Nashville hot chicken sandwich from Corner Chicken, at 'XXX' spice level
Coronavirus isn’t the only thing going around. Nashville hot chicken is really catching on in San Diego. Years after conquering Los Angeles, the spicy take on fried chicken has been showing up all over town the past year or so, both in established eateries and new restaurants dedicated to hot fowl, such as Firebirds in City Heights, Dave’s Hot Chicken in Pacific Beach, and Liberty Chik in Liberty Station.
721 Ninth Ave STE 1, San Diego
Down in the East Village, it’s found a home at Corner Chicken. The new property was launched in June by Sam Morikizono, the guy behind Tajima ramen, which now operates six locations in San Diego, plus one in Tijuana.
I showed up to Corner Chicken already being a big fan of Tajima ramens, and pretty much every item on Tajima menus, from tempura brussels sprouts to spicy salmon sushi bowls. So I already know how Morikizono’s team handles Japanese-style fried chicken, karaage, but Southern fried chicken is a different beast.
Corner Chicken, opened by the owner of Tajima, in East Village
In at least one sense, Corner Chicken inherently outdoes the majority of fried chicken joints both here and elsewhere, before it fries a single wing. The place only serves chicken that has been raised hormone- and antibiotic-free. That satisfies my interest in eating naturally raised — versus factory farmed — birds. That the chickens going into these deep fryers were raised cage-free at least frees me to imagine the fowl had a good life before appearing on my plate.
'Naked' chicken tenders, with regular fried chicken spice
The menu here is simple: every chicken order costs about $8. Your choices are chicken wings, drumsticks, or tenders, or a Nashville hot chicken sandwich. Whichever you choose, the level of spice is up to you, and like many hot chicken spots, Corner Chicken offers quirky names for each level of spice.
Naked chicken gets you virtually no spice: just the standard salt, pepper, and paprika fried chicken blend. Next up is the mildly spiced “Feelin It”; a little hotter is “It’s Lit,” while the penultimate spice level is “Flamin’ Hot.” In each case, the fried chicken pieces get a little redder with the added chili spices.
The 'Feelin it,' mildly spicy chicken wing and drumstick
The eight-year-old eating dinner with me wanted to know how this Flamin’ Hot compared to his favorite Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Just a bit hotter, it turns out, though the Cheetos does leave more red stain on his fingers than the hot bird.
Several of us split a selection of wings and tenders covering every spice level, but I was left to tackle the hot chicken sandwich myself. That’s because I ordered it XXX: the hottest level available. The sandwich itself comes on a brioche bun with kale slaw and pickle, and the triple-X treatment gives the boneless chicken breast topping it a rich burgundy, nearly purple hue.
'Flamin' hot' chicken tenders — slightly hotter than Cheetos of the same name
Whereas the naked chicken was mild to the point of blandness, the triple-X took me just above the level of spice I’m comfortable with; which is to say exactly as hot as I’d hoped it would be. Because hot chicken’s most fun when it makes you suffer just a little bit.
For those keeping count, I found the XXX to have slightly more burn than the Firebirds ‘Daredevil’ spice, but not as hot as the ‘Reaper’ of Dave’s Hot Chicken. If Nashville-style chicken stays hot in San Diego, I’m hoping it gets even hotter.