Life

We Ate KFC’s ‘Nashville Hot Chicken’ And Have A Full Report For You

This piece was previously published and has been reissued after the announcement that KFC is putting Nashville Hot Chicken back on their menu.

I waited in line at Prince’s Chicken Shack for over an hour before finally placing my order. The old woman behind the counter took my money and I asked for Hot Chicken, extra spicy.

“Nah, you gonna want the medium,” she said. “You can’t handle extra spicy.” She was reading a Better Homes and Gardens from 1997 and chewing on the end of a pencil. I stood there, dumbfounded, for several seconds before finding the courage to argue.

“Extra spicy,” I said again. “Thank you.”

The old woman studied me for a few seconds, then walked into the kitchen and returned shortly with a plate of fire-red chicken. “Dead man walking!” She yelled. The restaurant erupted in laughter, like everyone knew what was about to happen.

“I think I’ll be alright,” I said, like an asshole.

I sat down at a booth, unwrapped a napkin, took my first bite of authentic Nashville Hot Chicken, and instantly realized that I’d made a terrible mistake. The old woman was right: I could not handle extra spicy.

There are no words to describe how hot Hot Chicken really is. It sits on the Scoville scale somewhere between “native Thai” and “molten lava.” I muscled my way through the meal with gritted teeth, spewing sweat and tears and breathless gasps until — finally — it was finished.

I’ve been madly in love with Hot Chicken ever since.

***

For the uninitiated, Hot Chicken is a local speciality of Nashville and it’s something that you can’t really find anywhere else. While different recipes offer slight variations, it’s always marinated in a watery blend of secret seasonings before it’s floured, fried, and rubbed with a dry paste made of cayenne pepper and other heavily-guarded ingredients.

And, without question, it’s always served with a side of pickle chips and sliced white bread.

I went on a sort of “Hot Chicken bender” when I moved to Nashville. I ate at every Hot Chicken restaurant I could find over the course of a month. That’s not hyperbole — I tried all the infamous variations of Hot Chicken at more than a dozen restaurants.

Leaving Hot Chicken behind was one of the hardest parts about moving to San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I miss about living in Tennessee: the food, the culture, the beer, the oppressive heat, the laughably cheap cost of living… but nothing compares to how I miss Hot Chicken.

It is, in more ways than one, incendiary.

“So yes… I love Hot Chicken,” I said, drunk, at a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission district. I’d spent the evening telling my friend Mark about the spicy dish, the restaurants in Nashville that served it, and my favorite ways to eat it.

“I’ve heard about that,” he said. “They’re going to start selling it at KFC, right?”

Somewhere in the distance a needle ripped across the surface of a record, the music stopped, the room fell silent. I didn’t believe it until my friend showed me the “Nashville Hot Chicken” logo on KFC’s website.

You can’t imagine my excitement.

Sure, KFC isn’t known for delivering authentic Southern cuisine, but I thought maybe they could pull off a passable analog that would quell the constant cravings I’d suffered through ever since moving to the West Coast.

I went to a KFC the day they started selling “Nashville Hot Chicken.” There was no line. I watched the cashier douse two pieces of extra crispy fried chicken in an unholy red gravy before handing me a steaming plastic box.

The sticker on the box warned: You are about to taste the best spicy chicken you’ve ever had. “All right, Colonel Sanders,” I thought. Let’s dance.

At first sight, KFC’s “Hot Chicken” looks surprisingly authentic. The chicken is crispy and bright red and served with pickle slices and a biscuit. The chicken breast is much smaller than the enormous portions you’d find at Prince’s Chicken Shack in East Nashville but, other than that, it’s a spot-on replica.

Even the smell is reminiscent of the original.

I assumed the chicken would be wet and saucy, like buffalo wings, but I was pleased to find that breading was dry to the touch. I have no idea what KFC has put into their “Hot Chicken” sauce but, for better or worse, the result is convincing.

At least, it looked like Hot Chicken.

I bit into the fat side of the breast and a full swath of skin swooshed off the chicken meat and slapped offensively against my chin. It was wet and sloppy and rapidly disintegrating.

Like authentic Hot Chicken, KFC’s version wasn’t wet — no, the oily dye that had coated the breast had soaked into the breading completely. Unfortunately, the “Hot Chicken” sauce (or whatever you want to call it) had settled between the meat and the skin, making the chicken extremely unstable. Biting into it made it fall apart.

Real Nashville Hot Chicken has the texture of classic Southern-fried chicken: crispy on the outside, juicy in the center… and above all else, stable.

My “Nashville Hot Chicken” breast had dissolved into an open grave of meat and bone and despair. The sauce that had turned it such a convincing shade of red had betrayed its structure. The dream of passable Hot Chicken slipped through my fingers like wet sand. I could feel my heart breaking. KFC’s bastard child looks like Hot Chicken, it smells like Hot Chicken, and up until my first bite, I had hoped that it would actually taste like Hot Chicken. But we live in a world of lies.

The taste is, for lack of a better word, vague. It’s bland and colorless and somehow less flavorful than the extra crispy chicken that serves as its base. The “Nashville Hot Chicken” sauce that creates a nearly identical visual aesthetic to the original somehow manages to replace the traditional “11 herbs and spices” with a non-distinct wash of oils and salt.

When it comes to Hot Chicken, a lack of heat is unforgivable. Hot Chicken is supposed to be insidiously spicy, not mild or medium or five alarm. No, it’s an “oh-my-god-call-an-ambulance” kind of spicy that will set you on fire for days. What KFC has created isn’t spicy at all. It’s just red.

KFC’s “Nashville Hot Chicken” isn’t just bad Hot Chicken, it’s bad fried chicken. Hell, it’s bad food. Even the pickles tasted tired and sad, like they had given up, like they had nothing else to lose.

“Nashville Hot Chicken” is a cruel homunculus, a doppelgänger, a shadow monster. And the true misery is that most people won’t have the chance to taste anything different. They’ll only experience the widely available, extremely disposable, altogether miserable attempt that KFC has half-assedly offered.

Shame on you, KFC.

With any luck this promotional shenanigan will lose money and KFC will remove it from their menu, never to offer it again. They’ll return to selling greasy heat-lamp chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and some surprisingly good biscuits. If you’re reading this, if you don’t have the means to travel to Nashville and eat at Prince’s Chicken Shack, or Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, or — my favorite — Hattie B’s, then please do not eat KFC’s “Nashville Hot Chicken,” not even as a joke.

Trust me. You deserve better.

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