Nashville’s hottest export burns its way through town
After one bite of the signature order at Bloorcourt’s Five Points Hot Chicken, my tongue burns, my nose runs, my chest hiccups wildly, and my ears feel strangely blocked. I can’t think, and I can hardly speak. All I can muster is a repeating chorus of, “Oh shit, oh shit, that’s fucking spicy.” Nashville hot chicken brings the pain. That’s by design.
According to legend (and decades of inspired marketing), hot chicken was first created to bring a man to his knees. In the 1930s, Thornton Prince was a notorious ladies man in Nashville, and one lady was never enough. One morning, after he had returned home from the company of another woman, his girlfriend decided to dole out some punishment. She threw all the hottest spices in the kitchen into her fried chicken. She wanted Thornton Prince to cry, to beg for mercy, to suffer. But according to family lore, Mr. Prince only asked for another piece.
Eventually, he moved on to other women, but hot chicken became his true love. He and his family co-opted the recipe and in 1945 they opened Nashville’s original peppery poultry purveyor, Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack—since renamed Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The dish has become so popular in recent years that well-regarded restaurants focused solely on hot chicken have opened in Los Angeles (Howlin’ Ray’s), Columbus (Hot Chicken Takeover), Chicago (The Budlong Hot Chicken), and Australia (Belle’s Hot Chicken). Even KFC put Nashville hot chicken it on its US menus, though critics argue it lacks the kick to back that name up.
Now Toronto has joined the hot chicken fray with Chica’s Chicken in the Junction, and Bloorcourt’s Five Points Hot Chicken, the site of my expletive-filled jag.
The greatness of southern fried chicken is undeniable, of course. There’s the craggy, crunchy crust with its soft kick of spice, enrobing juicy, steaming, well-seasoned poultry. Nashville hot chicken starts out that way, but then it’s dipped in an oil and chili-based paste.
Hot chicken originated in Nashville’s African-American community—the Prince family is black and their shop sits in the historically black side of town. But these days, even in its hometown, it’s being served in more touristy, gentrified and, frankly, white areas. Hattie B’s, a chain run by a white Nashville family, has usurped Prince’s as the destination of choice among all but the most dedicated locals and food-minded tourists.
Like those bringing the dish to most other cities, Toronto’s hot chicken importers are also, unsurprisingly, white. But Five Points doesn’t come off like some cynical, trend-chasing money grab. It’s a literal hole in the wall at Bloorcourt’s Open House bar. When you peer inside, you see a tiny, fryer-equipped kitchen, and a team that fell in love with the dish.
As in Nashville, Five Points’ chicken comes on a slice of white bread with a few pickle slices. The crust shines brightly with an orange glow from its chili-laced bath. It is cracklingly crunchy, and smells to me like schmaltz and paprika, plus a healthy dash of chili heat.
(When Nashville hot chicken goes wrong, that oil bath can sometimes cause the whole dish to taste like dirty fry oil, as I discovered my first time at Chica’s. On a second visit, the room there still smelled like the inside of a fryer but the chicken tasted good.)
At Five Points, the different spice levels each get their own recipe. The medium-spicy version relies mostly on cayenne for heat, while orders of hot get added fire from ghost and scorpion peppers—two of the spiciest peppers on earth. You feel them too—immediately and the following morning. The extra hot, meanwhile, boosts the proportion of the ghost and scorpion peppers.
And Five Points’ hottest chicken, which goes by the name Devil’s Breath, adds powdered Carolina Reaper peppers, the world’s current hottest chili. That Devil’s Breath chicken is surprisingly fun to eat.
The capsaicin in peppers triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine, which is to say there’s a lot of pleasure if you can feel beyond the pain. And with ghost peppers and Carolina Reapers in particular, there’s also a good deal of flavour. The peppers are known not just for their stomach-searing heat, but also for their fruity, peppery pong.
(Next to the Devil’s Breath, Five Points’ other heat levels are good enough, but surprisingly boring in comparison. All I taste in those is cayenne and underseasoned chicken. More paprika and more salt, please.)
The sides at Five Points are a mixed bag. The coleslaw lacks punch, the crinkle cut fries (they come tossed with cayenne) are good, and the “damn good hotcakes”—cornmeal pancakes with pickled jalapenos and creamed corn —were good the first time I had them, but dense and dry a second time around.
But the sides at Five Points aren’t the draw here. The draw is the battle between human and hot chicken. It’s the question of whether you can handle the heat.
Anthony Bourdain once wrote, “I’m not complaining or anything but Nashville Hot Chicken can be a three day commitment.”
As with so much he did, the man got that absolutely right.
Five Points Nashville Hot Chicken
Atmosphere: The front room is a cosy, tchotchke-filled bar; in back it’s a bare-bones picnic area.
Sound: Often calm at dinner time, with an indie rock soundtrack. Later at night, the place is a busy bar.
Drinks: Full bar, with an emphasis on craft beers
What to eat: Thigh and leg, with an order of fries. You’re going to want that chicken medium or spicier.
What the symbols mean:
Vegetarian options available
Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible
Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.
One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.
Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.
Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.
Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.