Nashville hot chicken lands in Reno-Tahoe.
Nashville may be more than 2,000 miles away, but the flavors of Music City’s spicy fried chicken have found their way to Reno-Tahoe.
Usually parked in front of The Flavor Studio on Louie Lane in Reno, Uncle Buddy’s food trailer serves an ever-changing menu of comfort foods, including a Nashville hot chicken sandwich that has regulars raving.
While living in Nashville, Uncle Buddy’s owner and chef Marco Dobrescu ate hot chicken at all of the local joints, including Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where people line up long before the doors open for the spiced bird that’s believed to be the original.
As the story goes, Thornton Prince cheated on his lady back in the 1930s, and as punishment, she covered his Sunday fried chicken with hot pepper — but the problem was, he actually really liked it. Thornton eventually opened his chicken shack, and for more than 75 years, the Prince family has been serving the fiery food to much acclaim.
“The main qualification is a breaded and fried piece of chicken, whether it be on a bone or not, and when it comes out of the fryer, it gets tossed or dipped in a sauce that’s usually 100 percent rendered fat — animal or vegetable — and seasoned heavily with cayenne pepper and whatever other chiles and proprietary blend they use,” Dobrescu explains.
Prior to cooking, the chicken usually is marinated in buttermilk, which Dobrescu spikes with a homemade hot sauce for an added layer of heat. And after its post-fryer dip in the fatty spice mix, the chicken is dusted with a blend of chili powders and vinegar powder to soak up the grease.
“Depending on how heavy handed we are on that shaker, it will determine whether it’s going to ruin your day or not,” Dobrescu quips.
Finally, the fried chicken is sandwiched between a homemade brioche bun with sweet pickles, coleslaw, and a spicy buttermilk sauce. Alternatively, Dobrescu sometimes sells the hot chicken on the bone, served traditionally on a slice of white bread with pickles, just the way Prince’s has for decades.
So Hot It’s Crazy
For Daniil Fedunov, owner of Crazy D’s in Reno, developing the perfect recipe for his Nashville hot chicken took almost a year of trial and error. As with most creators of dishes featuring simple ingredients, Fedunov keeps his recipe close to the vest but says that he does marinate his chicken in buttermilk before following the typical process of frying, dipping, and dusting.
“Our ‘crazy’ spice level actually has Carolina reaper in it, which is one of the hottest peppers in the world,” Fedunov says. “You have to have the right level of spice and the right level of crispiness and seasoning. Just the right standards. No shortcuts.”
Diners can select from a range of heat levels, from country style (no heat) to crazy, and opt to enjoy the boneless chicken breast either on a sandwich with pickles and slaw or as giant tenders.
After Fedunov opened his first location inside his family’s Eastern European market, Bazaar European Deli & Café in Reno, in March 2020, the demand was so great that he already has opened a second location near the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also is a full-time student studying computer science and engineering.
“We have a lot of regular customers who really love our food, and we’re just really passionate about trying to stay at the top of our game and keep making the same quality chicken that our customers are used to,” he adds.
Customer enthusiasm for Nashville hot chicken also convinced Rick Boyd to turn what he thought would be a pop-up — operated while he worked through plans for a wine bar in his Incline Village space — into a permanent restaurant.
Bertie’s Hot Chicken opened in February 2020 and has been “wildly popular” even amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, Boyd says.
“I grew up down South, so I’ve eaten a lot of chicken in my life,” Boyd says. “Our spice mix contains habanero powder, 90,000-Scoville-heat-unit cayenne, ghost pepper, and Trinidad Moruga (1.2 million average SHUs), along with some brown sugar, salt, and garlic.”
The Scoville scale was developed to rank the heat of chili peppers, ranging from 0 (bell peppers) to 3.18 million (pepper X, which overtook the 2.4-million-SHU dragon’s breath as the hottest pepper in the world in 2017).
The team at Bertie’s adjusts the heat by either skipping or dipping in the hot fat dredge and modifying the amount of dry spice added to the bird. The restaurant’s menu stands out because it expands beyond the “purist” hot chicken sandwich, with simple pickles and slaw, and creates unique versions inspired by other cuisines. The ’Bama Bird features Southern favorite pimiento cheese, and the Korean DMZ is loaded with house-made kimchi, cucumbers, and a signature sauce.
“I think ultimately what’s going to happen is it’s going to morph a little bit, and you’re going to start having regional derivatives of the original [sandwich] start to appear, which is kind of what our sandwich menu is,” Boyd explains.
In addition to these spots, in the fall, Joe Orduna, owner of Brothers Barbecue in Reno, is opening Cluckers MidTown, a fried chicken sandwich takeout joint just down the street from his current restaurant on Center Street (he’ll share the building with Press Start, which moved from South Virginia Street).
So why the seemingly sudden national popularity of a Nashville staple that’s been on the scene for decades? In short, a chef-driven campaign to highlight Southern food.
“People just love fried chicken in general, so whenever someone is frying up chicken, no matter how you treat it, people are going to be excited about it,” says Dobrescu of Uncle Buddy’s. “I also think there’s been a bit of a rediscovery of American Southern food in the last handful of years due to different chefs who have made that a priority. It’s put different Southern foods on the map, Nashville hot chicken being one of those.”
With that has come ample media coverage, driving diners to expand their culinary palate.
“There have been so many travel and food shows that have gone to Prince’s or Hattie B’s,” Boyd adds. “Our exposure to something in the media is so different than someone walking up to it blindly and knowing nothing about it. It then becomes something they want to seek out, and while they may not be able go to Nashville, their local [food-and-drink establishment] can give them that experience.”
Claire McArthur is a Zephyr Cove-based freelance writer and is ashamed to admit she has never gone past the “medium” spice level on Nashville hot chicken. Maybe next time.
Bertie’s Hot Chicken
930 Tahoe Blvd., Ste. 901, Incline Village
775-413-5050 • Bertieschicken.com
Crazy D’s Hot Chicken
3652 S. Virginia St., Ste. C1, Reno, 775-420-9786
101 University Terrace, Reno, 775-384-2780
Uncle Buddy’s food trailer
5303 Louie Lane, Reno
Find Uncle Buddy’s Reno on Facebook