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Prince's Hot Chicken

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Date: 09/10/06

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The hottest restaurant in Nashville, hands down, is Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. Harold's Chicken Shack in Chicago was the king of hot chicken until I tried Prince's.
If you want it "hot" at Prince's, you order "medium." A pickle slice on the side calms the effect. You also avoid Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew. I quickly learned carbonation accents the heat. Nashville food writer Pat Embry -- whom I've known for years -- brought two glasses of backup water during our visit to Prince's. Then I got my own water........

Prince's is in a nondescript strip mall, four miles northeast of
downtown. It is on a road checkered by places including Louie's
Backfire Lounge and Infamous Pimps and Hos. Prince's only has five
booths and they are from the original store, circa 1945. Dusties
play on a radio behind the counter. Owner Andre Prince is carrying
on the tradition that was started by her great uncle Thornton
Prince. He invented the hot chicken recipe -- it's secret, of
course -- but the stories that surround it are smoking.
"The hot chicken started out of revenge," Prince said over a plate
of orange-tinted chicken with two slices of white bread. (The
darker the skin, the greater the pepper seasoning.) "He was a womanizer.
Everybody was crazy about my Uncle Thornton. The myth is
that a girlfriend got angry and poured hot pepper over his chicken.
He loved it and told his friends about it. Our family would do
something like that -- out of spite."
There's clearly cayenne deployed in the chicken. The chicken comes
from Nashville Restaurant Supply and is never barbecued. We ate a
quarter breast ($4.35) and leg ($3.25). Another of Prince's secrets
are the eight cast-iron skillets she deploys on two 50-year-old gas
stoves. It takes at least a half-hour to skillet-fry chicken to
perfection. However, the stoves were broken during last month's
visit to Prince's. "It's hard to get somebody to fix those gas
stoves," Prince said. "Parts are obsolete. We're using mostly deep
fry. People still wait 30 minutes to an hour for chicken. A lot of
the older customers still want theirs slow fried." And she said it
so sloooooow.
Prince looked around the crowded shack. Women were smiling. Men
were fading. "More women eat the chicken extra hot than men," she
said. "I don't know what it is about women and hot food. They
should do a study on that. They maintain. Men kind of drop out."
Some pregnant women, overdue, have visited Prince's to induce
The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) visited Prince's during its 2006 camp.
Prince's was honored with the SFA's Guardian of the Tradition award. "The taste of the
cayenne-grease stained white bread underneath the chicken is being
tested as the possible sixth taste, one level beyond umami, and
just shy of a peyote-induced vision conquest," said the SFA report.
That's hot.
Prince's is also serious about customers not touching any part of
their body until they have washed their hands -- after holding the
hot chicken. "One man rubbed his eye while eating," Prince said.
"And he tore through the restaurant trying to get to the restroom.
He was in pain." Prince suggested chasing the chicken down with a
slice of Southern chess pie (butter, sugar, corn meal).
In 1995, the New Jersey band Yo La Tengo paid tribute to Prince's
by singing "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)" on their album
"Electr-O-Pura." They later sang "Return to Hot Chicken." Little
Richard has stopped by Prince's, as has country singer Lorrie
Morgan. Her father George Morgan was a Grand Ole Opry star and a
connoisseur of spicy chicken. Lorrie and her latest husband Sammy
Kershaw opened their own restaurant, but it recently
went belly up. Maybe its because it had a stupid name like
My brother and his wife have lived in Nashville since 1993. I've
heard them complain how eclectic restaurants don't last in
Nashville. I've heard country singer Steve Earle complain how there
are no good Mexican restaurants in Nashville.
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is highlighted in Where the Locals Eat
(, which is a template for future
Magellan Press dining guides in other cities. Co-author Embry is
former executive editor at the now defunct Nashville Banner
newspaper. Last summer in preparation for the book, he ate every
meal at a different restaurant for four months solid. Embry's
research took him to a setting beyond the food.
"I discovered that restaurants were the most integrated part of
society in Nashville," said Embry, who has lived in Nashville since
1979. "During the 1960s, Nashville never got much attention during
the Civil Rights movement because heads didn't get knocked. People
were taking Dr. King's passive form of protest to its tenth degree.
Lunchrooms were integrated, places like Prince's and Swett's a
soul food meat and three, down the road. You'll see all walks of
Prince's has been at its present location since 1988. Uncle
Thornton opened the establishment as a take-out shack in 1945 in
north Nashville near Tennessee State University -- where Oprah
Winfrey and track legend Wilma Rudolph are alumni. "I'd like to be
closer to downtown," Prince said. "But this is good, because I
close when I get ready. If you're on a main drag, you can't do
that. I feel like this is a mom-and-pop place. I like it small."
Prince, who described her age as "sixtysomething," grew up in north
Nashville. She doesn't recall hanging around the shack as much as
her father Bruce Prince bringing home the hot chicken for his wife,
Wilhelmina, and their three children. "We always ate it on Sunday
morning," she recalled. "It would be on the stove when we got up to
go to Sunday school. That's when I know chicken is right. I have to
have it sit overnight on the stove. That's the taste I grew up
with. I don't like it when it's straight out of the skillet."
Uncle Thornton passed his business on to his brother Will and
sister-in-law Maude Prince. In 1980 Wilhelmina asked her daughter
to keep the restaurant alive, although she never worked at the
shack. Prince was employed at the Metro Courthouse in Nashville.
"She was on her death bed," Prince said. "I was divorced and had
two children to support. My mother and father were helping me pay
my car notes. They didn't think I could make it on my salary at the
courthouse. She suggested I go into the business, but I had no idea
what it involved. This did help me get my girls through high school
and college. My cup is running over. What can I say?" Andre Prince
reached for a cup of water, so cool and true.

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is at 123 Ewing Dr. Hours are noon-10
p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and noon-4 a.m. Friday and Saturday;
(615) 226-9442, be patient -- when they're busy they don't answer
the phone.

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Hey Dave,

Have you ever had the chicken in Ladd, IL? The town is off of I-80 on the way to Iowa just west of the Starved Rock area. Best chicken I have ever had! I think the key is the breading. It tastes like the breading used in English Fish and Chip shops! Good stuff, and worth the drive. Very crowded place! I can't remember the name of the place, but it's on the right side of the main drag!


Prince's is terrific. As far as the no good Mexican complaint. That is untrue. Las Chivas on Nolensville Pike is the best I've ever had, including SoCal.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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