For a good many weeks after the Nashville hot-chicken chain Hattie B’s opened just south of Little Five Points in July, passers-by couldn’t help but notice the hovering and insatiable crowd.
All day and into the night, a line stretched from the front counter almost out to Moreland Avenue. Patient and presumably unruffled, the hot-chicken seekers shifted legs and thighs in want of wings and breasts shellacked with the red-hot spices that define the famous Music City bird.
Living not far away, I drove regularly past the dramatic, red-and-white triangular roof jutting out of the refashioned 1950s Phillips 66 gas station and thought to myself: “That must be some good chicken.” I wondered if the phenomenon would ever falter.
Indeed, I can now report that the surfeit of Hattie B’s chicken hawks has dispersed. And after four recent visits, I can see why. Hattie B’s can be a perplexingly uneven and sometimes frustrating experience, from the moment you discover the parking lot is full to the second you bite into a chicken finger and realize it’s more like a tightly clenched fist: hard, unforgiving.
The parking situation is easily remediable, though it will cost you: Simply pull into the adjacent pay lot, and put five bucks into the machine. Fixing other details — from the minor to the unforgivable — will require watchful monitoring by management. (The seven-store fast-casual chain was founded in 2012 by father-and-son partners Nick Bishop Sr. and Nick Bishop Jr.; Nashville-based John Lasater is executive chef.)
One thing you do get to control is the heat level, six choices ranging from “Southern” (plain fried chicken, which by the way is pretty good) to “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” (which I’ve yet had the nerve to try). If you want a true taste of Nashville hot chicken, you should start with level four — aka “Hot!” Though this authentic treatment is faithful to the dish’s origin in the black neighborhoods of Nashville, it could more than prick your palate and have long-lasting consequences on your stomach. Even for a fairly heat-tolerant person like me, it crossed a line outside the comfort zone.
On my first visit, I ordered my $13 half bird “Hot!” — like you do. The first thing I noticed was that the frilly plastic end of the toothpick securing pickle to chicken had been stuck through the meat. A cosmic metaphor for a kitchen that doesn’t know which end is up? Then I observed that the sauce covering the bird was so saturated with ground red pepper that it had a grainy, almost sandy sheen. Warning! My head didn’t explode, but my tongue wasn’t thrilled.
Having heard through the vine that the hot-chicken sandwich (dressed with coleslaw, comeback sauce and dill pickle) was solid, I decided to give it a try. The “Medium” heat was much more tolerable, but the breast was tough and overcooked, the crinkle-cut fries unacceptably, teeth-jarringly crunchy. They’d been way too long in the fry basket. The staff even screwed up my root beer float: Rather than a frothy frappe, it looked like melting brown ice cream in a cup. Meh.
To be fair, you have about a 1-in-4 chance of having a pleasant experience here.
Shortly after 1 p.m. on a Thursday, my friend and I ordered a ton of food, and most everything hit the spot. My buddy was delighted by his small dark-meat plate (a leg-thigh quarter), and he liked it “Hot!” (Some do, as they say.) Though you can find better fried chicken around town, I was pleased with my un-sauced, “Southern” style half bird, and had some left over to take home. I also enjoyed dragging our “Medium” wings through the blue-cheese dipping sauce and washing it all down with a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As for the sides, the coleslaw is fairly straightforward and unremarkable, but I can’t endorse the pimento mac and cheese. (It reminds me of the sauced stuff you make from a box, with a hint of pimento.) The kitchen does seem to understand collard greens (long-simmered and silken) and baked beans (sweet and smoky). The red-skinned potato salad was a bit heavy on the mayo, but the bacon bits added a little textural snap. Black-eyed pea salad was rather bland and uninteresting — no zip.
So here’s my final word on Hattie B’s. If you find yourself on Moreland, half-starved for something a shade better than fast food, it’ll do. For now, I’d probably stick to Popeyes. Or if I wanted a more gourmet experience, I’d head to One-Eared Stag or Richard’s Southern Fried or West Egg’s Oddbird pop-up. As for proper Nashville hot chicken, served in a fast-casual format, Atlanta’s hungry throngs must continue to wait.
HATTIE B’S HOT CHICKEN
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. 299 Moreland Ave. NE, Atlanta. 678-888-4884, hattieb.com.
Recommended: Small dark-meat plate. Southern style (un-sauced) half bird. Wings. Collards. Baked beans.