Nashville hot chicken is a storied cuisine. For those unfamiliar with the regional delicacy, it’s a permutation of fried chicken and spices, including cayenne pepper, that can be so hot, it requires mental and physical resolve to consume. Hot chicken’s reputation precedes the dish due partly to its gastrointestinal demands, and partly to the longstanding role that it plays in Southern foodways. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville claims the original recipe, which, as legend goes, was designed as a revenge dish by a slighted lover in the 1930s, and later, was renowned for its addictive properties.
The Southern dish has recently found its place in the East Bay. Earlier this summer, World Famous HotBoys began popping-up with a dry-brined version of Nashville hot chicken at Forage Kitchen in Oakland. By November, the HotBoys will leave Forage for a permanent location just blocks away, near the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and 16th Street.
Though it’s premature to say that World Famous HotBoys has, in fact, achieved global notoriety, co-founders Victor Ghaben and Wallace Berkley Gibbs have cultivated a devoted local following in just months. As Berkeleyside editor Sarah Han reported in August, Ghaben and Gibbs take cues from the South and the West in crafting their version of Tennessee-style chicken. While the duo’s recipe is inspired by Nashvillians, it calls for California-sourced spices and pasture-raised birds. Ghaben also spent time on the line at Lafayette’s Batch & Brine, which focuses on farm-forward pub fare. Gibbs hails from the art world, and is, according to Eater, responsible for Hotboys’ “post-internet” branding aesthetic.
True to this paradigm, the HotBoys experience is a long nod to an early-aughts adolescence. Yes, there is a five-foot tower of TVs facing the entrance, and no, they are not flat screen. The middle machine displays a Mario Kart start screen, and a serpentine tangle of cords and remotes are splayed across the floor below. The electronic shrine is flanked by an installation of faded Polaroid pictures to the left; and to the right, there is a large Panasonic boombox that you’d be hard-pressed to find in stores today.
Irrespective of your generational set, you may take nostalgic pleasure from HotBoys’ culinary packaging, which hearkens back to an even earlier decade. The Sando ($12), the locus of HotBoys’ fame, is nestled in a white-and-blue checkered wrapper with a tautness that resembles a swaddled newborn. The picnic-blanket pattern sits pretty near a side of lightning-bolt-shaped Krinkle Kut Fries, served lightly dusted with a mild Cajun seasoning.
This presentation delivers the quintessence of a 1970’s fast-food experience, as does HotBoys’ compact menu, which features the sandwich as well as a spattering of straightforward sides, including Collard Greens, Pimento Mac-N-Cheese, and those fries (each $4). There are other sides too, such as Beans, Slaw, and “Bonuts,” a set of donut-biscuit hybrids — but none of those appeared on the menu that day. In their stead were two options redolent of In-N-Out Animal-style fries: Swamp Fries, featuring greens atop fries, and Loaded Fries, heaping with pickles, slaw, and HotBoys’ special sauce, which can cool the chicken’s burn (each $8).
Without a doubt, the sandwich steals the show. There are five degrees of spice: mild, medium, hot, hot hot, and hella hot. Mild or medium is recommended for first-timers; the bolder of these options generates a slow-simmering tingle that is intensely pleasurable. While the spice-sensitive could feel discomfort, my disquiet came from wanting more heat. Had other guests in the comfortably-sized crowd, mostly thirtysomethings, been braver? Solace was found in the harmonious crackle of the chicken’s veneer and the pop of flavor from its fat. Adding to the orchestra was a small bonus piece of chicken, practically bursting from the bun.
The sandwich had a sweet coda, due in part to HotBoys’ special sauce: an apricot-hued, Thousand Island-esque dressing that is slathered atop the chicken and accompanies the fries. The pillow-soft bun, a simple carbohydrate confection, provides a textural foil to the chicken’s snappy breading. The sandwich’s graspability is no doubt a plus, though HotBoy’s diverges in this respect from some classic styles that are served open-faced, on white bread. The pickles and slaw are a lovely contrast to the heat, but my heap was admittedly hard to find. After a minor excavation, I uncovered the tangy green things hiding near my bun’s backend, and happily recommenced from there.
The collard greens, silky soft, float in an umami broth that is spiked with translucent onions and specks of ham. In color at least, they add a tinge of salubriousness to the event, but I found myself aching to return to my sandwich. The mac-n-cheese, dotted with red peppers, is intensely creamy; yet, again, I wanted a kick. Perhaps I was suffering from some new strain of heat addiction.
Therein lies the beauty of HotBoys: it’s not just delicious, but challenging. You can be existentially satisfied, but still want more — another sandwich, greater spice and the concomitant bragging rights. Trading on fried chicken is a tough beat with standout options in the vicinity, from Brown Sugar Kitchen to Bakesale Betty to Aburaya. Still, HotBoys has carved out an enviable niche built on dry-brine, cayenne and desire.
WorldFamous Hot Boys is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday at Forage Kitchen. Stay tuned on Nosh for the brick-and-mortar opening date.