As the spaces inside the LBX Hangar fill up, the buzz surrounding the opening of Jay Bird’s Nashville Hot Chicken is the loudest yet.
Fried chicken is one of those polarizing subjects in which everyone has their own idea of what’s best. Though Long Beach is already home to several standard bearers—including Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, and Johnny Rebs’ True South Restaurant—there aren’t a lot of options for Nashville hot chicken, specifically.
But at Jay Bird’s, Nashville hot chicken (fried bird doused in hot sauce) is all it does. In addition to a selection of sauce choices and a few sides, the menu offers six fried-chicken dishes—half a bird, white or dark meat only, a waffle combo, tenders, and a sandwich. That’s it.
Executive chef Jay Bogsinske (formerly of Saint Marc in Pacific City) not only masterminded the menu, but also lent his likeness to a caricature muraled on the wall. But this isn’t your average mom-and-pop place—Jay Bird’s is the latest addition to the Wild Thyme Restaurant Group, a corporation that, although touting several of its concepts as “home grown,” manages nearly 20 eateries across several West Coast states and beyond.
Since opening, Jay Bird’s social-media posts have announced it must close for the day when the food runs out. So when it opens at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, there’s already a line 12 people deep. Within minutes, the line doubles and starts snaking around the Hangar’s food-court space. Maybe it’s an ingenious marketing strategy, but the staff maneuvering the small-ish open kitchen, with Bogsinske deep in the trenches with them, are hustling. Watching this makes wiping out the inventory seem plausible.
Good fried chicken takes time and love. But after waiting in line for about 20 minutes, with another 20 to go before actually receiving food, the folks behind me began to grumble, scoffing at the prices. The chicken sandwich, with no sides, is $13. Three chicken tenders, dubbed “big,” are $11.50.
But this isn’t cheap, drive-thru chicken. The poultry here are hormone- and cage-free and all natural, and they are fried in 100 percent peanut oil. For each item, guests can pick from among five heat levels, starting at Plain Jay (no heat) on up to Fire, which warns, “This will get you to the promised land!”
At the time of my visit, only about half of the menu was available: the chicken sandwich, chicken-and-waffles combo, chicken tenders, and sides.
The chicken-and-waffles combo comes with fried tenders, two mini-waffles, a cup of maple syrup and a few sweet pickles (which were excellent). The chicken is juicy and has a thin coating of crispy batter, with some scraggly edges for a satisfying, shattering bite. I ordered mine medium (the middle heat level), and it was mouth-tinglingly fiery. But as crunchy as the outer texture was and as tender as it was inside, the chicken begged for more seasoning. A quick shower of seasoned salt to finish it off would’ve been perfect. Tip: Eat the waffles first, or they’ll get soggy.
The chicken sandwich, probably the fattest chicken breast I’ve ever been served, comes on a soft roll with coleslaw, those same amazing sweet pickles and “comeback sauce,” which is a savory, mayo-based smear. The dish is massive and very messy. I got this one in hot, the penultimate heat level, and that was my personal mistake. It was all heat, completely incinerating any other layer of flavor in the sandwich, including that delicate comeback sauce.
Unless I’m double-dog-dared, I’m not attempting Fire level.
Jay Bird’s Nashville Hot Chicken, 4150 McGowen St., Long Beach; www.jaybirdschicken.com.