Nashville hot chicken conquers America: Tennessee tradition has exploded in popularity

Nashville hot chicken lingered as local speciality for decades, the piquant poultry now one of America's most coveted culinary treasures

Nashville hot chicken is on fire. 

The piquant poultry is, at its core, a spicy sauce-soaked version of Southern fried chicken. Its intoxicating explosion of heat and flavor has ignited both the food bloggery and the palates of culinary thrill seekers around Nashville — and now around the world. 

"Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies," warns a sign on the cinder block walls of Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish, a no-frills East Nashville hot chicken hotspot. 

The tasty tradition traces its roots to the Great Depression. But it’s become a national and now international phenomenon only in recent years.

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Acclaimed 400 Degrees opened in 2006, Hattie B’s in 2012 and Party Fowl in 2014. Each now has multiple locations in and around Nashville — and in some cases beyond.

"It's comfort food for me. It brings me joy," Nashville native, poultry proselytizer and 400 Degrees founder Aqui Hines told Fox News Digital.

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich at Party Fowl. The Music City is also a poultry paradise, as Nashville hot chicken, a longstanding local tradition, has captured the attention of food lovers across the nation. 

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich at Party Fowl. The Music City is also a poultry paradise, as Nashville hot chicken, a longstanding local tradition, has captured the attention of food lovers across the nation.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

"I don't have to have a cigarette. I don't have to have chocolate. But I do need my hot chicken every day."

Expect to wait in line at the city's most popular poultry palaces at almost any time of day — including well before noon. 

Bachelorettes in cowboy hats were lined up outside Party Fowl in Nashville's trendy Gulch neighborhood at 9:50 a.m. on a recent Friday, awaiting the 10 o'clock opening of the "cold beer, hot chicken" watering hole.

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They're rewarded with an amazing array of hot chicken options. 

Party Fowl offers hot chicken Cuban sandwiches, hot chicken tacos and hot chicken queso, among many other choices. 

400 Degrees is a beloved hotspot for Nashville hot chicken, specializing in bone-in breast quarters. Nashville hot chicken sauce is a blend of cayenne paprika for heat, paprika for rich red color, and oil for texture and mouthfeel.

400 Degrees is a beloved hotspot for Nashville hot chicken, specializing in bone-in breast quarters. Nashville hot chicken sauce is a blend of cayenne paprika for heat, paprika for rich red color, and oil for texture and mouthfeel. (Courtesy Aqui Hines/400 degrees)

Long lines of late-night revelers eagerly wait to get into the Lower Broadway location of Hattie B's, sitting on the catbird seat of downtown Nashville's honky-tonk district. 

Nashville hot chicken, among other essential qualities, is apparently great drunk food, too.

"It's comfort food for me. It brings me joy." — 400 Degrees founder Aqui Hines

"Do not come to our town without an arsenal of Alka-Seltzer," warned Nashville resident Jen Livengood, adding that "my heart belongs to Bolton's."

Prince’s Hot Chicken is acclaimed as the creator of Nashville hot chicken in a popular but bawdy origin story. 

Prince's Hot Chicken sandwich. Nashville hot chicken traces its roots to Thornton Prince, a Depression-era Nashville pig farmer and local lothario. A spurned lover attempted to punish him by over-spicing his fried chicken. He loved the new dish so much he began selling it.  

Prince's Hot Chicken sandwich. Nashville hot chicken traces its roots to Thornton Prince, a Depression-era Nashville pig farmer and local lothario. A spurned lover attempted to punish him by over-spicing his fried chicken. He loved the new dish so much he began selling it.   (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Thornton Prince was a renowned Depression-era ladies' man who married five different women and dallied with many others. 

One spurned lover in the 1930s attempted to punish the local lothario by spicing up his favorite fried chicken — secretly, of course — with too much cayenne. 

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"He was tall, good-looking and handsome," Prince's grandniece, Andre Prince Jeffries — known around Nashville as Miss Andre — told Fox News Digital.

The plan backfired. Badly. 

Prince, a pig farmer, loved the rocket-fueled fried chicken. 

He was soon selling it out of his home, even staying open until 4 a.m. to meet demand, said Miss Andre, who runs the company today. 

Hattie B's Hot Chicken was founded in 2012. It quickly proved a popular tourist destination for fans of spicy poultry while helping popularize the Music City specialty around the nation. Hattie B's now has four locations in Nashville and six more around the country. 

Hattie B's Hot Chicken was founded in 2012. It quickly proved a popular tourist destination for fans of spicy poultry while helping popularize the Music City specialty around the nation. Hattie B's now has four locations in Nashville and six more around the country.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

"It’s popular because it’s different," she said. "It's not boring. It's chicken that wakes you up."

