Battle Hot Chicken: The Roost vs. Leghorn

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Nashville hot, The Roost

Lately, amid the ongoing fried chicken wars, a special caliber of ordnance has been deployed by some of the newer combatants. I'm talking about Nashville hot chicken, a nuclear option if it's prepared right. Its creator and best-known purveyor is Nashville's Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, its recipe allegedly born when owner Andre Prince's great-uncle Thornton's jealous girlfriend exacted vengeance for his philandering by preparing him fried chicken dredged in a lethal hot-pepper paste. Thornton liked it, and a legend was born.

The first time I tried Prince's extrahot, a portal to hell opened before my eyes and fiends flayed my entrails. But I was in Thornton's camp all the way.

Prince's model has been oft-imitated in Nashville and other southern latitudes. Ideally the birds are buttermilk-brined, battered, and panfried before getting dredged in a lavalike slurry of lard, cayenne pepper, and sometimes sugar that thoroughly saturates the crust. Only recently have Chicago restaurants attempted to duplicate it. The Southern does a Wednesday night hot chicken special, and Parson's does one on Tuesdays. But two of the newer quick-serve fried chicken joints have committed fully to the style, offering it consistently alongside their other variants (nominally, at least, as you'll see). Those would be Leghorn, from the Element Collective (Nellcote, Old Town Social), and the Roost Carolina Kitchen, born of its eponymous food truck.

Leghorn, you've probably been informed, has positioned itself as the anti-Chick-fil-A, promising to donate 2 percent of its profits to organizations that support gay rights. That's nice. They also make controversial proclamations on their menu like, "We abhor corporate bullshit." And they make a big deal out of cranking up hip-hop inside the restaurant. All of these things are fine and good except Leghorn hangs it out there as if the local chapter of Jerks for Jesus has gathered on the corner of Western and Augusta with their arms folded, tut-tutting, "Oh no, not for us. We love corporate bullshit."

You're trying too hard, guys. And you're not trying hard enough with the chicken.

This chicken kills fascists, Leghorn Nashville Hot
  • Mike Sula
  • This chicken kills fascists: Leghorn Nashville Hot

Here you have a choice of pickle-brined chicken or Nashville Hot, boneless thigh or boneless breast, either served on a house-made bun or buttermilk biscuit ($6). My first misgivings arose when I ordered one of each combo at the counter—pickled breast on biscuit, Nashville thigh on a bun—and they descended on my table almost before I sat down. Neither one having been fried to order, I was safe to dissect both with my naked fingers; a half of each to my pal. The breading on both is soft and thick, pillowy almost, overwhelming most of what the chicken itself has to offer. By necessity each are boneless (don't get me started on boneless chicken). But the real problem with Leghorn arises with what they consider "Nashville hot." That means someone applies a light splash of thin, red sauce on the top of the meat. It registers a slight disturbance on the palate, astonishing only in its lack of confidence in itself.

You can try to redeem your sandwich with a handful of sauces, top it with cheese or lettuce or tomatoes or slaw. And you can try to forget your troubles with a side of nori-dusted french fries or jalapeño cornbread. Or you can just abdicate any scrap of dignity by asking for a "grilled chicken bowl" with kale and quinoa. But no matter what you say, you're not getting anything that resembles Nashville hot chicken.

The Roost's regular spicy is good too
  • Mike Sula
  • The Roost's regular spicy is good too.

What makes any kind of sense about fried chicken sandwiches any way? That's bread on top of breading on top of boneless chicken. It's almost as abominable as a Double Down. The Roost bones its chicken for sandwiches too, breasts and thighs, just like Leghorn. And you have the option of ordering it spicy or Nashville hot, on a Kaiser roll or a biscuit.

A Nashville hot sandwich at the Roost appears to be a disappointing thing. There's a tiny piece of boneless meat between the bread, but it belies the powerful force of nature in between. The chicken is thoroughly saturated with a Vulcan glow, its powerful heat mitigated by a lingering sweetness. The Roost doesn't use lard in its paste; they use olive oil, cayenne pepper, Louisiana hot sauce, and just a bit of sugar, applied after frying. It's the closest thing to Prince's I've encountered outside of Nashville.

Nine bucks is somewhat steep for such a small sandwich, even with two sides, but the Roost trumps the competition by offering bone-in chicken—a quarter bird with two sides for $9, and a half chicken for $13, available in the aforementioned Nashville hot, a lighter, spicy version which is no slouch in itself, and an herb-seasoned offering. The Roost's batter is terrific, particularly in the case of the spicy variant—light and crisp, it doesn't overwhelm the chicken in any way. Perhaps crucial to its overall success is the fact that the Roost fries everything to order. Nothing sits around wallowing in its own grease. Biscuits, coleslaw, house-made potato chips, mac and cheese, baked apples, and peach cobbler round out the offerings, but it's the Nashville hot here that you're after. It might even make Thornton Price blink.

The Roost

The Roost Carolina Kitchen, 1467 W. Irving Park, 312-405-8482
Leghorn

Leghorn, 959 N. Western, 773-394-4444

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