At the time of publishing this feature, The Fremont Diner was safe and has not sustained any damage in the horrific wildfires that have ravaged Northern California.


We came to Fremont Diner for punishment.

Spicy unforgivable gastronomic punishment. We were in search of authentic Nashville Hot chicken, an often imitated culinary trend that unless genuinely from middle Tennessee, never truly lived up to the name.

Yet there we were, in the heart of California's wine country and nearly three thousand miles away looking for blisteringly hot Nashville chicken. What were we thinking?

It was a long way to go for a meal that may end in disappointment. A meal that could end with sullen looks over a plate of the remnants of a mediocre chicken dish, bones tossed aside and the fixin's barely touched. Traditionally, imitators would slap some sauce on poorly deep fried chicken and call it a trend setter.

We’re looking at you world famous fried chicken chain and your considerably disappointing attempt at Nashville Hot. At least we weren't the only ones to think that.

But distance be damned, it would not deter this food loving gourmand who was destined to get his taste buds sizzled off by an obscenely spiced chicken. Thankfully there was a glimmer of hope that we would not be left wanting at Fremont Diner.

We won’t regurgitate the entire history of Nashville’s hottest food craze when it is just as easy to learn about the spicy fried chicken movement that started seventy years ago at Prince’s Hot Chicken from the reviews and ramblings of notable folks and bloggers alike, all braving the heat of true Nashville Hot.

But that is indeed where this monster meal started.

Princes Hot Chicken in Nashville, Tennessee
Princes in Nashville - PHOTO by Eric Gibson // EDITED by Kevin Rodriquez

Prince's Hot Chicken lives in an unassuming storefront in a just as unassuming shopping strip neatly outside of Nashville's metro area. Only a small sign beckons the adventurous into the original. It was just after eleven, barely twenty minutes after Prince's opened, and the line was already backed against the door.

Inside the limited booths lining the outer walls were already filled by eager folks waiting for their order numbers to be called. The earliest arrivals had already bellied up to their snacks with napkins at the ready and hesitantly poked and prodded at the nuclear deep-red yard bird in front of them.

A boy and his father were trying to make their way through their chicken while onlookers in line snaked past.

"Don't get medium!" the boy said once he noticed us looking warily at the ferociously colored fowl in their styrofoam take out boxes. His cheeks were flushed and sweat was starting to bead on his forehead as he tried to make progress through a breast quarter.

We exchanged looks. Mine was excited, my copilot looked skeptical. Or was it worried? We continued forward eventually easing up to the small window at the back of the chicken shack. A lone lady, the cashier, poked her head through while a flurry of fryers and batter and chicken making went on behind her.

The pressure was on. Up until then I had flip flopped between staying safe or going full tilt. This was Prince's. The original! The hottest!?

“One medium dark meat and one breast quarter as hot as we can get it please.”

A scoff and a reply, "You sure about that?" Nodding we took our number and made our way to the back.

Again we passed the father and son duo. The boy had given up, a napkin crumpled and stained red next to his half eaten piece of chicken. His glasses were thrown to the side and his cheeks were flushed. His father, sweat also dripping down his face, said that compared to other hot chicken, this was the most ferocious.

Before and after at Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville
Before and after the medium at Prince's in Nasvhille

"I've tried Hattie B's and their medium is more manageable." he said calling mention to one of Nashville's other Hot chicken joints. He wiped sweat from his face. "I'm gonna go put my mouth on an air-conditioner."

Swiftly our number was called and I brought the boxes to our booth where we warily opened them.

Nashville Hot isn't simply chicken drenched in a spicy sauce. No dripping mess here, the chicken with the exception of the grease, is sauceless.

The process is secret, but here it is broken down by a different Nashville chicken institution. Simply put, hot spices and hot oil equals Hot chicken. Simple, yet deceptively not, and definitely not bland. Despite the punch in the face that erupts out of the box with the initial sniff there is a subtle amazing flavor behind all that volcanic anger. That anger was where the charm of Nashville Hot Chicken came from.

Oh and it was hot.

The medium packed a more potent punch than the spice averse would dare to dabble in yet its flavor promised that each bite would be worth the pain. Juices would erupt from the perfectly cooked bird and slide down cheeks and jaws or onto the unfortunate piece of white bread that rested beneath the fowl.

In many spicy food cases the bread’s sole purpose is to cool the inferno, to help bring the adventurer back to the realm of feeling one’s face. Not our valiant hero. Our slice of bread sat there bravely collecting all the flavors and smells and torturous spices until we were ready to give it a go. There was no respite with this bread. It would often be hotter than the chicken.

The extra hot at Prince's was a different beast. It gleefully caused pain, sent steam shooting out of noses and ears and threatened with every bite to remind why being an adventurous eater was a foolish game. But there, at the end of each bite before a second sucker punch of heat would hit, was that flavor. That amazing, indescribably savory flavor.

The game was set and I was hooked. I needed more.

View of the Fremont Diner in Sonoma, California with their authentic Nashville Hot Chicken
Fremont Diner, Sonoma California - PHOTO by Eric Gibson // EDITED by Kevin Rodriquez

The gravel crunched beneath the tires as we wheeled into a parking spot outside of Fremont Diner in Sonoma.

