My first hot chicken experience was at the newcomer in town, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. This spot was HOT. Located just down the street from Pepperdine University, this restaurant was clearly a tourist and local favorite. The line stretched out the door and the wait was over an hour long, leaving a long time for me to wonder, “Could it be that good?” I hate lines, but waited anyways because I HAD to try this local favorite. It was worth the wait and did not disappoint. The customer service was top notch, the cashier coached us on the varying heat levels, and the food came out piping hot in about 20 minutes. My first bite could only be ruled as deliciously spicy. It was unlike any fried chicken I’d ever had. I tasted the crunchy crust first, followed by the juicy chicken. Both winners. The heat came in at the very end and grew stronger with each bite. It was an incredible experience and I was immediately hooked.
After Hattie B’s, I visited Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (the original), followed by Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish (started by a former Prince’s employee) and neither spot disappointed. Prince’s was the clear winner for me, as their chicken had this old-school feel to it that was full of character. Each spot had its own unique flavor, but all with a common theme: slow burn, crunchy and juicy fried chicken. I knew Chicago needed this.
I returned home from Nashville and immediately began my research and development into cooking hot chicken. First and foremost, the dish starts with juicy fried chicken. Similar to BBQ, fried chicken is simple, old-fashioned comfort food, leading one to believe it’s easy to make. However, just like BBQ, it has a depth and technique that can only be mastered through trial and error. I hosted many different chicken labs, inviting chefs, family and friends to fried chicken tastings, taking notes on their thoughts along the way. I literally cooked and ate fried chicken for 60 days straight. Every. Single. Day.
The research to create the perfect hot chicken was intense. I tried everything to find a method that I liked, from using wet batter, to dry flour, different seasonings and oils, varying temperatures, deep frying vs. pan frying, dry brine vs. wet brine, different cuts of chicken and more until we finally stumbled upon a technique that really blew our minds and taste buds.
After the fried chicken was perfected, we began to work on the “hot” flavor. All Nashville Hot Chicken is traditionally made “hot” with cayenne pepper bloomed in oil. From there, you then decide what other spices to add and if you want a wet or dry“hot”. I tried about 25 different ways to make the chicken hot, including making a few more pilgrimages to Nashville to take notes about what I liked and didn’t like in the various versions.
After about a full year of research and development, I made what I considered the best hot chicken I’d ever had. Along the way, I signed a lease on a store in Lincoln Square, where I live with my family, to begin sharing my delicious discovery. However, we still needed a name for this vehicle of hot chicken goodness.
The name of the restaurant is an ode to The Budlong family farm, founded by Lyman and Joseph Budlong in 1857 on roughly 500 acres of sandy-soil. The land is now modern-day Lincoln Square. The sandy soil was the perfect environment for growing root vegetables, such as cucumbers and beets, and became the main product of the family farm. The family also had a pickle company, The Budlong Pickle Co., and sold jars of pickled vegetables from the farm. How does this family and their pickles relate to our fried chicken, you ask? Along with classic white bread, every order of Nashville Hot Chicken is served with a few slices of heat-softening pickles, much like those sold on The Budlong farm. Hence, The Budlong Hot Chicken was born, and will forever be.
Written by Jared Leonard