Thornton Prince's original Nashville hot chicken was cooked in lard in cast-iron skillets. Hot chicken is deep-fried today in more contemporary cooking oils — and consumers can’t seem to get enough. 

"Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies." — Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish

Nashville hot chicken in it most basic form is crispy-coated Southern fried chicken. 

It's then soaked in a sauce of cayenne, which gives it heat, and tons of paprika, which lends the sauce its tantalizing deep-red color, mixed with hot oil — "any kind of oil," said Hines.

Nashville hot chicken icons Andre Prince Jeffries and former Mayor Bill Purcell. Jeffries is the owner of Prince's Hot Chicken, the originator of the piquant poultry, and Purcell helped popularize the local specialty with the founding of the Nashville Hot Chicken Festival.

Nashville hot chicken icons Andre Prince Jeffries and former Mayor Bill Purcell. Jeffries is the owner of Prince's Hot Chicken, the originator of the piquant poultry, and Purcell helped popularize the local specialty with the founding of the Nashville Hot Chicken Festival. (Courtesy Bill Purcell)

The oil-based sauce distinguishes Nashville hot chicken from Buffalo chicken, America’s long-standing king of spicy poultry. 

Buffalo wing sauce is typically made from Frank's Red Hot or a similar cayenne-based sauce, mixed with butter. 

The fatty butter tends to mute the high notes of the spices. The oil in hot chicken sauce appears to accentuate the spices. 

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Nashville hot chicken is certainly the more versatile of the two. 

Buffalo wings are typically just that: sauce-soaked chicken wings or chicken tenders cut from the breast.

Nashville hot chicken typically refers to a boneless breast, often served as a sandwich with pickles or other toppings, or a bone-in breast quarter with wing. 

But Nashville hot chicken might be any cut: wings, thighs, tenders, breast, whole bird — even crispy fried hot chicken skins. It might come dry-rubbed in spice, too.

Nashville hot chicken joints serve spicy chicken in every way imaginable, from traditional sauce-soaked fried chicken breasts to these deadly hot dry-rubbed wings from Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish in East Nashville.

Nashville hot chicken joints serve spicy chicken in every way imaginable, from traditional sauce-soaked fried chicken breasts to these deadly hot dry-rubbed wings from Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish in East Nashville. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Nashville hot chicken is served at any meal — including breakfast. 

The Row, near Nashville’s Music Row, serves hot chicken and French toast topped by fried egg and doused in maple syrup. 

Party Fowl offers an impressive selection of morning options: Nashville hot chicken beignets, hot chicken eggs Benedict and hot chicken pimento cheese omelet. 

Nashville hot chicken tenders from Hattie B's, which opened in 2012 and now boasts multiple locations in Nashville and beyond.

Nashville hot chicken tenders from Hattie B's, which opened in 2012 and now boasts multiple locations in Nashville and beyond. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken, a North Carolina-based company, offers decadent hot chicken and biscuit sandwiches for breakfast.

It has a downtown Nashville location across from American music landmark Ryman Auditorium.

Chefs are in the hot-chicken biz these days, too. Red’s 615 Kitchen offers hot chicken mac ‘n cheese — either as a bowl or wrap — from classically trained chef Eric "Red" White.

Bolton's is a popular, no-frills East Nashville hot chicken joint. A sign above the kitchen warns, "Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies!"

Bolton's is a popular, no-frills East Nashville hot chicken joint. A sign above the kitchen warns, "Please wash your hands before rubbing your eyes or your babies!" (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Nashville hot chicken lingered as a local tradition for decades. Local poultry pundits credit its national ascension to the first Nashville Hot Chicken Festival, held in 2006. 

"Nashville hot chicken was invented here, it’s ours and we’re proud of it," former mayor and festival advocate Bill Purcell told Fox News Digital. 

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"We decided to make it the centerpiece of our festival, not knowing what would happen. Well, it’s been a huge success."

The Nashville Hot Chicken Festival is still held each year on the 4th of July.

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"Our hottest food on our hottest day," Purcell said.

Nashville hot chicken, and the signs and smells of it, are ubiquitous in the city.

Nashville hot chicken, and the signs and smells of it, are ubiquitous in the city. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Buffalo wings have long ruled the nation's spicy chicken scene, with some version of them found in taverns, sports bars and juke joints from coast to coast. 

Nashville hot chicken might soon challenge it for ubiquity.

Dave's Hot Chicken, a California-based company, now offers 77 locations across the United States and around the world. 

Dave's Hot Chicken opened a high-profile location in Midtown Manhattan just outside Times Square last month. It opened its first overseas outlet in Dubai last week.

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"I don’t think there’s been any new category in the food business that’s created more excitement over the years than hot chicken," Dave's Hot Chicken CEO Bill Phelps told Fox News Digital.

"It’s spicy, it’s fun, it excites all the senses."