Clyde’s Hot Chicken Brings the Nashville-Style Bird to Orange County

Photo by Edwin Goei

Behind America’s most iconic foodstuffs are often origin stories that somehow involve some sort of improvisation leading to their discoveries. The first batch of nachos was improvised by a maître d’ named Ignacio at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, when a bunch of U.S. military wives showed up after the restaurant had just closed. Buffalo wings were improvised by Teressa Bellissimo of the Anchor Bar when her son’s hungry friends showed up late one night and all there was to cook were wings, which, at the time, were only fit for the stockpot.

But the story behind the creation of Nashville hot chicken is remarkably different. It was actually made on purpose. Legend has it that a handsome gent named Thornton Prince, who was known for his womanizing, was out too late one Saturday night in the 1930s. The next day, his angry girlfriend spiked his fried chicken with an excessive amount of cayenne as punishment. But rather than choking on it, Prince liked the dish. In fact, he shared it with his friends and eventually opened Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The Nashville institution is now recognized as ground zero for the current craze of hot chicken sweeping the country.

In LA, the wait at Howlin Ray’s can last up to five hours. But in Orange County, hot chicken is usually hidden in random menu specials. Enter the new Clyde’s Hot Chicken in Fullerton. Although it’s not the first attempt at a hot chicken restaurant in these parts, it may be the one that sticks. Clyde’s has all the markings of a fast-casual that eventually wants to franchise. The attractive twentysomethings employed as cashiers wear uniforms that say “Hot As Cluck,” and the menu design on the LCD screens has a slick corporate polish that looks as if it were conceived by that other chicken franchise named after a state.

If you want the hot chicken served as close to how it’s offered at Prince’s—on top of sliced white bread and garnished with pickles—Clyde’s offers breast strips but no other parts. The preparation does, however, remain faithful to the original recipe: Take Southern fried chicken, then apply to it a sauce made from one part melted lard and three parts cayenne pepper.

This sauce defines Nashville hot chicken. And Clyde’s strips—along with its wings and chicken sandwiches—can be had in four heat levels ranging from “Naked” to “1930,” a nod to the incident that started it all.

It’s been reported that a “medium” at Prince’s is equivalent to “hot” everywhere else. But at Clyde’s, even the normal heat level burns you on three fronts. It first hits the tongue, then moves on to your nasal passageways and throat. At some point, it may feel as though you inhaled cayenne pepper dust. But a split second before you start coughing, the pleasure centers of your brain release the endorphins that make you want to take a second bite. You go to hell and back in the span of a minute.

Photo by Edwin Goei

While the sauce is wonderful, the strips themselves tend to suffer the same fate as all fast-food breast meat: they’re dry. Clyde’s has not yet figured out how to make them as juicy as the ones at Raising Cane’s. The flaw is less noticeable when you eat the strips inside a sandwich, where it’s helped by coleslaw, pickles and a toasted brioche bun.

If you want something healthier, a juicier piece of chicken breast can be found in Clyde’s grilled version of the sandwich. Its heat level can also be adjusted. When you opt for any of the sandwiches, you should skip the slaw for a side; there’s already plenty of it tucked between the buns. You should also know that the crinkle fries are indistinguishable from Del Taco’s and the waffles get soggy quickly. But the mac salad is well-seasoned with the telltale yellow tint and flavor of turmeric.

The best thing to eat at Clyde’s may be the chicken wings, which are sold in multiples of six and taste like the poultry bastard child of Buffalo and Nashville’s most iconic foods. The only thing missing is an origin story. At Clyde’s, it’s not from a lack of trying.

On the business’ website, under the heading “Our Story,” there’s a grainy black-and-white picture of a man in overalls tending to a flock of chickens that’s titled “The Man. The Myth. The Legend,” with a sentence underneath that simply reads, “The man that started it all.” If there’s no further detail offered by the owners, it’s probably because they know no story can beat the original, which shows that necessity isn’t always the mother of invention; sometimes, it’s a woman scorned.

Clyde’s Hot Chicken, 513 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 519-3707; www.clydeshotchicken.com. Open daily, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Meals, $4.99-$10.99. No alcohol.

Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.

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