Ask for Nashville hot chicken at Big J’s Chicken Shack on Thompson’s Point, and you’ll get more than a cheese biscuit with your order. You’ll also be given a pair of black disposable gloves to wear while you’re eating so you won’t inadvertently rub spices on sensitive areas of your body.

It’s that hot.

“You don’t want someone to go eat a piece and then rub their eye or something,” said chef Rebecca Ambrosi, who helped develop the recipe.

Nashville hot chicken is not just spicy hot, it’s also caught on in a big way. So has traditional Southern-fried chicken. And gigantic fried chicken sandwiches. And fried chicken and waffles.

What is it with the popularity of fried chicken? When I moved to Maine nearly 30 years ago, I missed a lot of the foods of my native South – grits (you couldn’t even find instant grits in the stores here then), pimiento cheese, fried green tomatoes and, yes, really good fried chicken.

Now it appears the South has invaded Yankee kitchens with a vengeance: All those Southern favorites, and more, are in local grocery stores and restaurants. Maybe it’s the renewed interest in regional cooking. Maybe it’s high-end chefs making a U-turn and going down the fast-casual road, looking for more creative freedom and more money.


There’s definitely an increased interest in Southern food and fried chicken,” said Chad Conley, co-owner of the Palace Diner in Biddeford, which serves a fried chicken and flapjacks platter on Thursdays and Fridays, a fried chicken sandwich on Saturdays and Sundays, and hosts Fried Chicken Fridays during summer. “But I think it’s part of the larger trend in food culture, which has been moving away from a focus on fine dining and has been appreciating traditional foods and regional American foods more now than in the past.”

In Portland alone, fried chicken lovers can get their fix at two relatively new spots dedicated to the bird – Big J’s and Figgy’s Takeout at 722B Congress St.

Crown Fried Chicken, a chain based in the Northeast, has a restaurant on Forest Avenue. Hot Suppa on Congress Street specializes in Southern food and has on its menu Nashville Hot Chicken, Fried Chicken & Buttermilk Waffle, a Fried Chicken Sandwich and, for brunch, The Mother Clucker – a fried chicken breast served on a buttermilk biscuit with cheese curds and sausage gravy. (They lost me at cheese curds, but the rest sounds Southern, for sure.)

Dutch’s on Preble Street turns crispy fried chicken thighs into delicious chicken biscuit sandwiches. At the Thistle Pig in South Berwick, the brunch menu lists a Spicy Fried Organic Chicken Sandwich with Heirloom Tomato on Brioche.

In the ultimate sign that Yankee country has surrendered to fried chicken madness, Maine’s first Chick-Fil-A, a fast-food chain based in the Southeast, will open in Bangor on Nov. 3. A second one is expected to open next year in a new Westbrook shopping plaza that was just approved by that city’s planning board.

The resurgence of fried chicken is not just a local phenomenon, though – it’s happening all over the country. Nationally, New York-based food and restaurant consultant Baum + Whiteman predicts this year’s obsession with fried chicken will spill over even more strongly than it already has into breakfast menus.


Indeed, fried chicken and doughnuts are already becoming a match made in cholesterol heaven. Federal Donuts in Philadelphia sells just three things: fried chicken, doughnuts and coffee. Astro Doughnuts in Washington, D.C., serves its honey butter-fried chicken in a doughnut.

The popularity of fried chicken on menus has grown 10 percent over the past 10 years, according to Datassential, a Chicago-based food industry market researcher. But “it’s the increase in different iterations of fried chicken that’s truly fascinating,” according to the firm’s report on new fried chicken restaurants. Chefs are now tinkering with Hawaiian-style and Korean-style fried chicken dishes, for example.

The fried chicken sandwich at the Palace Diner in Biddeford, which also serves chicken and waffles. Fried chicken, once mostly a regional Southern dish, is showing up on menus in Maine at both down-home and fine restaurants. Ayuh, y'all.

The fried chicken sandwich at the Palace Diner in Biddeford, which also serves chicken and waffles. Fried chicken, once mostly a regional Southern dish, is showing up on menus in Maine at both down-home and fine restaurants. Ayuh, y’all.

Greg Mitchell, Conley’s business partner in the Palace Diner, said this deeper exploration of regional ingredients over the past decade has been “due to chefs looking for new ways to set themselves apart.”

“Social media also seems to be part of the equation since it feels like it’s created a more universal culture that isn’t dictated by physical borders,” he said. “You can find inspiration from anywhere and apply it to what you’re doing in your own kitchen without anyone batting an eye.”

Maine chefs are definitely putting their own high-end spin on this Southern classic. Before the Pig and Poet restaurant in Camden closed for the season, fried chicken was served with smashed fingerling potatoes, smoked collard greens, black-eyed pea puree and hot sauce. And Portland’s Grace restaurant, in addition to its cured lamb belly and seared duck breast, makes a cornbread-fried chicken.

Fried chicken has traditionally been one of the most humble of American foods. But today it is like the country cousin who moves to the big city and becomes a Broadway star.


In the South, it is the food of Sunday suppers and summer picnics. When our church had its annual potluck picnic on the grounds of the local penitentiary (no kidding), I’d run from table to table – in between the egg toss and the greased pig chase – looking for the platters of fried chicken cooked up by the ladies. It was always such a nice surprise to discover how many different ways people could make it.

But in all my years living in Memphis and visiting my grandparents in Nashville, I never once heard of Nashville hot chicken, which is smothered in a sauce of lard, cayenne pepper and other spices, and is oh-so-trendy now. I suspected that was because I was a white girl growing up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, and hot chicken probably had its origins in the African-American community. Turns out I was right.

For an incredibly detailed explanation of its origins, check out “How Hot Chicken Really Happened,” an article in the online magazine The Bitter Southerner.

The abbreviated version: The recipe dates back to the 1930s, and involves a cheating man, a vengeful girlfriend and a joint on the east side of Nashville – an area then home mostly to African-Americans – known as Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Eventually, country music stars and other celebrities discovered the hot chicken, and in the last few years its popularity has taken off.

Big J’s Chicken Shack chefs Ambrosi and Frank Anderson experimented for months with the help of a friend from Tennessee to come up with their version of hot chicken. They also serve Portland Hot Chicken, where the spiciness is toned down with honey.

Ambrosi grew up in Chicago, and she and Anderson lived in California before moving to Maine; they didn’t know fried chicken from fried catfish. “That was not a family thing for either of us,” Ambrosi said.

Thirty years is a long time to wait. It was 30 years ago that the Challenger disaster occurred, Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault and Paul Simon released one of my favorite albums, “Graceland.” Even if it took 30 years, I’m so happy my Maine friends are discovering the pleasure of Southern-fried chicken.

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