Hot, hot, hot

This Nashville chicken joint will have you all fired up.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY TOM SI­ET­SEMA si­et­se­mat@wash­post.com

My well-trav­eled friend Matt is one ofmy best tip­sters, teas­ing me from wher­ever he finds good food on the road with mouth­wa­ter­ing text mes­sages. One day, it’s a rave for a Chi­nese haunt in London; an­other month, “Guess where I’m hav­ing lunch?” is embed­ded with the im­age of a per­fect pie from Pizze­ria Mozza in Los An­ge­les. To ig­nore his ad­vice, I’ve learned over the years, is to miss out on some­thing spe­cial. So re­cently, when Matt heard that I’d be pass­ing through Nashville, he in­sisted that I make Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack a pri­or­ity.

“My best meal of 2007,” he told me over din­ner in Washington a full three years later.

Need­less to say, a pal and I were at the door of the joint when it opened at noon on a Fri­day in De­cem­ber, a lot hun­gry and a tad skep­ti­cal.

“Prince’s” is a ref­er­ence to the fam­ily that runs the es­tab­lish­ment, led by ma­tri­arch An­dre Prince, 65. “Hot Chicken,” I’ll get to in a few para­graphs. But the air in the place, heavy with what sug­gests Tabasco, hints at truth in ad­ver­tis­ing.

“Shack” is no un­der­state­ment. The din­ing room, in a sad shop­ping strip in east Nashville, is just five faded booths and a card ta­ble cov­ered in oil­cloth. The only mu­sic I re­call is the smack of fin­gers be­ing licked clean. Prince’s is a set­ting made pleas­ant with pale green walls and a dis­play of home­made cakes that a lo­cal baker named Irene Long sells for $2.25 a slice in front of the counter where cus­tomers line up to place their or­ders for chicken.

There’s no printed menu. The few choices at Prince’s — var­i­ous cuts of chicken and side dishes — are flagged on a sign above the counter, and you’d bet­ter know what you want when you reach the win­dow: plain, mild, medium, hot or ex­tra-hot chicken. We get some plain for a bench­mark and some ex­tra hot for the same rea­son some peo­ple jump out of air­planes or swim with sharks: There’s a heady thrill in know­ing that how ever much you’ve trained for it, you may not sur­vive the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Was it my imag­i­na­tion, or did the woman scrib­bling down my or­der pause to size me up? Cer­tainly, there was prece­dence here. When Thomas Keller, the vi­sion­ary be­hind two of the coun­try’s star­ri­est restau­rants— the French Laun­dry in Yountville, Calif., and PerSe in New York— dropped in to Prince’s dur­ing a book-sign­ing in Nashville last spring, he told me, “ they would not al­low me to try the ex­tra hot” be­cause “I was a vir­gin to their chicken.”

Keller’s mini-cri­tique (e-mailed last week from Lyon, where he was at­tend­ing the Bo­cuse d’Or, the culi­nary world equiv­a­lent of the Olympics): “I must say that the mild was su­per hot and the hot EX­TREMELY so! I can­not imag­ine what the ex­tra hot was like or even how some­one would sur­vive the nu­clear ex­plo­sion on the taste buds!” Well, letme tell ya, Thomas. I’m the kind of eater who thinks that jalapenos are for wimps and who al­ways elects to go as hot as it gets on a Thai menu. As far as I’m concerned, the more ha­banero and Scotch bon­net pep­pers in my Mex­i­can or Caribbean food, the bet­ter.

Still, I was not pre­pared for the fire that ex­ploded on my tongue af­ter I picked a piece of breast meat from its cra­dle of white bread and tugged at the chicken’s gritty-with-spices skin, stain­ing my fin­gers a dark red­dish-brown. Not that I hadn’t no­ticed sev­eral yield signs en route. My fin­gers tin­gled at the mere touch of the sea­son­ing, and my eyes started tear­ing as the crust got closer to my face. My side­kick across the ta­ble was wear­ing a you-go-first ex­pres­sion. “I’m get­ting heart­burn just from the smell,” he said — and I bit.

Ever tasted molten iron? Kissed the sun? Me nei­ther. But “ex­tra hot” at Prince’s is what I imag­ine those sen­sa­tions ap­prox­i­mate. Like dy­na­mite, the spices from Prince’s most volatile dish ex­plode on the palate, torch­ing ev­ery taste bud in their path in wave af­ter wave of as­saults. Within sec­onds, I’m cry­ing, sweat­ing and hic­cup­ing — si­mul­ta­ne­ously — and the top of my head feels as if a gi­ant Brillo pad is be­ing rubbed across it. Scratch, scratch, scratch. And sniff, sniff, sniff. For a long moment, I think I’ve com­mit­ted ca­reer sui­cide, be­cause I can’t taste . . . any­thing.

Only the next day do I catch the joke about what has been billed as, ahem, “24-hour chicken.”

It turns out that I’m the ex­cep­tion to the rule at Prince’s, where, for what­ever rea­son, “mostly women or­der ex­tra hot,” says the restau­ra­teur, a 31-year vet­eran of the busi­ness. Pa­trons have told her that they’ve sought out Prince’s chicken as a cure for ev­ery­thing from si­nus prob­lems to hiccups. (Maybe I should have had sec­onds.)

An­dre Prince doesn’t know ex­actly when her fa­ther’s un­cle, Thorn­ton Prince, opened Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, and there’s no one alive in the fam­ily to con­firm her guess that the busi­ness prob­a­bly started in the early ’40s: “All the old heads are dead!” She does, how­ever, re­call her great-un­cle as hand­some (“I saw him when I was a lit­tle girl”) and as a ladies’ man.

As the restau­ra­teur tells it — “ru­mor, ev­ery­thing is a ru­mor” — Thorn­ton Prince stayed out late one Satur­day night, re­turn­ing the next day to find a pan of the fried chicken, a Sun­day tra­di­tion, on his steady’s stove. Ex­cept it wasn’t the usual recipe. To get even with her beau, Prince’s gal had spiked the chicken with a mess of fiery sea­son­ings. But the last laugh was his, says his great-niece. “He liked his whip­ping” and even asked the flame-thrower to stick with her re­vised ver­sion from then on.

Don’t even think about ask­ing An­dre Prince for the recipe. All she’ll share about Prince’s sig­na­ture is that cayenne ac­counts for part of the blast, and veg­etable oil is the pre­ferred siz­zling agent. As much as she’d like to use only iron skil­lets, her cooks rely on deep fry­ers to keep up with the de­mand for Prince’s pride.

The se­cret to just-good-chicken, then? Al­though pref­er­ences dif­fer, Prince likes to cook her bird slowly, so the sea­son­ings have time to be ab­sorbed into the meat, or “get down into it,” as she puts it.

For the record: “I don’t go past mild,” she says.

To eat with the chicken there are too-sweet baked beans, (bet­ter) bright-yel­low potato salad and a fresh-tast­ing coleslaw. I was too full, and too numb, to sam­ple dessert on my maiden visit. Later, how­ever, I was grate­ful to have bought slices of Long’s moist caramel and red vel­vet cakes for the road. They made old-fash­ioned end­ings to a wicked lunch.

Once I’m back home, I ask Prince about the pickle slices top­ping ev­ery or­der of chicken. “ They say they tone down the heat,” she says, too late to res­cue me.

123 Ewing Dr., Nashville. 615226-9442. Lunch for two about $20.

ALAN POIZNER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s not much to look at, but Prince’sHot Chicken Shack in Nashville delivers a taste that’s hard to for­get.

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