My well-traveled friend Matt is one of my best tipsters, teasing me from wherever he finds good food on the road with mouthwatering text messages. One day, it's a rave for a Chinese haunt in London; another month, "Guess where I'm having lunch?" is embedded with the image of a perfect pie from Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. To ignore his advice, I've learned over the years, is to miss out on something special. So recently, when Matt heard that I'd be passing through Nashville, he insisted that I make Prince's Hot Chicken Shack a priority.
"My best meal of 2007," he told me over dinner in Washington a full three years later.
Needless to say, a pal and I were at the door of the joint when it opened at noon on a Friday in December, a lot hungry and a tad skeptical.
"Prince's" is a reference to the family that runs the establishment, led by matriarch Andre Prince, 65. "Hot Chicken," I'll get to in a few paragraphs. But the air in the place, heavy with what suggests Tabasco, hints at truth in advertising.
"Shack" is no understatement. The dining room, in a sad shopping strip in east Nashville, is just five faded booths and a card table covered in oilcloth. The only music I recall is the smack of fingers being licked clean. Prince's is a setting made pleasant with pale green walls and a display of homemade cakes that a local baker named Irene Long sells for $2.25 a slice in front of the counter where customers line up to place their orders for chicken.
There's no printed menu. The few choices at Prince's - various cuts of chicken and side dishes - are flagged on a sign above the counter, and you'd better know what you want when you reach the window: plain, mild, medium, hot or extra-hot chicken. We get some plain for a benchmark and some extra hot for the same reason some people jump out of airplanes or swim with sharks: There's a heady thrill in knowing that however much you've trained for it, you may not survive the experience.
Was it my imagination, or did the woman scribbling down my order pause to size me up? Certainly, there was precedence here. When Thomas Keller, the visionary behind two of the country's starriest restaurants - the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York - dropped into Prince's during a book-signing in Nashville last spring, he told me, "they would not allow me to try the extra hot" because "I was a virgin to their chicken."
Keller's mini-critique (e-mailed last week from Lyon, where he was attending the Bocuse d'Or, the culinary world equivalent of the Olympics): "I must say that the mild was super hot and the hot EXTREMELY so! I cannot imagine what the extra hot was like or even how someone would survive the nuclear explosion on the taste buds!"
Well, let me tell ya, Thomas.
I'm the kind of eater who thinks that jalapenos are for wimps and who always elects to go as hot as it gets on a Thai menu. As far as I'm concerned, the more habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers in my Mexican or Caribbean food, the better.
Still, I was not prepared for the fire that exploded on my tongue after I picked a piece of breast meat from its cradle of white bread and tugged at the chicken's gritty-with-spices skin, staining my fingers a dark reddish-brown. Not that I hadn't noticed several yield signs en route. My fingers tingled at the mere touch of the seasoning, and my eyes started tearing as the crust got closer to my face. My sidekick across the table was wearing a you-go-first expression. "I'm getting heartburn just from the smell," he said - and I bit.
Ever tasted molten iron? Kissed the sun? Me neither. But "extra hot" at Prince's is what I imagine those sensations approximate. Like dynamite, the spices from Prince's most volatile dish explode on the palate, torching every taste bud in their path in wave after wave of assaults. Within seconds, I'm crying, sweating and hiccuping - simultaneously - and the top of my head feels as if a giant Brillo pad is being rubbed across it. Scratch, scratch, scratch. And sniff, sniff, sniff. For a long moment, I think I've committed career suicide, because I can't taste . . . anything.
Only the next day do I catch the joke about what has been billed as, ahem, "24-hour chicken."
It turns out that I'm the exception to the rule at Prince's, where, for whatever reason, "mostly women order extra hot," says the restaurateur, a 31-year veteran of the business. Patrons have told her that they've sought out Prince's chicken as a cure for everything from sinus problems to hiccups. (Maybe I should have had seconds.)
Andre Prince doesn't know exactly when her father's uncle, Thornton Prince, opened Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, and there's no one alive in the family to confirm her guess that the business probably started in the early '40s: "All the old heads are dead!" She does, however, recall her great-uncle as handsome ("I saw him when I was a little girl") and as a ladies' man.
As the restaurateur tells it - "rumor, everything is a rumor" - Thornton Prince stayed out late one Saturday night, returning the next day to find a pan of the fried chicken, a Sunday tradition, on his steady's stove. Except it wasn't the usual recipe. To get even with her beau, Prince's gal had spiked the chicken with a mess of fiery seasonings. But the last laugh was his, says his great-niece. "He liked his whipping" and even asked the flame-thrower to stick with her revised version from then on.
Don't even think about asking Andre Prince for the recipe. All she'll share about Prince's signature is that cayenne accounts for part of the blast, and vegetable oil is the preferred sizzling agent. As much as she'd like to use only iron skillets, her cooks rely on deep-fryers to keep up with the demand for Prince's pride.
The secret to just-good-chicken, then? Although preferences differ, Prince likes to cook her bird slowly, so the seasonings have time to be absorbed into the meat, or "get down into it," as she puts it.
For the record: "I don't go past mild," she says.
To eat with the chicken there are too-sweet baked beans, (better) bright-yellow potato salad and a fresh-tasting coleslaw. I was too full, and too numb, to sample dessert on my maiden visit. Later, however, I was grateful to have bought slices of Long's moist caramel and red velvet cakes for the road. They made old-fashioned endings to a wicked lunch.
Once I'm back home, I ask Prince about the pickle slices topping every order of chicken. "They say they tone down the heat," she says, too late to rescue me.
123 Ewing Dr., Nashville. 615-226-9442. Lunch for two about $20.