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Monroe's is on the same downtown block as Bitter & Twisted.
Monroe's is on the same downtown block as Bitter & Twisted.
Chris Malloy

A Nashville-Style Hot Chicken Joint Walks into Phoenix

Since at least last spring, it has been rumored that a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant devoted to little but the cayenne-laced Music City classic would be opening in Phoenix — soon, imminently, sometime in the tantalizingly near future. This month, the rumors passed from spoken words and read pixels to brick-and-mortar reality when Monroe’s Hot Chicken opened downtown.

That was enough to jazz downtown lunchers. But there was more.

The owner of the hot chicken restaurant, Larry White, is also the man behind Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles. Lo-Lo’s has been frying chicken since 2002. Those familiar with the soul food scene know White as the grandson of Elizabeth White, who opened Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe in 1964. This wasn’t some bumbling opportunist mining a trend: fried chicken doctored with fiery chile paste. Nope. This was a man who knows chicken.

Adding to the hype, there was another layer of intrigue for chile heads, for we the heat seekers, for people like me who derive pleasure from spicy pain. Monroe’s prepares its hot chicken in escalating tiers of spiciness. The most volcanic is called “What the Cluck!"

It is so hot, the menu says, that you have to sign a waiver.

Within two hours of learning of this waiver, I was approaching Monroe’s from the direction of the courthouses to the west, under blue skies and air cool in the aftermath of a night rain, dreaming of the fiery nuclear-hot chicken option.

A Nashville-Style Hot Chicken Joint Walks into PhoenixEXPAND
Chris Malloy

Monroe’s had a line 20 or so deep. That line moves fast. It carries you through a room with elevated fast food vibes and an elaborate landscape of industrial-chic vents, pipes, and lights on the ceiling. It hustles you by walls checker-boarded with eyes-covered mugshots of everybody from Pablo Escobar to Martin Luther King.

At the end of the line, you order on touch screens. You tap away, opting for a hot chicken sandwich or hot chicken over potato fries, or maybe a more fringe option like a sugared sandwich of hot chicken and waffles. Likely, you’ll peer up from the screen to watch the casual ballet of hot grease and collards and vanilla milkshakes whirling behind.

Then you sit. Then they call your name.

Vaguely reddish chicken comes on red-check paper in a cardboard box. Over the course of your meal, peanut oil residual from the frying may seep through the thin cardboard, smearing your table.

When eating an array of spicy food, one approach is to start low and work up to the blaze. If you start at inferno, you may sear the life right out of your taste buds. This is something that is going to happen anyway, but can wait until you’ve at least tasted your less-spicy food.

So I started with a hot chicken sandwich, spice level “hot.” Its puffy bun glistened almost like a fish. Jutting out, sporting slaw, were crags and slopes of dense-looking, heavily breaded chicken. Buoyed by the moisture of the slaw and aioli with a low heat, the chicken is warm, juicy, and a little hot. Its brown armor has some crunch but not much.

Maybe there could be more salt. Surely, there could be more heat.

A Nashville-Style Hot Chicken Joint Walks into PhoenixEXPAND
Chris Malloy

And that’s what the escalating tiers are for — to satisfy lunchers who like “hot” chicken mild, and those who crave some burn. (Warning: some of the flavoring calculus seems dependent on the chile spike, meaning if you choose mild, you may be missing something.)

The “What the Cluck!" chicken seemed a deeper red than the hot. Three pieces trickled juices onto crinkle-cut fries, the crunchy jacket visibly softening by the time you get your meal. So get in there!

The first thing you notice, in the seconds before the heat builds, is that the fried chicken is different and doesn’t have the crackle of the chicken at Lo-Lo’s. The breading has sogged from the chile-powered sauce that makes hot chicken hot chicken. In the taxonomy of fried chicken meals, hot chicken has a texture apart from that of conventionally fried, so don’t expect that big beautiful shattering Lo-Lo’s version, which I wrote about last spring:

"[White’s] fried chicken has a huge shatter. The crunch rolls through your head and blots out all non-chicken thoughts as you chew, meat hot and juicy even if you opt for the breast.”

The second thing you notice is a non-chicken thought.

The heat has built. It has climbed up like a roller coaster, but a short one, and in the truncated plunge you miss out on weightlessness. The hottest chicken isn’t as hot as advertised. It isn’t any spicier than simple salsas and frijoles charros at nearby Mexican restaurants. If you are a heat-seeker, this thought may be paired with some deflation. And so might that, after you punch the nuclear button on the touchscreen, there is no waiver to sign.

But hey, Nashville-style hot chicken has come to downtown Phoenix. The fryers are hot and so are the birds, and in an area that needs more lunch options. Incendiary or not, that can only be a good thing.

Monroe's Hot Chicken. 45 West Jefferson Street; 602-872-7100
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday.

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