BRINGING THE HEAT Fremont Diner’s signature dish is ‘so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.’ But don’t let that scare you.
When it comes to food, everyone has a bit of the Southerner in them. That's because the food of the South—barbecue, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, dry-cured ham—is so darn good and it elicits memories of meals gone by and strong opinions about how to cook it right.
I'm a Southerner by birth, but raised in California. My parents moved west from Virginia when I was two. I also spent two formative years in Austin, Texas.
My mom used to live in Walnut Creek, but recently moved to Granite Bay near Sacramento, so I don't see her as much anymore. We've taken to meeting for lunch once a month or so. She's retired and willing to drive a bit, so we meet at the Fremont Diner, a superb outpost of Southern cooking on the outskirts of Sonoma.
Food is a big topic between us, and the Fremont Diner allows us to catch up while critiquing the quality of the beans, the smokiness of the barbecue, the strength of the iced tea and other important details. But now all I want to talk about is the Nashville chicken.
I've been going to the Fremont Diner for years, but somehow I just ordered the chicken for the first time last week and, hot damn, it's my new favorite thing. We're not talking fried chicken. The skin is crisp, but it's not battered. It doesn't start out overly spicy, but it builds over time. Hot chicken juices commingle with chile pepper heat to create an explosion of fiery flavor. Cold beer is an essential accompaniment.
Fremont Diner owner Chad Harris won't reveal the recipe, but he gave me a few hints. The chicken is brined, not marinated in buttermilk. And it's very light on the breading. "It's more of a dredge," Harris says.
The chicken is rolled in a spiced flour mixture and then fried. After frying, it's dunked in a chile oil bath. That accounts for its beautiful deep, dark-red color.
Harris got his inspiration from the "hot chicken" at Prince's Chicken Shack in Nashville. the much-imitated originator of the minimally battered but maximally flavored fried bird.
The story behind the celebrated dish, as described in a great article in the online journal Bitter Southerner, began in the 1930s with a ladies' man by the name of Thornton Prince and one of his lady friends who served him a spicy plate of chicken as a form of revenge for his cheating ways. It backfired. Prince loved the chicken and in time opened a restaurant featuring the spicy bird, and it became a regional hit.
While the chicken was confined to Nashville's black community for decades, white folks like Harris discovered it, and now the word is it out.
"It's a thing now," he says.
In a nod to the chicken's philandering roots, Fremont Diner's menu descriptions says it's "so hot it'll set a cheatin' man straight." The restaurant serves theirs on a single slice of white bread in an ode to tradition. The bread gets stained a ruddy red from the chicken drippings. Of course you should eat it.
The housemade pickles on the side help temper the heat. The dish is served with a choice of mac 'n' cheese or a waffle. Go for the waffle and celebrate your inner Southerner.