Why is Nashville Hot Chicken the Hottest Food Trend — and Who Makes It Best?

Hot chicken is beginning to catch on like wildfire

Why is Nashville Hot Chicken the Hottest Food Trend — and Who Makes It Best?

Why is Nashville Hot Chicken the Hottest Food Trend — and Who Makes It Best?

Photo by Paul S. via Yelp

This year has seen its share of food trends, dishes that are popping up on restaurant menus seemingly out of nowhere: from spicy salami spread ‘nduja to poke to rainbow everything. But few dishes have captured the national imagination in the past year more than Nashville-style hot chicken, fried chicken that’s taken a bath in a fiery chile sauce. Heck, even KFC’s jumped on the bandwagon. While we have a feeling we haven’t yet seen the full extent of the hot chicken diaspora, restaurants throughout the country are beginning to serve the dish, and we tracked down the 10 that are doing it best. And surprise: They’re not all in Nashville.

400 Degrees Hot Chicken, Nashville

Tucked into a small food court, 400 Degrees’ hot chicken is the real deal, available in four heat levels from zero to (you guessed it) 400 degrees. Owner Aqui Simson’s creation maintains a crisp crust under all that heat, and it has locals lining up every day to try it. Their massive fried pork chop sandwich is also worth seeking out. 

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, Nashville

The hot chicken is hot at Bolton’s — some of the hottest you’ll find in town. The crust is super-crisp, and the flavor gets an extra boost from a sprinkling of spicy rub added after the oil. And as the name might imply, the fried fish is great here, too. 

The Fat Ham, Philadelphia

Before putting hot chicken on his menu, chef Kevin Sbraga (of Top Chef fame) spent three years traveling regularly to Nashville and went through 22 different recipes before settling on what was, in his mind, perfection. At The Fat Ham, the Amish chicken isn’t just dipped into oil, it’s dipped into rendered lard, and the fiery spice mix is lip-staining red and tongue-scorching hot. But once the initial wave of heat subsides, you keep coming back for more, because it’s just that good. 

Hattie B’s, Nashville and Birmingham

Hattie B’s, Nashville and Birmingham

Photo by Stephanie P. via Yelp

This relative newcomer has two Nashville locations and one in Birmingham, and it already attracts lines around the block on a daily basis. As opposed to straight cayenne like most hot chicken spots, each heat level at Hattie B’s derives from different chiles: the “Shut the Cluck Up” level uses habanero peppers along with ghost peppers and Trinidad Scorpion peppers, two of the hottest chiles on earth. 

Hop’s Kitchen, Atlanta

Hop’s Kitchen, Atlanta

Yelp/ Tiff H.

From renowned Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins comes this fried chicken counter located in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. Crisp, juicy, and flavorful, the chicken is spectacular as it is, but you’ll want to spring for a dunk in house-made Nashville-style hot sauce for an extra 50 cents. The end result is spicy, full of flavor, and addictive. 

Hot Stuff, Antioch, Tenn.

Hot Stuff, Antioch, Tenn.

Photo by Tran T. via Yelp

Located just outside Nashville in Antioch, this family-owned hot chicken joint is still largely off the radar, but it’s turning out hot chicken that can rival the best. Available in five heat levels (as well as lemon pepper, Cajun, and sweet heat for those looking for something different), this crispy, crunchy fried chicken strikes the perfect balance of heat, flavor, and texture.  

Howlin’ Ray’s, Los Angeles

Howlin’ Ray’s, Los Angeles

Photo by Jam Y. via Yelp

Howlin’ Ray’s owner Johnny Ray Zone has spent time working for some of the world’s most renowned chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, and Nobu Matsuhisa, but he found his true calling on a trip to Nashville. What started as a food truck is now tiny a Chinatown storefront with painfully brief opening hours (11 a.m. – 4 p.m., closed Mondays and Tuesdays), serving fresh-from-the-fryer hot chicken made screamingly hot with help from cayenne and extracts of habanero, ghost pepper, and red savina. But before the heat kicks in, you’ll have a few seconds to recognize that this also happens to be great fried chicken. As Jonathan Gold recently put it: “You will aim to get as much of the fragrant skin as possible between your teeth, and you sigh with relief; the experience is of salt, crunch and garlic, overlaid with the musty pungency of dried peppers, not nearly as bad as you thought.”

Pepperfire, Nashville

Pepperfire, Nashville

Photo by Krista C. via Yelp

Spacious and low-key, Pepperfire is the brainchild of Isaac Beard, who spent 10 years visiting hot chicken shacks on a near-daily basis and perfecting a recipe of his own. Fried chicken is available in six different heat levels, and the time spent developing the recipe and rubs is obvious in every fiery bite. 

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Nashville

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Nashville

Photo by Paul S. via Yelp

Prince’s doesn’t just serve the undisputed best hot chicken in Nashville, it serves some of the best fried chicken anywhere. Before hitting the fryer, the chicken here gets a secret marinade, and what emerges is crisp, juicy, and full of flavor. That crispness doesn’t subside once it hits the hot oil, which kicks the flavor up a notch or 10. Don’t shy away from it just because it’s located in a strip mall off the beaten tourist path: Prince’s is the gold standard.  

Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Only available on Tuesday at this Southern-tinged offshoot of the venerable Ann Arbor institution Zingerman’s Deli, the hot chicken here starts with the everyday menu’s most popular item: fried chicken marinated in buttermilk and dredged with a mixture that’s heavy on the black and red pepper. Zingerman’s boosts the heat level thanks to a hefty dose of cayenne, and the end result (served atop fresh-baked white bread) is a must-order.