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Fried Chicken Bender (Pt. 5): Hot Chicken Takeover

Hot Chicken Takeover, now occupying the second floor of Columbus'
North Market has become something of a local phenomenon since
it started as a mere idea for a pop-up restaurant in late 2013
Like Northeast Ohio's Barberton Fried Chicken, a Serbian variant on this ubiquitous dish as described in an earlier blog post on White House Chicken, the origin of Nashville's hot variant of this dish has an equally lengthy history dating back to the 1930s. Perhaps reflective of the dish itself, the history is a much more fiery one to boot.

As the legend goes, in the 1930's, notorious ladies' man Thornton Prince was met at home by his woman, who was none too pleased with his evening's female-oriented activities. She doctored up his usual fried chicken meal the next morning with an ungodly amount of spice as an act of revenge; unfortunately for her, Prince actually loved the dish. Shortly thereafter, Prince turned this dish into what would eventually become Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, the original purveyor of what has become Nashville's signature dish and the latest and greatest thing in many cities around the country.

The latter has certainly been the case here in Columbus. In fact, you might even call it a takeover of sorts in this area, as the folks at Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT) have turned this flaming creation into a local phenomenon of long lines, community giving and critical acclaim, including Columbus Alive's designation as Best Restaurant in its 2015 Readers Poll.

In many ways, owner Joe DeLoss' brainstorm of an eatery has led a charmed life. From its origins as a mere idea after a Nashville-area visit in late 2013, DeLoss created a somewhat unconventional weekend pop-up restaurant in one of Columbus' still emerging neighborhoods in Olde Towne East. Hallmarks of this pop-up involved, among other things, a pre-ordering of your meal via event tickets, free beverages (both water and their Ma's Sweet Tea,) community-styled seating that encouraged interaction between strangers, and a community support component (including an emphasis on hiring those who have traditionally had problems getting work and a program where tips are put toward HCT employee benefits.)

The buzz created from their operation led to a temporarily temporary/now permanent second floor space at Columbus' destination North Market, followed by a successful crowdfunding campaign for a food truck. With that truck, HCT has been taking its wares to various local events (including Columbus Crew games) and on a summer "tour" of Columbus' community stops (as determined by a popular vote campaign), including their original "home" neighborhood of Olde Towne East.

While HCT has adapted to its North Market brick-and-mortar location,
the base model that emerged from its pop-up days has stayed in tact
The HCT formula was tweaked over time at their original pop-up (the ticketing system went by the wayside, replaced by a more standard payment system and a social media-based notification system on what chicken was left for ordering) but the eventual end product is more or less what one will find at their North Market brick-and-mortar location. Lines at the usual busy times are commonplace but the queue typically goes fairly fast. Meanwhile, long bench seating duplicates the community-style dine-in experience of the pop-up restaurant, and a chalkboard keeps updated "what's left" chicken piece numbers for visitors. Containers of Ma's Sweet Tea, Water, and a table of various condiments are found just past the ordering area.

HCT's fried chicken mirrors the typical preparation (basically, chicken is brined, double-fried and rubbed with a cayenne-based paste) and service (the chicken comes with pickles and basic white bread) of its Nashville poultry cousin. The ordering has remained much the same as its pop-up location: the diner chooses the type of chicken (wings, drumsticks, white, dark, boneless or a sandwich) and the spice level (cold, warm, hot and holy (aka extremely hot)). All orders come with mac 'n cheese or cole slaw by default, though you can decline the sides and pay less. Extra pieces and/or sides (such as waffles) can also be ordered, and a kid's meal is also available. Banana pudding is available as a sweet treat for the end of the meal, and Boylan's Cola is available for folks who aren't into their sweet tea.

From the Top Left: HCT's base model dark meat combo (holy spice
level); a peek inside their sandwich; free beverages include
water and Ma's Sweet Tea
As spicy food lovers, we had heard about Nashville hot chicken before HCT's establishment, and we were more than eager to try their "holy" level chicken, but for our first visit we wanted to come in at one level below that to get an idea of what we were in for and settled for "hot." My spouse is a dark meat lover and went for their dark thigh and leg combo, while I decided to try out their sandwich.

No complaints from either of us here for either of our dishes: both had a nice kick from the cayenne, and chicken itself had a nicely crunchy exterior and juicy meat interior. As for our sides, the Ma's Mac was appropriately cheesy and gooey (sandwich orderers get double the mac 'n cheese, as the slaw goes onto the sandwich), and we both appreciated the tangy, non-mayo-based slaw. The sweet tea also seems to hit the right spot, coming just underneath a level that would be considered cloying by our standards.

Our later dive into the "holy" level for us was undertaken with the same order for my spouse (the dark thigh and leg combo) while I went with the white bone-in breast chicken. If nothing else, it demonstrated to me two things, one of which I knew and one of which was slightly unexpected. First, our spice tolerances have increased: the heat burn (a warming but not uncomfortable sensation) from the chicken was felt outside on the lips and chin rather than inside our mouths.

Secondly, I figured out I didn't need to the hottest level to enjoy HCT's chicken - this was still as juicy and crispy as the hot level, and I'm sure the "cold" level chicken (which I would not mind trying in the future) will be equally as tasty and juicy despite the lack of spice. My spouse, on the other hand, loved this spice level, and will have no problems keeping the "holy" level as her default on our future visits.

Hot Chicken Takeover
North Market. 2nd Floor
59 Spruce St. (Arena District)
Columbus, OH 43215
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