It didn't look like much, almost like a fruit stand on the side of a country road. An old truck was staged out front beneath a vintage sign, and the old screen door leading to the hostess stand slammed like an old farmhouse porch. It was perfection.

The little charming roadside stop had only been Fremont Diner since owner Chad Harris took over in 2009. Before that it was an equally famous burger stop called Babe's Burgers & Hot Dogs.

Following the heels of the immense following that Babe’s left behind, the former caterer-turned-restaurateur turned the tiny place that originally only sat twenty five into a trendy upscale roadside stop. Since then after several expansion and menu changes, Fremont Diner has continued the tradition that Babe’s left behind in amassing rewards and renown year after year. And the diners keep coming.

The inside of Fremont Diner was quaint. Literally. The decor mostly old tins, and pictures, with vintage farm chic covering the walls. There was an old photo booth out front, an old wooden Coke machine, and every inch of the walls were plastered with antiques. The tables, the few that were inside, looked straight out of a southern grandmother's home and the uniform on the staff was all denim and flannel.

The kitchen was open and there was a flurry of activity to match the authentic aromas that flooded into the dining areas. I took it all in but truly only came for one thing. The charm was definitely winning me over, but I had to taste the chicken.

My mind was made up, my order was placed, and we waited.

 

Molton red Nasvhille Hot chicken.
Authentic Nashville Hot from Fremont Diner // PHOTO by Eric Gibson - EDITED by Kevin Rodriquez

 

Before leaving Tennessee we had to try the “other” Hot chicken place, Hattie B's.

Controversially speaking, Prince's and Hattie B's are the best. The two sit at the top of all the lists and posts and reviews, and are raved about all over social media. They have giant fan bases with passionate fans that root for both sides. It’s Hot chicken politics.

So the only way we knew to truly determine the best for ourselves was to make our way to one of the two Hattie B's locations in Nashville in search of culinary pain once again.

The line to get into Hattie B's wound itself out the door, around the corner and into the parking lot. Perhaps we had chose right? Of course we visited at dinner time on a Friday night in the middle of summer, but that didn't make a difference according to those that were waiting in line. No, Hattie B's was busy all the time.

Hattie B's is not Prince's. Inside is full of tables and booths and large counter beneath a considerably more in depth menu. There are sides and beers and desserts while at Prince's there was simply hunks of dark meat or white meat and which degree of pain to endure. Hattie B’s felt more like a barbeque joint. A barbeque joint that served up chicken tenders of torture.

The chicken was indeed hot at Hattie B's. Very hot. It was so hot it caused hiccups. It was so hot it cured those hiccups and then gave hiccups all over again.

We picked the hottest they made, lovingly called "Shut the Cluck Up." Inside the box, like before, were the crimson pieces of chicken atop a thick piece of white bread. With the exception of the truly unphased, Hattie B's could only able to be eaten one chicken tender at a time with long rests in between. For us normal spice lovers it was a marathon food.

We chilled the left overs but the cold refrigerator didn't tame the spice, only angered it.

We chopped up a leftover chicken tender and mixed it into an omelette. Again pain. No breakfast food should make eyes water and noses run like our homemade Hattie B’s Hot omelette. We tried to hide it into fried rice but even then we were punished with a dish akin to the hottest Thai could throw at us.

Hands down, Hattie B's was the hottest of the Nashville Hot chicken we had ever tried, and it kept reminding us for many days afterwards.

Comparisons of the two were hard. Hattie B's flavor didn’t compare to that of the original. Prince's won that round with a taste so complex and delicious the spice wasn't a deterrent but an enhancement, like they were made to be together. Hattie B's however, while still delicious, was unashamed with its heat and made heroes out of men if the heat could be conquered.

Even after three thousand miles, we would remember the heat from Hattie B’s.

 

Inside of Fremont Diner in Sonoma, California
Flurry of activity in the Fremont Diner kitchen. Sonoma, California // PHOTO by Eric Gibson - EDITED by Kevin Rodriquez

When our food arrived at Fremont Diner we were famished.

I wanted to exclaim. The color was there. A deep volcano-y red that threatened to peel the fingerprints off both hands. The smell was there. Causing the tiny hairs in my nostrils to raise up pickets and begin a protest. My mouth watered.

It was Nashville Hot, taunting me to take a bite while I sat among the grape lined hills of the Sonoma valley.

The menu calls it Nashville Style Chicken. In true tradition it comes slapped over a piece of white bread or, a Fremont specialty, atop a giant belgian waffle. On the side we chose mac and cheese. Thick, creamy mac and cheese.

Owner Harris got his inspiration from Prince’s back east and it showed. Whether it was inspiration or divine culinary intervention, what sat before me was the real deal. Reports say that Fremont Diner’s chicken is coated with a cayenne and lard mixture which makes it fry up extra crispy but whatever the spices were, the mix was practically a dead ringer for the real thing.

Unfortunately the heat wasn’t close to the original. It was hot, but not the blistering face melting heat of true Hot. Here, with patrons unaccustomed to the burn, that is very understandable. With the recent rise and fall of the Nashville Hot trend luring adventurous food types to try the chicken, being so far from the epicenter makes using the full blast of heat a risky dish to serve.

Thankfully for us that know and love the pain, Fremont Diner is just enough to ease the craving until our boots land us back in the Music City.