I Bit the Chicken and the Chicken Bit Back… Nashville’s HOT Chicken Restaurants

Pepperfire Restaurant in Nashville, TN. Photo by Curtis Mekemson

Hot chicken is all the rage in Nashville today. But just how hot is it?

My son-in-law Clay and I have been hassling each other over hot food ever since he first started dating our daughter. Clay, Tasha, Peggy and I had gone out to a steak house in Sacramento, California and ordered prime rib. Normally, the restaurant served a mild horseradish cream sauce along side. This time, for whatever the reason, it didn’t.

“Can we have a side order of horseradish cream sauce?” I had asked our waiter.

He had brought it out, straight up, no cream. I slathered it on my prime rib. Clay, watching me, had done the same thing. I took one bite and thought ‘Holy Ghost Pepper!’ as it burned all the way down to my toes. I quickly scraped it off. I didn’t mean to hide my action from Clay, but he didn’t see me do it. He just kept nonchalantly chewing away and all I could think was, ‘He is one tough dude.’

This went on for a while as perspiration broke out on Clay’s forehead and his eyes began to water. Suddenly he threw down his fork.

“You’re the man,” he declared. “How can you eat that stuff?”

We all had a good laugh when I confessed, but it established a tradition. Whenever Clay comes to visit, I take him out for the hottest food I can find. (The girls stay as far way from this activity as possible.) Last time we went to the India Palace, my favorite Indian restaurant in southern Oregon. Clay insisted on ordering the food one notch hotter than I did.

Of course what goes around comes around, right? So whenever Peggy and I visit Clay and Tasha in Tennessee, Clay introduces me to his latest mouth-burning find. He outdid himself this time. “Google Nashville hot chicken and pick out a restaurant,” he suggested to me as he scooted off to his job as a regional manager for Verizon. I was soon up to my ears in hot sauce.

The legend is that Thornton Prince was having girlfriend problems back in the 1930s. He had too many. Girlfriend number #1 decided on revenge. She secretly dumped several extra tablespoons of cayenne pepper on Thornton’s chicken when he came in late one night. The effort backfired. Prince loved it. In fact he loved the hot chicken so much he opened a restaurant featuring it.

The restaurant quickly became a gathering place for the local African American community. When white musicians playing at the Grand Ole Opry heard about the chicken, they started visiting as well. This was still the era of segregation, however. The whites had to come through the back door and eat in the kitchen. Seventy years later the restaurant is still serving up its signature dish. Everyone goes through the front door now.

Today, Nashville is renowned for its hot chicken. There are several restaurants present, and my sense is that they vie with one another over who can produce the hottest food. I should note here that I like hot food. I developed the taste when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa where I started out as a one-pepper person. By the time I left, I had worked my way up to three. Since then I have continued to increase my tolerance for hot.

But in the world of hot peppers, there is hot and there is HOT. Two blogs ago I wrote about how my father-in-law, John Dallen, was concerned about the Naga headhunters of Nagaland when he had to bail out of his airplane in World War II. Well, as it turns out, I just learned the Naga are also renowned for raising Bhut Joloki peppers (ghost peppers), which happen to be among the hottest peppers in the world. John was wise not to eat what the local natives offered.

To provide a perspective on how hot these peppers are, consider the following. Pepper heat is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). Your typical jalapeno pepper checks in at around 4000 SHU. Habanero peppers are measured at 80,000 to 600,000 SHU. The Bhut Joloki pepper normally tests out between 500,000 and 1,500,000!

I doubted I would be eating any fried chicken infused with Bhut Joloki peppers on my Nashville excursion, but I still entered the Pepperfire restaurant with a touch of trepidation. I’d read the reviews and seen the menu. My choices ranged from mild to XX hot. The Internet description had said that either the X or XX will “jump on you and grab you.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. But how could it be good?

The menu listed the various levels of hot.

The menu listed the various levels of hot. The Pepperfire website had informed me that “hot” was painful for most.

I was out with Clay, however, so I had to man-up. I went for chicken leg/thigh combo on the X level. Since I was in the south, I also ordered fried okra. Clay ordered XX chicken wings with French fries. For dessert we ordered a waffle that was topped off with hot chicken tenders and fried apples.

Chicken quarter at Pepperfire Restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Just looking at this chicken quarter says hot. It reeks hot. You can see the flames. It was served on top of white bread, whose purpose is to soak up the grease.

