Nashville: Prince’s Hot Chicken Sandwich

Jan 6, 2012 12:01 pm

A sandwich so hot, it burns you twice

Photos: Chris Chamberlain
Photos: Chris Chamberlain
Prince's is located in North Nashville and open late.
 
Pro tip: You should wash your hands before heading to the bathroom.
Pro tip: You should wash your hands before heading to the bathroom.
 

Nashville’s most notable contribution to the culinary canon is what locals call “hot chicken.” This is not just spicy chicken, like you might find at Popeyes or Bojangles’. Sure, both those chains make a nice peppery chicken that might leave your average consumer reaching for the antacids, but Nashville hot chicken is an animal unto itself—a chicken breast or leg quarter-brined and deep fried in giant ancient iron skillets filled with dark oil. They bubble and pop until golden brown and are then slathered with a secret cayenne-based paste that allows the skin to remain crispy while at the same time covering it with dark layers of flavor and intense heat.

Actually the definition of “sandwich” is stretched at Nashville hot chicken joints, since the normal presentation is to drop this napalm poultry bomb on top of two slices of the spongiest white bread to soak up the drippings and top it with a couple of pickle slices—for absolutely no reason at all. After your second bite of hot chicken, you won’t be able to taste a pickle at all as the capsaicin rush activates your “fight or flight” response system, and your body screams for you to stop this punishment at the same time as your brain craves more of the endorphins generated by this plunge into the Maw.

Of all of Nashville’s hot fowl torture chambers, none is more revered than Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The story goes that the great-uncle of the current owner, André Prince Jeffries, was a bit of a ladies’ man back in the 1950’s. Apparently, after a night of cheating on his girlfriend with another girlfriend, his live-in decided to punish her man by frying him up a batch of impossibly spicy chicken for breakfast. To her surprise, and to the future benefit of generations of Nashville’s gastroenterologist community, Thornton Prince not only liked the hot chicken, but he began asking his lady friend to cook more of her peppery poultry for his friends.

So what’s the full Prince’s experience like? After parking your car in the slightly sketchy parking lot in a nefarious neighborhood of North Nashville, you enter through the nondescript front door of the restaurant tucked in between a nail salon and a hair supplies store in a tiny strip mall.  Prince’s is open until 4:00 AM on weekends to satisfy the late night cravings of the bravest (and drunkest) of Nashvillagers, but the food is the same during the safer daylight hours.

Every quarter is fried to order—so waits of up to an hour are not uncommon, but offer excellent opportunities for people watching. Hot chicken aficionados range from neighborhood laborers to the ex-mayor of Nashville, who ate there several times per week when he was in office.

Heat level choices range from Mild to Extra-hot. Mild is still relatively spicy, and among some of the finest fried chicken you’ll ever taste. Medium is a challenge for most people, and will definitely raise some beads of sweat on your forehead with the first bites. Pro tip: keep your hands away from your face and eyes after you have touched the chicken unless you want to get a sense of what the Occupy Wall Street protestors at UC Davis experienced at the hands of that cowardly cop. And somewhat counter intuitively, all men should wash their hands before they go to the bathroom at Prince’s. Just trust us on this one.

But hot is where it’s at. As ex-Mayor Hon. Bill Purcell says, “It’s a hot chicken shack. I know they have other temperatures available‚ but if you want that‚ you should go to a medium chicken shack or a mild chicken shack.” The Hot Leg Quarter Sandwich combines some of the juiciest, most expertly fried chicken with a seasoning mixture that delights and punishes your senses at the same time. Hot out of the skillet, the greasy steam attacks your nostrils at the first bite through the crispy skin. After numbing your lips like a dentist preparing to do an exploratory procedure, the hot chicken takes hold of your entire being. Parts of your body usually unaccustomed to perspiring may become covered with a thin sheen. After a few bites, your stomach may do a quick flip-flop or start to cramp up as it first encounters the new attacker.

Power through, brave eater, as the joy of a hot chicken experience magnifies in an additive manner with each morsel. When you have finally finished your chicken quarter, the two pieces of bread dyed orange with infernal cayenne chicken grease can still remain to complete the challenge.

Well, actually, no meal at Prince’s is officially over until as Ms. Jeffries warns “it burns you twice.” She tells stories of patrons like one man who fills up his bathtub with cold water before eating his hot chicken and another who had his wife drag a box fan into the bathroom to cool him while on the throne. There is no word of which end of him she pointed the fan at. He probably still went back for more the next week.

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack 123 Ewing Dr., Nashville, TN 37207 615-226-9442

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