Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning food historian and author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time and The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas. As an expert on Southern food, soul food and, heck, food in general, Miller is sharing his picks for Denver's version of a Nashville, Tennessee, original.
"Hot chicken" is a cultural phenomenon. It's been quite the star turn for this spicy bird since it was first sold decades ago at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, an African-American restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. Legend has it that a scorned woman and fantastic fried chicken artist felt that revenge was a dish best served hot to her philandering boyfriend, Thornton Prince III. The ploy backfired because Prince took one bite and found ecstasy rather than agony. The eponymous restaurant soon followed.
To help you celebrate National Hot Chicken Day on Saturday, March 30, my "Hot Chicken Crew" and I tracked down the best bone-in hot chicken (not sandwiches, which deserve their own ranking) along the Front Range. The good news is that several restaurants are making fantastic fried chicken. Unfortunately, few season their chicken intensely enough to be worthy of the hot chicken label as Nashville purists love it. We hope that restaurants with hot chicken on their menus will get bolder. Here's our pecking order for the five best hot chicken plates, ranked:
5. Grind Kitchen + Watering Hole300 Fillmore Street
Chef Preston Phillips hails from Alabama, and he knows a thing or two about frying chicken. We ordered two pieces of chicken with some thick-cut pickles, and we also suggest adding a side of honey mustard coleslaw and a biscuit. A tell-tale sign of legitimate hot chicken is the ruddy color that comes after it has been bathed in a sauce comprising cooking oil, cayenne pepper, brown sugar and other spices. Grind's rendition has the right look, but it wasn't very spicy. With more cayenne pepper, this bird would have flown higher up our list. grinddenver.com
4. The Post Brewing CompanyMultiple locations
We absolutely love The Post Brewing Company's fried chicken; the restaurants in Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont and Denver consistently serve a great combination of juicy meat surrounded by a crunchy crust. You can get the "Half Bird" order that includes a breast, wing, leg and a thigh, with an up-charge for the "Nashville Hot-style." If you're not particularly hungry, the Post sells individual pieces à la carte. The Post's rendition comes with house-made pickles and a thick gravy. The expertly fried chicken was inconsistent on the level of spiciness. Sometimes it was spot on, but on most of our visits, we wanted it taken up a notch. postbrewing.com
3. The Budlong Hot Chicken3501 Wazee Street (inside Zeppelin Station)
After discovering this spicy specialty for himself a few years ago while visiting Nashville, chef Jared Leonard opened several Budlong Hot Chicken restaurants in the Chicago area. Leonard tested Denver's taste for hot chicken with some pop-up restaurants and a food truck, and recently opened a location in RiNo's Zeppelin Station food hall. Here the crispy, bone-in hot chicken options are all dark meat: leg quarters (one piece joining a drumstick and thigh) or chicken wings, served on a thick slice of Texas toast, topped off with some housemade pickles. The spice level is also customizable with "classic," "hot," and "x-hot." Hot chicken purists will be most satisfied with "x-hot," though we still felt that it could be hotter. thebudlong.com
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2. Steuben's Uptown and Steuben's Arvada523 East 17th Avenue, 303-830-1001
7355 Ralston Road, Arvada, 303-830-0096
For many, the true measure of hot chicken is how much it makes you sweat. In this regard, Steuben's did not disappoint with its addictive spin on the dish. The half of a fried chicken (a breast, thigh and drumstick) was laid on some classic white bread with a cascade of quick pickles on top. This chicken hit the right flavor notes (smoky and sweet), the ruddy-colored chicken skin, and the right heat level. We were grateful for the dollop of mashed potatoes and a cup of gravy served on the side to help cool the fire. steubens.com
1. Music City Hot Chicken111 West Prospect Road, Fort Collins
Of all the places we tried, Music City Hot Chicken (just over an hour from Denver in Fort Collins) reminded us most of Prince's in terms of look, taste and texture. Even the meat under the crunchy crust tingled our taste buds. We also loved that here you can get any piece of chicken at any spice level with white bread and pickles. The "Nashville hot" level sufficed to work up a sweat, but the "Flammable Solid" awaits those who truly believe in self-torture. You can't go wrong with any of the side dishes, but the potato salad and the seasonal melon salad paired well with the piquant poultry. mchcco.com