Can You Take the Heat in the Bay Area’s Nashville Hot Chicken Movement?

The medium-heat chicken sandwich at World Famous HotBoys (Grace Cheung/KQED)

At World Famous HotBoys, I once felt the sweat beading on my forehead just from watching someone eat their “hot”-level fried chicken sandwich. To personally consume a “hella hot” sandwich would mean giving the world my best impression of an erupting volcano.

Some people just love the burn; I’m not one of them.

The style of spicy fried chicken HotBoys delivers is directly inspired by Nashville hot chicken. The chicken meat is marinated in a water-blend of seasoning, floured, fried and sauced using a paste spiced with cayenne pepper. “Things like how you spice the chicken vary,” explains HotBoys co-owner Victor Ghaben. “The type of peppers vary but the flavor profile outside the peppers does not.”

The family behind Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, the birthplace of Nashville hot chicken, has converted many diners to their fiery chicken — they even inspired Yo La Tengo to write three entire songs about the dish (“Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1),” “Don’t Say a Word (Hot Chicken #2),” and “Return to Hot Chicken”). The annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival started in 2007, celebrating the city’s unique treat. Restaurateurs fell in love with Nashville hot chicken and spread the spicy gospel; the dish (or a variation of it) can be found all over the U.S.

In May, the Los Angeles Times ran the story “Nashville hot chicken is taking over Los Angeles,” pointing to over two dozen hot chicken joints opening in just the past three years. Bigger brands like Tyson and KFC have jumped on the bandwagon, offering their own versions of the Nashville hot chicken in restaurants and grocery stores.

Bay Area comes in (s)winging with new hot fried chicken spots

HotBoys isn’t the first to bring Nashville hot chicken to the temperate city by the bay, and it’s hard to say who was. Hard Water, opened by Charles Phan of Slanted Door, was one of the earlier adopters. According to the restaurant’s spokesperson, “Hard Water opened in March 2013. We put Nashville style chicken on the menu maybe about a year after the opening.”

WesBurger 'N' More’s hot chicken sandwich debuted in 2014.
WesBurger 'N' More’s hot chicken sandwich debuted in 2014. (Grace Cheung/KQED)

WesBurger 'N' More’s owner Wes Rowe dabbled with hot chicken while managing his successful burger pop-ups. “I started making Nashville hot chicken at the pop-up in 2014 and it was a huge hit,” he says. It’s also one of his personal favorite styles of fried chicken. When his brick and mortar in the Mission officially opened in April 2016, hot chicken earned a spot on the menu. “It is the number two best-selling item and the number one best-selling item in delivery orders,” Rowe says.

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And what about The Bird, one of San Francisco’s premiere fried chicken sandwich destinations? Though their spicy fried chicken is similar, it’s not true to the style of Nashville hot chicken. Their gluten-free, berbere-spiced batter is closer to East African hot chicken.

In 2019 we can now say we have two Bay Area businesses completely dedicated to the tried and true Nashville hot chicken: Hotbird and World Famous HotBoys (both originated in Oakland). The former was founded in late 2017 by Aaron Nam and Caleb Longacre, two chefs who met while cooking at Iyasare.

Two chicken sandwiches from Hotbird.
Two chicken sandwiches from Hotbird. (Arielle R./Courtesy of Hotbird)

After Nam tried and fell in love with Los Angeles’ Howlin Rays, the two spent months testing their own hot chicken recipe; Hotbird started out at Oakland’s First Friday art walks before moving on to Off the Grid at Fort Mason and the Presidio Picnic.


“I believe most people really enjoy fried chicken and the spicy profile is something they look for,” Nam says. “So it’s almost like a perfect combination there.” Their spice levels run from “no heat” to “hot,” “extra hot” and “burnin’” — they use ghost peppers and Carolina Reaper peppers to achieve those higher levels.

Ghaben and HotBoys co-owner Berk Gibbs started with pop-ups out of Ghaben’s backyard in 2017. Their recipes finalized, they revealed World Famous HotBoys to the public around June 2019 with pop-ups at Forage Kitchen while working on their Oakland brick and mortar. Like Hotbird, their spicy chicken has levels: “mild” to “hot” and “hella hot.”

How hot can you go?

True Nashville hot chicken is supposed to be hot ... like, really hot. Ghaben describes his first time eating it as “an out of body experience.” For people who aren’t prepared for it, he advises sticking to medium-level spice for a first try. “The hottest thing we have,” Ghaben says, “might end their whole week's plans.” WesBurger 'N' More doesn’t offer different levels of spice—theirs is “just spicy.” Meanwhile, Hotbird’s owners describes their hottest level is “pretty spicy, but not spicy enough where you can’t finish half your meal.”

The Bay Area’s take on the classic hot chicken sandwich leans heavily into all the fixins’. Nashville hot chicken is normally served with slices of white bread and pickles, and Hard Water’s version fills the carb slot with cornbread. However, WesBurger 'N' More, Hotbird and HotBoys all serve theirs as sandwiches — perhaps for portability’s sake. Plus, fried chicken sandwiches do seem to be all people are talking about these days (we’re looking at you, Popeyes).

Hotbird’s current sandwich has an apple cider vinegar slaw, comeback sauce (Nam explains that it’s “a Southern staple”), dill pickles and brioche buns. Rowe serves his sandwiches in his trademark burger buns (“they’re basically like white bread buns”) with garlic mayo, dill pickles and iceberg lettuce.

By early 2020, both HotBoys and Hotbird will open brick and mortar shops (the former in Oakland, the latter inside San Francisco’s Twitter building). Nashville’s specialty has already spread nationwide, and now it’s time for the Bay Area to enjoy their own versions of cluckin’ good hot chicken.

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Just one question remains: How hot will you go?

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