Chick's Fry House (now defunct) served hot chicken on Tuesdays

The final entry in Chick's Fry House month of Hot Chicken Tuesdays.  Hanna Raskin/Staff

Q: Hi Hanna, read your columns all the time! My question is: Is there anywhere in the Charleston area to get good Nashville hot chicken? My wife and I plan on making a hot chicken pilgrimage to Prince’s one day soon. I have frequently visited Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in Asheville and I am addicted to the stuff. I haven’t found it anywhere in Charleston yet.

A: You’re right. Charleston isn’t home to a dedicated hot chicken joint like Rocky’s, which was way out in front of the hot chicken diaspora when it opened in 2009, seven years before KFC put Nashville hot chicken on its national menu (In fairness to devotees of the real deal dish, which Thornton Prince pioneered in the 1940s, we should probably refer to the KFC version as “Nashville Hot Chicken.”)

The Asheville restaurant’s namesake, a professional drummer, first tried hot chicken while on tour. Yet the extravagantly-peppered fried chicken remained unknown to many white Nashvillians until 2007 when the city threw a big festival in its honor. Civic pride in the pain-inducing poultry blossomed soon thereafter.

Rocky’s in 2011 was bought by a couple of Whole Foods execs, which probably should have made the restaurant Exhibit A in the appropriation claims that have swirled around hot chicken’s coast-to-coast success. But even with an expanded row of beer taps, Rocky’s remained a relatively small-scale operation. The resentment over outsiders making big bucks off an African-American dish crystallized with the 2012 launch of the Hattie B’s chain and publicity surrounding it.

In her excellent January 2019 story about how Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack has fared since hot chicken became an obsession, The New Yorker’s Paige Williams paraphrased activist Davita Davison, who illustrated a talk on food and race with a 2016 Food Republic profile of Hattie B’s chef headlined, “Meet the Man Who Launched the Nashville Hot Chicken Craze.” The chef and his brother-in-law, who co-founded the chain, are both white.

“When ‘African American entrepreneurs don’t grow rich’ from an invention like hot chicken, it’s not necessarily because rivals make superior food; it’s because black entrepreneurs still struggle for such resources as bank loans and industry networks.”

In other words, hot chicken has become a political hot potato, which may explain why the trend’s cooled over the past three years.

Just months before Food Republic published its profile (which merited a two-part takedown in Nashville’s alt-weekly), City Paper food writer Robert Donovan dutifully chronicled all of the Charleston restaurants serving hot chicken, noting “As far as food trends go, Nashville hot chicken is on fire.”

Donovan turned up eight area restaurants with hot chicken on their menus. Interestingly, half of those restaurants have since closed (Artisan Meat Share, Chick’s Fry House, The Granary and Sweeney’s.) And of the four which remain in business, one is KFC.

As for the three independents, Nana’s Seafood & Soul hasn’t served hot chicken recently, in part because chef-owner Kenyatta McNeil is always experimenting with different items. He’s lately advertised fried lobster-and-French toast, snow crab fingers and crab mac-and-cheese.

There’s no mention of hot chicken on The Rarebit’s current menu either, although it was always an off-menu special, so it can’t hurt to ask your server (although hot chicken fans are typically masochistic, so maybe that’s a deterrent.)

That leaves Poogan’s Smokehouse, which is still serving a $14 Tennessee Hot Chicken Sandwich with garlic pickles. The sauce lurked too close to the Buffalo border for Donovan’s taste, but Poogan’s generally excels at chicken-frying.

And if that sandwich doesn’t meet your expectations, you have two more local options which have popped up since Donovan conducted his comprehensive survey. Garage 75 on James Island serves a “Nash-Vegas” sandwich on white bread with Duke’s mayo, while downtown’s Blind Tiger offers hot chicken on a sesame bun. Once your tongue’s recovered, let me know which one you like best.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

Food editor and chief critic

Eating all of the chicken livers just as fast as I can.