Like many stories born in the American south, the history of Nashville hot chicken is marked by collisions of culture and race, geography and politics. Who invented it? Who made it popular? Who's eating it now? You can read about the subject in a fascinating two-year-old story in the Nashville Scene called "Race, Credit and Hot Chicken." Once you do, though, you're going to want to try some Nashville hot chicken yourself.
Relatively new to Denver, hot chicken is typically marinated in buttermilk, fried and doused with a heavy application of cayenne pepper (often in the form of chile-infused oil), along with other spices like garlic and paprika. It is sometimes served on the bone with white bread and pickles; other times, it's served boneless in a sandwich with pickles or coleslaw. Either way, if properly done, it will light your mouth on fire — a condition that calls for a cold, cold beer.
Over the past year, several new hot chicken purveyors, including a pair of food trucks, have opened their doors in Denver, while other restaurants have added it to their menus. It's now possible to find some great examples of this Nashville delicacy in the Mile High City. Here are five of the best, along with beer to wash them down.
The Post Brewing Company
2200 South Broadway (and three other locations)
Founded in a former Lafayette VFW Post building in 2014, the Post is equally known for its perfectly done fried chicken and its easy-going, award-winning brews. Now with two breweries and four locations, The Post's slogan is "Hot Chicken Loves Cold Beer," which was exactly the case with its fried chicken sandwich — "Nashville Hot" is fifty cents extra — and Top Rope Mexican Lager, one the brewery's oldest staples. The spicing here, while very tasty, comes as much from the pickled pepper relish as it does from the chicken breast, which is relatively mellow. Comfortingly situated on a sesame seed hamburger bun, it also includes Dijonnaise, pickles and onions. And it's that lower heat volume that makes this sandwich work with Top Rope, a crisp 5 percent ABV pilsner-style beer with a clean floral aroma and smooth drinkability. A very light beer like this might be overwhelmed by a spicier bird, but in this case, it was exactly what was called for on a hot day.
2927 Larimer Street, inside Finn's Manor
A transplant from San Diego, Chicken Rebel descended on Denver last year amid much fanfare before landing a permanent spot inside Finn's Manor, the indoor/outdoor food truck pod and bar space. Chicken Rebel makes a variety of sandwiches, but the Nashville hot is a favorite, especially when this good-looking meal goes out into the crowd and other people start lining up at the truck window to get one of their own. Slathered in a fiery sauce that resembles ketchup or barbecue sauce, the hot chicken here doesn't have a traditional appearance, but the cayenne bite will make your mouth remember what this dish is all about. More compact than some of the others, it is no less messy to eat. Finn's has a constantly rotating selection of beers on tap, but one of its staples is Bierstadt Lagerhaus Helles, and this is the beer I'd suggest. The Helles is a bigger lager compared to Bierstadt's Pilsner, but it gets overwhelmed a little by the three-alarm Chicken Rebel bird — which is why you're going to need a lot of lager to wash it down. Luckily, Finn's serves it in a big German-style mug that does the trick.
The Budlong Hot Chicken Truck
After a popup last year at The Source, The Budlong, a Chicago-based joint, returned to Denver in food truck form this spring, making the rounds of events and brewery taprooms over the summer. I hit it up Little Machine Beer, 2924 West 20th Avenue, because I knew I'd find a perfect match among its wide variety of great beers. Though I was looking for something light, tart or sweet, I eventually went with my beertender's suggestion of the Racerback English-style Pale — despite some reservations. Hops, in my opinion, don't often pair well with spicy food. But he had done this before, and he was right. The Budlong offers three heat levels: Classic, which is supposed to keep the burn in your mouth going for fifteen seconds after you take a bite; Hot, which lingers for thirty seconds; and Xtra Hot, which applies the pain for 45 seconds. I went with the Hot, but to be honest, it only burned for about fifteen seconds — a little lower than what I had expected based on a previous visit to Budlong. But the combination was perfect. The sandwich completely transformed the beer, bringing out its malty, almost honey-like notes; in exchange, the clean sweetness helped cool the chicken's spice and heighten its flavor.
Royal Rooster/Old Major
3316 Tejon Street
By night, Old Major is one of Denver's best restaurants. But by day, it serves as a gorgeous lunch spot with a bar that opens up into a patio, offering a more relaxed atmosphere. It's so different, in fact, that Old Major takes on a different name, the Royal Rooster, when the sun is out. It's here that you'll find the Nashville Hot Rooster, a massive vertical sandwich with bread-and-butter pickles, coleslaw and chunks of fried chicken skin falling out of the sides of a big squishy bun. Sweeter and a little stickier than classic Nashville hot, the sandwich at the Royal Rooster is made with blistering ghost chiles and the chicken thigh, skin and batter (you can also request white meat, but the thigh is superior) offer a rich, fatty, and almost chicharrón-like flavor. That flavor in particular goes well with a can of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project's Von Pilsner, which is mildly hoppy and brilliantly crisp. Its profile cuts through the fat of the sandwich, making for an earthy and satisfying overall combination.
3350 Brighton Boulevard, inside The Source Hotel
This. This is what Nashville hot chicken is supposed to taste like. Spicy enough to make you cry like a little baby and bold enough to force you to keep eating anyway, Smok's enormous sandwich hits all the high points. A huge slab of chicken is expertly fried so that the spice and batter-soaked skin separate from the meat, providing a satisfying crunch that gives way to juicy flavor. It's sandwiched on a lovely grilled brioche roll with the ends sticking out on both sides. Big pickles and ginger coleslaw round it out. A sandwich likes this requires a beer that can stand with it on equal footing, and Dear You, an unusual — and unusually delicious — French saison from Ratio Beerworks goes toe-to-toe with Smok's hot chicken. Saisons take much of their flavor profiles from their yeast, and that may be the key here. Dear You is fermented with a French strain that brings out a clean, dry mouthfeel, rounded out by a smooth but subtle dose of Citra hops. Together, they contrasted and complemented those hot crispy bits on the ends of the chicken, making both even better.