Winner, Winner: Get Spicy Chicken In Charleston
Nashville Hot Chicken is a well-known cuisine, but a brief synopsis of the backstory involves a roaming boyfriend and a girlfriend who unsuccessfully tried to get a little revenge on her beau by serving him some extremely spicy fried chicken. The revenge failed and the boyfriend loved it; he even opened up a shop serving the chicken. That shop, Prince’s Hot Chicken, still exists today and is considered the originator of the style.
What sets Nashville-style chicken apart from buffalo or other spicy chicken styles? It typically uses a paste of lard with cayenne pepper and other chilies that are then melted and liberally applied to the fried chicken before serving. This gives a not-quite-wet, yet not-quite-dry crust that will stain your fingers and burn your mouth. The chicken is typically served on white bread with pickles—and lots of napkins.
“Hot chicken” surged in trendiness for Charleston about three years ago. Restaurants added their takes on the Nash-ville classic to menus seemingly everywhere in town. But soon enough, the hot chicken craze cooled off, with some of the main purveyors taking it off the menu or closing shop, leaving fans of spicy poultry with few options. Now, it appears the fiery fowl is making a comeback in the Lowcountry, at least in sandwich form.
Lauding the “Blind Tigers” of prohibition (underground speakeasies that defied temperance laws), the Blind Tiger pub opened in 1992 on historic Broad Street on the Charleston peninsula. A long-time dive bar and watering hole for lawyers, businessmen and late-night carousers, new owners have recent-ly changed the atmosphere and menu. They now serve elevated pub fare, including a truffled duck confit sandwich, heirloom burrata, steak frites and a “Charleston Hot Chicken” sandwich: a pounded chicken breast that is fried extra crispy and serviced on a sesame bun with spicy mayo, slaw and pickles. It consists of a dry crust with a slight hint of heat that is tamed by the slaw.
THE GRIT COUNTER
An offshoot of Mount Pleasant’s Grace & Grit, The Grit Counter offers build-your-own grit bowls, salads and sand-wiches. Casual atmosphere, counter service, outdoor seating and easy access makes this a quick choice for lunch. Their namesake grit bowl combinations are numerous and delicious. Pick a type of grits, then a couple “fixins” like fried brussels sprouts, pickled collard greens or scallions, then add a sauce like tasso gravy or Gouda mornay, and a protein such as bacon, fried oysters or local fish. You’ve got a power lunch and maybe a power nap soon after. While not on the regular menu, their Hot Chicken sandwich is frequently on the specials board, and it is a beast. Saucy fried chicken thighs that lean slightly toward buf-falo style are piled high between Texas toast, slathered with mayo and topped with pickles. Grab with both hands and have a stack of napkins close by. You’re going to need those for this one.
HOME TEAM BBQ
The ever-expanding barbecue chain Home Team BBQ currently has five locations spread between Charleston, Columbia and Aspen, CO. Their popular Sullivan’s Island location is a short walk from the beach, and it’s consistently packed with families, beachcombers and sports fans. Along with their pulled pork, brisket
and some of the best wings you’ll find anywhere, the restaurant has daily specials that expands on barbeque standards. Their take on hot chicken is a massive, crispy chicken thigh, doused in their Home Team house hot sauce — a balanced garlic and vinegar sauce that’s laced with butter. The sandwich is topped with blue cheese slaw and house-made pickles. Cool the fire in your mouth with their signature drink, the Gamechanger: a frozen tropical concoction of mixed rums, pineapple and orange juices, cream of coconut and a dash of nutmeg.
The Rusty Rudder in North Mount Pleasant is known as a neighborhood restaurant and bar with a laid-back local experience. Sporting a huge patio and tiki bar and offering live music, it’s easy to see why. Their approach to the hot chicken sandwich takes cues from how it’s traditionally served. Rusty Rudder uses chicken ten-ders, douses them in their butter-based spice paste that has a little brown sugar and a good amount of heat, and piles them on Texas Toast with a generous serving of their house-made pickles. You’ll want to eat it on the patio.
James Island brothers Joe and Kevin Nierstedt opened Kinfolk earlier this year as a barbecue and fried chicken joint. The brothers originally planned Kinfolk to be a barbecue restaurant, with chicken playing a supporting cast, but they realized they needed more experience at the barbecue pit and serving “the best fried chick-en they felt they could produce” would give them time to perfect their skills. Their chicken is brined for twelve hours in the brine from their house-made pickles, then goes directly into a seasoned flour with no-egg-wash for a lighter, crispier crust. After another 12 hours, the chicken gets a final fresh dredge before hitting the fryer. Once the chicken is fried, everything but the unspiced level is dunked in “hot chicken oil” made from rendered duck skins and dusted with dry chili spice, as a nod to the famous Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant, Bolton’s. The sandwiches are served on King’s Hawaiian rolls and topped with house pickles. They offer three levels of spice: Southern, Mild, and Fire. If you want a challenge, ask for the off-menu Hellraiser. It’s packed with Carolina Reapers, widely considered one of the hottest peppers in the world.
The only food truck to make the list is Johns Island based Chicken Fats, run by Allison Havens and Scott Zrust, who’ve been putting out quality street food since April 2018. Their double patty OG Burger, and Korean Fried chicken sandwich, made with local Burnt and Salty Korean mustard and kim-chi, are both big sellers. But we’re here for the spicy chicken sandwich. It starts with a Martins’ potato bun with sesame seeds toasted in lard. One side of the bun is slathered with country ham mayo. Yes, country ham mayo. Add bread and butter pickles, shaved lettuce, and melted American cheese on a fried chicken breast tossed in Frank’s RedHot Sauce, Red Clay Hot Sauce and buttermilk. Because that’s not enough, the top side of the bun is spread with ranch mayo. This is definitely a buffalo style chicken sandwich, but it’s one of the best hot chicken sandwiches on this list. You can catch the truck at Low Tide Brewing, the Barrel and other locations in the Charleston area.
MAINLAND CONTAINER CO.
Converted mini-golf clubhouse, Mainland Container Company is placed perfectly on Ben Sawyer Boulevard in Mount Pleasant for a pre-beach Sunday brunch or a post-beach round of beers and “better than average bar fare.” Burgers, wings, pork chops and loaded duck fat tater tots make up the bulk of the pub menu, but owner Harris Khan and Chef Daven Coad are especially proud of their Charleston Hot Chicken sandwich. The chicken breast is fried, spiced and, continuing with what seems like a Charleston Hot Chicken trend, treat-ed to a duck fat bath rather than the traditional lard or fryer grease. Kahn says this “adds a depth of flavor that foodies will appreciate.” To make it even more Carolina, the sandwich is topped with chow-chow, that sweet and tangy relish of pickled cabbage, peppers, chilies and onions your Southern grand-mother likely had ready for any occasion.
- Robert Donovan