Fried okra served at the Pepperfire restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee.

A close up of the okra. Eating it gave me that ‘old boy’ feeling. Just call me Bubba.

XX hot chicken wings served at the Pepperfire Restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee.

Clay’s hot chicken wings. It was the third one over from the left that bit me.

Dessert at Pepperfire Restaurant in Nashville Restaurant.

Dessert: a waffle topped by chicken tenders topped by fried apples. It was definitely unique— make that a tad weird.

When the food arrived, I picked up one of Clay’s chicken wings. Maybe it would make my food seem cool in comparison. I bit down. The damn chicken bit back. I smiled at Clay. “This really tastes good,” I managed to get out as my tongue turned into a pretzel, my throat screamed “water!” and my stomach proclaimed, “you idiot.” Only its words weren’t quite that polite. I will say that the chicken was tender and juicy, and that there were spices other than hot that were quite tasteful.

Did it make my chicken seem cooler? No way. Once you get beyond hot, you are beyond hot. Those are my words of wisdom for the day. Within two hours, Henny Penny was waging the mother of all wars in my stomach. It was a triple burn day. The chicken burned on the way in. It burned inside. And it burned on the way out. Enough said. Now I have to start planning for the next time Clay comes to Oregon.

All joking aside, if you are in Nashville and want to try the city's famous (infamous) hot chicken, I recommend checking out the Pepperfire restaurant.

All joking aside, if you are in Nashville and want to try the city’s famous (infamous) hot chicken, I recommend checking out the Pepperfire restaurant.

35 comments on “I Bit the Chicken and the Chicken Bit Back… Nashville’s HOT Chicken Restaurants

  1. Love the trick you played on Clay at first, even though it was an evil deed. But the rest of the story — how you two continue to out-hot each other is amazing. If this manliness, I’m really glad to be a woman!! Hats off to you iron-tongued guys!

  2. Better you than me! No way can I handle that hot, spicy stuff. A little for flavor, no problem. But so much that my nose runs, my eyes water, and steam shoots out of my ears? I think not. 🙂 As for waffles, chicken tenders, and fried apples? Not sure what to think of that!

    • Laughing here Carrie. For the most part I’ll stick with hot, not insanely hot. It is interesting that the hot chicken craze has caught on so successfully in Nashville, though. Probably best not to think about the waffles, hot chicken tenders and apples. I get the waffles and apples, but… 🙂 –Curt

    • Mainly, I am with you. My martyr complex only comes out when Clay and I have one of our sessions, no more than once a year. Beyond that, I stay away from the ghost pepper heat. 🙂

  3. No way I’m getting into that hot pepper business. I just don’t like it. I can deal with jalapenos, but spare me anything farther up the line. You guys can have your fun, while I’m over there in the corner with that fried okra and the chicken waffles.

    • Lamb curry hot is one of my all time favorite meals, Gerard. I think I may have mentioned that before. It is what I always order on my weekly outing to the Indian restaurant. –Curt

    • Don’t think the Naga were cannibals but they did use the peppers to burn off the flesh from the skulls, which may be more than you wanted to know. 🙂

      Tolerance for hot peppers grows at the pain receptors in the tongue are shut down. What I find enjoyable makes Peggy gag. –Curt

  4. That looks much too scary for me but it’s a true talent to be able to breathe fire like that! I’ve heard that “hottest peppers in the world” claim in Mexico too. I guess it’s hard to judge what the hottest in the world would really be.

    • There is actually an institute in New Mexico that tests them for heat. The measurement is based on the amount of water necessary to eliminate the heat factor. It’s only scary for the amount of time it takes you to eat and process the food. 🙂 –Curt

  5. My family lives about 100 miles from Nashville, so I’ll have to check this place out. I like hot food as well, but am definitely not in your league. My brother grows peppers and apparently has had some success with ghost peppers. His words are “too hot to eat.” You’re a brave man Curt. ~James

    • I think others have chosen a slightly different word than ‘brave,’ James. 🙂

      From what I’ve read, you even have to be careful when handling ghost peppers.

      As for league, I suspect we are in the same one. –Curt

  6. I do love hot, but this sounds a bit much. I’m glad I am not tempted to out-macho anyone around me… ha ha. I agree with what you said about hot being all good but not to the point where it gets in the way of flavour.

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