Chicken that burns so good

The origin story goes that Thornton Prince was a tomcat and his lady friend wanted to teach him a painful lesson for his indiscretions. So, she slathered his fried chicken in an incendiary cayenne-based hot sauce. Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for the rest of us, he loved it and started serving it at his restaurant.

Prince's Hot Chicken has inspired imitators throughout Nashville and is now making inroads in metro Atlanta.

"Hot Chicken has superhero powers," said chef Linton Hopkins, who serves his "silly homage to Prince's Hot Chicken" at Holeman & Finch Public House in Buckhead on Monday nights. Why did he add it to the menu? "What we do has to be more than just the restaurant business. It has to be tied somehow to the foodways of where you are. And I just love taking hole-in-wall Southern establishments and honoring them."

Although he has never eaten Prince's version, Hopkins has created a respectable version using chicken thighs brined in the same mixture he uses at Restaurant Eugene for the fried chicken special. It's dredged in seasoned flour, fried and mopped in a cayenne-infused melted lard before being placed on a slice of H&F Bread Co.'s Southern sandwich bread with homemade bread and butter pickles.

Hopkins thinks his chicken is a little thicker on the spice than his inspiration. "We tell people not to touch their face. It will burn you. Do not drink a carbonated beverage either. We have servers recommend a glass of ice instead."

Take one look at chef Robert Phalen's One Eared Stag menu in Inman Park, and it's evident this guy colors outside the lines. Yet, when he started offering a fried chicken special on Monday nights "to keep it a little Southern," his traditional version quickly garnered him rave reviews. And, now, many respected bloggers and Atlanta fooderati in the twittersphere have called it "the best fried chicken in Atlanta."

Phalen has never been big on wasting food, so he started using the leftovers for a Hot Chicken special on Tuesdays. After a visit to Prince's, Phalen developed his rendition in the form of a shareable appetizer. The leftover pieces of pasture-raised chicken are coated with what he calls an "infused fat" rife with notes of smoked paprika, curry, cayenne, cumin, brown sugar and secret spices.

Phalen said: "It is not fire hot, but there is depth of flavor." He serves it on a thick piece of buttered and toasted pain de mie with a bread and butter pickle.

Since the menu at the One Eared Stag changes on a daily basis, you never know when the chicken might disappear, so get there now. "I'm keeping it on the menu until I get tired of it, and I am not tired of it yet," Phalen said.

Although Nashville lays claim to Hot Chicken, the addictive burn of chilies coupled with the crunch of fried chicken is prevalent in other cuisines and styles.

If there is any restaurant known for spicy food in this town, it's Tasty China in Marietta. The Shan City Chicken is a Sichuan classic that's intimidating in appearance alone. A large platter of hacked-up chicken (your choice of boneless or bone-in) is lightly battered and fried. Tasty China's chicken arrives nestled in a sea of dried deep red chilies. The spice imparted by the chilies is amped up by the almost citrusy and numbing heat of ground Sichuan peppercorns.

You can find the dish at other local Sichuan restaurants, but Tasty China's chicken always has the right amount of crisp and heat.

At Smyrna's Heirloom Market BBQ, chefs Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor offer Korean Fried Chicken (called "KFC" by many, which is part acronym, part wink at the popular chain) every Wednesday. "This method with our touches is what you would find in Seoul today and not NYC or other versions of KFC you find at various shops across the country," Taylor said.

Heirloom marinates a local bird in Bek Se Ju (Korean rice wine), brushed with gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and lightly covered in seasoned flour mix to sit overnight. The chicken is double fried: once as prep and then a second time until it is crispy. It's a method Taylor calls Southern, but also very similar to the Korean method.

The heat comes from sauce made with Mae Ploy (sweet chili sauce), gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), Frank's Xtra Hot Sauce, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar. The mixture is reduced to a sweet and spicy glaze and served on the side along with some pickled goodies and a side of your choice.

At Curly's Fried Chicken on the Westside, the recipe is based on the one owner Steve Johnson's dad (Curly) used to serve his friends while tailgating at Falcons games.

Curly's uses a non-hormonal, non-steroid bird and coats it in a light batter that's crackly and tastes homemade. For no extra charge, you can get your chicken dipped in Buddy's secret sauce, which is named after Johnson's grandfather. Everything is named after someone here.

The Buddy's sauce tastes like the majority of the sauce is made with Frank's hot sauce, meaning it closely resembles a moderately spicy and super tangy wing sauce with the added richness of a "secret" fat to bring it all together. Getting it dipped makes the chicken resemble hot wings, but get the sauce on the side to avoid sogginess if you are taking it home.

At the Highlander in Midtown, the Hot Chicken special is a jumble of the chef's roots inspired by the legendary Nashville treat. "I'm a good Southern boy. I even live across the street from a Popeye's," said Jeff Merback, fried chicken fanatic and owner of the bar/restaurant.

Merback was intrigued by mention after mention of Prince's Hot Chicken on various food shows. "I thought it was a very interesting take on fried chicken." After tons of research, Merback arrived at a Frankenstein-like recipe and tasked his chef Ibrahim Jahumpa with the creation, which is available only on Fridays.

The chicken is marinated in a bunch of ingredients including Sriracha, pickles, jalapeno and a secret twist. Pieces of dark and white meat chicken from various local farms are covered in flour and fried until they are very crusty. They're then tossed in a cayenne-based hot sauce with some personal touches.

"I'm from West Africa, and I grew up on hot peppers," Jahumpa said. "I'm a fan of hot sauce, and this sauce is hot! You'll burn your face."

Hot Chicken: Where to go

Holeman and Finch Public House: 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-948-1175, www.holeman-finch.com. Price: $6.

One Eared Stag: 1029 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 404-525-4479, www.oneearedstag.com. Price: $7.

Tasty China: 585 Franklin Road, Marietta. 770-419-9849. Price: $13.

Heirloom Market BBQ: 2243 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta. 770-612-2502, www.heirloommarketbbq.com. Price: $10.50.

Curly's Fried Chicken: 1021 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-872-7888, www.curlysfriedchicken.com. Price: $2 and up.

The Highlander: 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. 404-872-0060, www.thehighlanderatlanta.com. Price: $8.95.

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