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REVIEW: “Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich” from Applebee’s

We all knew it would happen, from the moment Nashville Hot Chicken, that peculiar method of serving fried chicken whereby the finished product is dunked in a slurry of chicken schmaltz and pure, unadulterated cayenne pepper, appeared on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Guy Fieri visited Prince’s Hot Chicken, the inventor of the 100-year-old regional specialty, and we can’t find the clip, but you can bet Fieri offered insightful commentary that combined some combination of the words “funky little joint,” and “winner winner, hot chicken dinner.” There was probably also a fist bump.

It was a matter of time before Nashville Hot Chicken began permeating our national consciousness, with talk show hosts financing restaurants specializing in the dish on Kickstarter, multiple mentions of the fiery chicken on the various food channels, and an appearance on every hip gastropub menu from Brooklyn to Birmingham.

Nashville Hot Chicken from Applebee's

It wasn’t until the appearance of Nashville Hot Chicken at KFC, though, that we thought that the spread of one of our favorite things to eat might be a little problematic. Don’t misunderstand; the “Nashville Hot” chicken being served at KFC is delicious, and one of the best items to hit the chain’s menu in years. But is it really “Hot Chicken?”

As the buzz about Nashville Hot Chicken grows, and it gets adopted by larger and larger chains, the risk is that it gets so homogenized, to appeal to the broadest possible number of customers, that the essence of the dish itself gets lost. If you have to dial back the spice levels on Hot Chicken, if it no longer makes you break out in a sweat, doesn’t generate a surge of adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight” response, doesn’t make you fear for the safety of your mouth and your ability to taste things in the future, is it still Hot Chicken? And if you can buy it at any old chain restaurant, is it still special?

Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich from Applebees
Photo: Applebee’s

In a sure sign that we may have finally reached peak Hot Chicken in this country, there’s  now even a version being served in sandwich form, on the regular menu at the Applebee’s restaurant chain nationwide. Duty-bound, we had to have a look. From the menu:

Crispy fried chicken breast, spicy cayenne pepper sauce, creamy coleslaw and pickles served on a Brioche bun.

From the moment our food arrived, we were taken aback by how much the finished product looked like the picture on the laminated menu.* The light, buttery brioche bun is presented open-faced, presumably so you can more fully appreciate the slaw and the sliced pickle that’s been added to the thick, cayenne-coated piece of chicken breast. Ours came with salt-and-pepper dusted fries, for $10.99 (prices may vary by region).

*Can we talk for a minute about how absolutely incredible Applebee’s corporate food photography is? It’s all so dark and moody and delicious, like a brilliant art school portfolio except that all of the black and white photos of “tree branches casting shadows on tombstones” and “young hands caressing old hands” are replaced by high-contrast, high-saturation shots of half-racks of delicious ribs and something called “Cajun Chicken Alfredo,” the way God intended.

We were also very pleasantly surprised by the level of heat being brought to the table in the Applebee’s Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich. This didn’t feel like some dumbed-down, fast food version of traditional Hot Chicken spice. Though the burn didn’t linger for long (the sandwich left more of a lingering garlic powder flavor, if anything), each bite packed a punch of pepper that was much stronger than the “Nashville Hot” chicken at KFC. The creamy coleslaw was sweet, at first, and helped to cool the heat of the chicken, a job that was not being adequately handled by the nearly flavorless pickles and the rapidly-collasing brioche bun.

Nashville Hot Chicken from Applebee's

The biggest problem, unfortunately, was the chicken itself. There’s no easy way to explain it, but it had a really, really peculiar texture. There was a dense, rubbery quality that we just couldn’t figure out, almost as though it had spent its pre-cooked life in a salty chemical brine that tightened its protein strands to strangely rigid levels of elasticity. The texture was so strange, in fact, that we couldn’t even judge which part of the chicken the fillet came from. It looked great, the coating was crunchy and delicious, and the sauce was a close-enough approximation of the way they do things in Nashville. But that texture, man. That texture. It’s hard to get past.

In all, this was a dish we’d classify a mild disappointment, and not only because we’re being all self-righteous about only wanting to eat Nashville Hot Chicken when we’re actually in Nashville. This feels disappointing just because it was such a near-miss. The cayenne pepper sauce was great, with plenty of heat and a satisfying deep red hue. The slaw was a fresh, crunchy, cooling accompaniment.

Nashville Hot Chicken from Applebee's

Everything looked almost as good as it did on the menu. And yet, the decision to slap all of those tasty ingredients onto such a deeply strange piece of chicken only serves to make you realize how “off” the entire sandwich feels.

If you find yourself caught in a Hot Chicken wasteland with a serious craving for the stuff, and you have no other options, it’s worth a try. Otherwise, it’s disappointing to think that for many, this will become the standard by which this increasingly popular dish is judged.

 

Written by Malcolm Bedell

Malcolm is the author of “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as a frequent contributor to Serious Eats, Down East Magazine, The L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. When not poisoning his body with garbage and then posting sardonic commentary about it on the Internet, he also owns and operates the ‘Wich, Please food truck, named Eater.com’s “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015.

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