pepperfire-dark While the spice mix at each hot chicken shack is unique, most have roots in the delicious combination pioneered by Prince’s so long ago. Pepperfire Hot Chicken breaks out of this mold — reflecting the nearby progressive, young-urban Five Points neighborhood — while managing to stay true to the premise of Nashville Hot Chicken.

Not all innovations are automatically for the better, though, and Pepperfire ultimately proved to be divisive. While some might find this smokier, darker take on hot chicken alluring, others may be turned off by the heavy use of black pepper. For the latter, this is simply not the hot chicken to seek.

The Chicken: The Differences Are Obvious

In essence, there are just two defining features of Nashville Hot Chicken: 1) A well-fried piece of chicken, 2) covered with a chili+spice paste. As with anything simple, though, the devil is in the details. The process to successfully fry chicken, itself, is shrouded in mystery and superstition. But, the real voodoo — the magic that hot chicken crafters keep under lock and key — is in the chili+spice mixture.

We’ve talked about the importance of the spice mixture to each hot chicken shack before (here and here). While each is unique, Pepperfire’s approach to hot chicken is genuinely different. Based on our extensive sampling and at-home experimentation, we estimate that the base combination of spices in hot chicken is cayenne (or some other, hot chili powder), paprika, and black or white pepper. Pepperfire, as we taste it, adjusts the formula, either replacing at least some of the paprika with smoked paprika or using smoky, chipotle power and upping the amount of black pepper.

Pepperfire's Hot breast quarter on left; Hattie B's Hot breast quarter on right.

Pepperfire’s Hot breast quarter on left; Hattie B’s Hot breast quarter on right.

You notice the difference in Pepperfire’s seasoning immediately. The color of their chicken is darker, more brick red than fire engine; the chili paste dresses a more lightly battered fried chicken. Their heat levels also vary in intensity to other restaurants. Ranging from Light-Mild to XX Hot, Pepperfire’s Medium has similar heat to Prince’s or 400 Degrees’s Medium and Hattie B’s Hot. Their Hot falls just shy of the Hattie B’s Damn Hot. But, because the spice blend is substantially different, the comparisons are not perfect. Those more sensitive to black pepper might be advised to go even milder than usual.

The pieces at Pepperfire seem to run smaller than at other restaurants. They apparently acknowledged this fact in our last visit when they added a chicken strip to our breast plate. But even the small pieces are well-cooked. This is a good sign that they know what they are doing at the fryer, as smaller pieces cook faster and can dry out. The several times that we have dined at Pepperfire, we have yet to have a dry piece of chicken. But, knowing that the pieces are a little smaller, bigger appetites take heed. Diners might consider asking for an additional dark order (which came with two pieces) to share.

The Sides

2014-06-17 19.22.26 Pepperfire offers 6 sides: Fries, Baked Beans, Potato Salad, Collard Greens, Mac and Cheese, and Fried Okra. Most are pretty standard, but the fried okra is a rare option and one that we’d recommend. The greens are mildly seasoned, which some may interpret as bland, and don’t really hold their own against the chicken. But, they are tender and tasty enough to establish the illusion that you are doing something healthy to offset all those fried chicken calories. Crinkle-cut fries are as expected: fried well enough, but nothing inspiring. Of the remaining sides we’ve tried, the macaroni and cheese is the only disappointment, which was slightly chewy in texture.

2014-04-23 20.21.34 Apart from their sides and chicken, Pepperfire offers a few unique menu items. One of their more famed choices is the Peppercheese, a deep-fried, “grilled” cheese sandwich that you can order alone or topped with chicken tenders as the Tender Royale. Pepperfire also has chicken and waffles, covered with apples, regularly available. The only other chicken shack that offers this fiery take on the Southern, soul food classic is Hattie B’s, but they are only available there on Sundays. We haven’t yet tried either of these specialties — perhaps a hot chicken and waffles showdown is in our future!

To extinguish your thirst, Pepperfire, like many other hot chicken places, only sells bottled beverages.

Location

2014-04-23 20.52.59 Pepperfire is one of three hot chicken purveyors located just east of downtown Nashville. It occupies what appears to be an old drive-thru restaurant, with a semi-indoor wooden structure attached for seating in what used to be parking. Charmingly, you can still see the parking lot paint markings on the asphalt floor. Seating is limited to four picnic tables, but the vast majority of patrons appear to get their fix to-go and we’ve never had to wait for a seat here. The problem with this quaint arrangement is that Pepperfire also lacks a public restroom. To partially ameliorate this reality, Pepperfire does include moist towelettes with each order — a gesture more hot chicken restaurants should adopt, washroom or no.

2014-06-17 19.34.18 Pepperfire has roughly a dozen parking spots surrounding the building and one can usually find a place to park without too much effort. Again, this may be due their largely take-out nature. Many clients also seem to walk-in from the various apartment complexes surrounding the area.

Pepperfire is very near a neighborhood that has seen a spike in violent crime of late, but this is not a unique trait among even excellent east Nashville restaurants. We’ve never encountered trouble in the few times that we’ve visited, still, if you think that you might want to take your meal on the go, Pepperfire is currently the only Nashville hot chicken location with on-line ordering — an all-around convenient service.

Come to the Dark Side?

While we have not made our challenge explicitly about ranking the hot chicken restaurants in greater Nashville, comparisons frequently crop up, and we have to say that Pepperfire really has us divided. For one in our regular hot chicken challenge crowd, Pepperfire nearly overthrows Hattie B’s for the crown. Another places Pepperfire in a solid, second place position, winning points for its originality. Others, meanwhile, rank Pepperfire much lower — tepidly receiving Pepperfire’s spice blend as less palatable than any of the other places we’ve tried. Our disagreement is another sign that Pepperfire is genuinely a unique take on hot chicken. So, do we recommend it? We recommend you make a stop and decide for yourself.