times and the lineup to get inside was so long you’d think they are giving food away for free (they’re not, by the way).
But even if there was no lineup, my mind was already made up — I was going to Party Fowl. They are relatively new to the restaurant scene, as they opened the first of three locations back in 2014, but Party Fowl is already a contender for the best hot chicken in town. People have already taken notice, including NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who made the trip there last year to learn some tricks of the trade before opening a chicken restaurant of his own in Las Vegas.
I went to the downtown Nashville location and spoke with general manager Luke Howell on what makes Party Fowl chicken different and better than the competition. He said instead of purely focusing on making their chicken scorching hot, they try to create more of a flavour profile as you make your way up on their heat scale (which features five levels).
Their medium level features cayenne pepper, but as you make your way up they add habanero powder, ghost pepper, scorpion pepper, and Carolina Reaper. But what really makes it stand out is how they add bacon fat to their spice blend instead of oil.
"At the end of the day, you’re not going to get this chicken anywhere else in Nashville," Howell said. "I would say you’re not going to get this style of chicken anywhere in the world."
The interior of the building looks like a sports bar mixed with a garage, and the walls are filled with Nashville-themed decor that gives it the feel of the ultimate man cave. It would be a perfect place to sit down, enjoy one of their 20 local beers on tap and watch the Predators lose to the Winnipeg Jets on one of several big-screen TVs. But I wasn’t at Party Fowl to watch Patrik Laine and the boys light up Pekka Rinne.
I wanted to challenge myself, but I also wanted to make it back to Winnipeg alive, so I stayed in the middle and chose medium (I’m wild, I know). I also opted to have my chicken served with their original bourbon-glazed beignets (fried donuts) to give it that perfect sweet and salty combo. As soon as my plate hit the table, I dove right in. I took a bite of the chicken and instantly felt my tongue coated in their unique hot sauce. It feels like the coating can’t escape your mouth, giving you a rather enjoyable aftertaste (unlike those cheap hot dogs at Costco). I won’t lie, it had me sweating and my eyes were getting watery, but I didn’t care. It hurt sooo good. I eat chicken every day — I’m not kidding, check my freezer — and can honestly say Party Fowl’s is the best I’ve ever had.
And don’t worry, milk is on the menu.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.