This week, I ventured out to Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish at 3202 Brainerd Road to try the only official Nashville-style hot chicken available in Chattanooga. It was a solo trek, in part because I happened to be in the area at the time, but also because this particular style of dangerously nuclear chicken can be too much for some people to handle. But if you want to call yourself a true Tennessean, hot chicken is a sort of rite of passage—on par with Jack Daniel's—that is an essential part of our heritage.
Bolton's is located near the former Comedy Catch in the Brainerd corridor. The business has only been open for 18 days. With all the great fried chicken in Chattanooga—Champy's, Public House and even the ghost pepper variety at The Flying Squirrel—nothing really compares to what Bolton's has to offer.
Having read several early criticisms online about long wait times—everything is cooked to order—I decided that 3 p.m. on a Wednesday would be as good a time as any to try my luck. I was right. Only a few customers were dining when I visited.
I was surprised at the amount of space at the Chattanooga location. All the tables—in both the main room and the side room—were still decorated with tablecloths and roses from Valentine's Day. The back room had a stage and mural, along with a makeshift throne for photo opportunities if you survive the hot chicken challenge.
I was greeted as I walked in the door and checked out the menu. It may have been due to the off-hour that I visited, but the staff seemed relaxed and friendly. There is no liquor or wine (yet), but guests can choose a canned soda, beer or water from the cooler to drink. Trust me, you'll need it if you order anything above "light mild."
Bolton's in Nashville is much more limited in space and décor than Chattanooga's version. I expected a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, but the tables, bar and decorations were a pleasant surprise. The owners obviously aren't testing to see if Chattanooga will embrace them in the space; they are here to stay.
For a great overview of how Nashville hot chicken emerged from the city's black communities into an international delicacy, check out this article from Bitter Southerner. The epicenter can be traced back to the legendary Prince's Hot Chicken, then later to places such as Bolton's, Hattie B's and Pepperfire. I've personally had the latter three varieties on visits to the Music City, but I've never waited in the sometimes ridiculously long lines for Prince's, which many consider to be THE quintessential hot chicken.
Bolton's Chattanooga is a sister of the original Bolton's. The menu offers chicken sandwiches, breast and leg plates, whole wings, and both whiting and catfish. There's a slew of side dishes as well, but the star of the show is the chicken. The "wall of flame" is a large chalkboard with the levels of heat you can order, everything from nonspicy to extra-hot, which may, in all seriousness, result in a trip to the hospital for treatment. I made the (tasty) mistake of ordering medium heat in Nashville once, and I couldn't feel my face for hours. This is your warning.
I went with the leg quarter plate ($8) with sides of green beans and macaroni and cheese. My heat level was mild, and it was still much spicier than the word would suggest. I'm not a wuss when it comes to heat, but hot chicken—especially Bolton's—is not the best outlet to display your bravery. You will lose. I asked my server how the cook determines the heat—if they, say, "measure it out for each dish?"—and she laughed out loud. Apparently, the heat scale is determined by a shake of the spice by hand. What is "mild" today may not be the same "mild" as tomorrow. So your best bet is to err on the side of caution.
The plate arrived with a few slices of white bread. A hungrier person might look at the plate and think, "I need more food," but spice has a tendency to slow down the meal, at least for me. And to be honest, I'm not sure if the chicken was even that special—but something about that lingering, jarring heat was both painful and addictive. I'm pretty sure I could handle a medium level of heat, but it might've left me struggling for the rest of the day. Whether that "spice high" is worth it to you is your own decision to make.
I found the macaroni and cheese to be delicious and creamy. It was definitely a soul food variety with plenty of cheese and flavor. The green beans were just average.
Overall, I am thrilled Bolton's has ventured down to Chattanooga. And although my Favorite Fried Chicken Award still goes to The Flying Squirrel and the spicy Burt's fried chicken dish, at Bolton's, you're eating both spice and history.
Would I go back?
As I'm writing this—the morning after—I find myself craving the spicy flavor. Is it sadistic to want your food to hurt a little bit? Apparently, I'm not alone in my addiction. Thousands of Nashville natives flock (no pun) to their favorite hot chicken places on a regular basis. I'm not even sure if the chicken itself is exceptionally good, but there's something strangely alluring about food that, as the Bitter Southerner article above says, "is so spicy that you shouldn't be seen in public." The real question is whether Chattanooga will share the enthusiasm for hot chicken that Nashville does. I think we'll come around.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.