A Hot Chick’n sandwich at Shake Shack. (Maura Judkis/The Washington Post)

The first sign of trouble was the color. Nashville-style hot chicken, a regional delicacy, is typically the sort of quasi-neon orange color that can only come from an abundance of cayenne. It’s supposed to look like it’s going to singe your mouth, sort of like how an orange bush viper just looks like its bite is venomous.

So the fact that Shake Shack’s new Hot Chick’n sandwich was a shade you’d describe more as slightly orange-tinged fried chicken was a sign of what was in store for the first bite. We waited for the peppery little tickle we felt at the back of our tongues to build into something more fiery. It didn’t.

“I feel like proper hot chicken should give you sweats,” said one colleague who is a devotee of the real thing in Nashville.

Hot Chick’n sandwich and fries. (Maura Judkis/The Washington Post)

It also feels like a delayed pander to a novelty-driven audience. Shake Shack is late to the game. Hot chicken has long been popular in Tennessee, but it became trendy nationwide about two years ago. Hot-chicken joints were popping up in many cities, including D.C. KFC even released its own version of the dish, which was tested in Pittsburgh — as if they’d dare to do it in Tennessee — before rolling out nationwide in early 2016. When the Tennessean newspaper told Andre Prince Jeffries, owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, the epicenter of hot chicken, about the KFC version of the dish, she exclaimed: “Have mercy!

There are no Shake Shack locations in Nashville, thank goodness, because surely the locals wouldn’t stand for this. They were angry enough about KFC’s version:

But some appreciated the attention it brought to the local specialty. “I think it’s an honor. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, whether it’s a chicken restaurant or any other restaurant,” former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell said of the KFC version in an interview with WKRN.

This isn’t to say that Shake Shack has made a bad sandwich, though. It’s “dusted with a guajillo and cayenne pepper blend and topped with Louisiana hot sauce, slaw, kosher dill pickles,” according to a news release, which doesn’t reference Nashville as an inspiration. It was crispy, and its mild spice level makes it more accessible to a wider audience. The creamy slaw cooled it down, and pickle chips added a nice tang. It’s a good spicy chicken sandwich. It’s just not hot chicken — or “hot chick’n,” as Shake Shack styles it.

“If you’re going to call it hot chicken, try a little harder,” said another colleague, who is a fan of Prince’s in Nashville. “It dials up the customer’s expectations.”

And then he delivered a burn that was hotter than the sandwich itself.

“It’s like a Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich,” he said.

The Hot Chick’n sandwich ($6.79) is available for a limited time.

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