If there’s one phrase in the English language that does less to inspire a surge of hungry cravings, it almost has to be “Alaskan Pollock.” Nevertheless, the good people at Arby’s are pushing forward in our seemingly national desire to “make all of the things Nashville Hot Chicken,” with two new sandwiches in time for Lent: The Nashville Hot Fish and King’s Hawaiian Nashville Hot Fish Deluxe. From the website:
“Crispy, Wild-caught Alaskan Pollock coated with Nashville hot seasoning, topped with pickles, shredded lettuce, and Parmesan Peppercorn Ranch on a sesame bun. Not all Arby’s restaurants are in Nashville, but now Nashville is in all Arby’s. The Nashville Hot Fish is also available as a flatbread.”
For those that have never been to Nashville (or the hipster “gastropub” on the corner, or Applebee’s, or KFC, or literally anywhere else on the planet), Nashville-style Hot Chicken started as a regional specialty that packs a serious wallop. The chicken is dredged and fried, and then doused in a slurry of chicken fat and heaping handfuls of ground cayenne pepper, resulting in spicy chicken that ranges from “sniffle-inducing” to “a full release of all of the fluids in your head weeping uncontrollably out of every single one of your face openings.”
It’s spicy, sure; but eating Nashville Hot Chicken also provides something like a spiritual experience, as the chicken schmaltz runs down your chin onto a lonely piece of Wonder bread, and all of your brain’s fight-or-flight chemicals kick into overdrive, with only a few slices of pickle available to quench the fire.
As Nashville Hot Chicken spread outward from its epicenter in Nashville, it wasn’t long before the cooking technique made its way onto the national scene, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, in chain restaurants’ efforts make a product with mass appeal, the heat is dialed down to such a degree that the resulting product probably shouldn’t even be referred to as “hot chicken.” That doesn’t stop us from trying every possible permutation that comes along, however.
The simpler of the two new spicy fish sandwiches, the “Nashville Hot Fish” sandwich features an enormous piece of fried Alaskan Pollock, a fish whose signature attribute is probably its flakiness, rather than its flavor. The fried fillet features a thin, dry dusting of cayenne, which didn’t look like it could possibly bring any kind of serious heat, and we doubted the sandwich’s Nashville-style roots almost immediately. There’s a layer of lots of pickles, and shredded iceberg doused in “Parmesan Peppercorn Ranch,” presumably to cool the fire. A soft, sesame seed bun provides sufficient containment for the cavalcade of flavor waiting within.
Here’s the surprising thing: This is a fantastic fast food fish sandwich. That dry dusting of cayenne brings plenty of ruckus to your mouth, and we immediately regretted not ordering a cold drink to go with it. While it may not look like much, this is one of the spicier items on the Arby’s menu. The fish itself was a little anemic; a light batter, that seemed paler than it should, but was cooked to order and stayed crunchy and delicious. The ranch-dressed lettuce offered a cooling contrast, and the layer of pickles kept the whole thing from getting too spicy to bear.
For the more fancy among us, Arby’s is also offering a “deluxe” version of their Nashville Hot Fish sandwich, where in this instance, the word “deluxe” refers to the addition of a slice of cheddar and a slice of tomato. It’s also served on a lightly sweet King’s Hawaiian bun, which offers another pleasurable contrast to the spicy fish; the tomato and the cheese don’t bring anything extra to the table, however, in terms of flavor. While the sweet bun is a great idea (especially if you’re into that whole mouth-confusing “contrast” thing), we actually preferred the standard-issue version of the sandwich, where fewer elements allowed each a greater opportunity to shine through.
In a fast food landscape where the term “Nashville Hot” is being used to describe anything that’s even vaguely spicy, it was a pleasant surprise to see Arby’s applying the term to a fried fish sandwich that’s seriously spicy, but ultimately very well balanced by its other elements. Whether you’re into spicy fried fish, or are into being super Catholic, or whatever it is you have going on over there, you’ll find a lot to love in these sandwiches.
Arby’s “Nashville Hot Fish” and “King’s Hawaiian Hot Fish Deluxe” sandwiches will be available nationally until Easter.