Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

Nashville-style chicken sandwiches seem to be proliferating, so I set out to discover the best of the flock

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Holly’s Hot Chicken
45 Armstrong St., 613-695-7737,
Open: Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 8 pm, Saturday 11 am to 4 pm, Closed Sunday, Monday, Tuesday
Prices: all chicken sandwiches $ 10
Access: steps to front door

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Frankie’s Nashville Hot Chicken
From Lone Star Bar and Grill locations

Hanley’s Nashville Hot Chicken
From selected locations in Ottawa-Gatineau

Renegade Chicken
From Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill locations

Some weeks ago I began an intermittent yet plucky regimen of eating chicken sandwiches.

Noting that fried chicken sandwiches, and in particular Nashville-style hot chicken sandwiches, were proliferating, I set out to determine the best of the flock.

Too many chicken sandwiches later, here are my conclusions.

Chicken sandwiches can, on rare occasions, be sublime. More commonly, they are second-rate guilty pleasures. And sometimes they disappoint you, sitting in your stomach like a bowling ball, making you wonder if you’ve shortened your life just to eat something deep-fried and crunchy.

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In March, my chicken-sandwich project began well, with visits to Holly’s Hot Chicken, which had just opened in Hintonburg where Meat Press had been.

I’m late to the Holly’s Hot Chicken party. Since 2018, Holly Laham has been serving her much-talked-about chicken sandwiches at various pop-up locations. Somehow I kept missing those opportunities.

Sampling sandwiches from Laham’s takeout-only business, I was impressed.

Her sandwiches were, to be frank, in the same league as sandwiches from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, which I confess have fortified me during recent road trips to Toronto. It may harm my critical cred to say so, but I find Popeye’s sandwiches to be not only very tasty, ticking all the boxes for flavor, texture and moistness, but also very consistent.

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Two of three Holly’s sandwiches that I tried were excellent, with massive slabs of chicken whose crunchy but not excessive exteriors concealed meat that was almost comically juicy but arguably just a touch under-seasoned. While one outlier sandwich had drier chicken dragging it down, Laham’s creations were more often than not decidedly satisfying.

Laham’s classic garnishes (buttermilk ranch dressing and bread and butter pickles that tasted house-made, iceberg lettuce) completed her sandwiches nicely.

Seven flavor profiles are now available here, which is a few more than in March. “Plain Jane” sandwiches are for the heat-averse, while pepper-heads can choose sandwiches spiked with habanero or ghost pepper spice blends. In between are two levels of Nashville-style hot chicken, which are typically bathed in a cayenne-based oil and can still pack a punch. I could handle an extra hot sandwich, which left a significant glow in my mouth and set my scalp sweating.

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For those who dare, an extra-hot chicken sandwich from Holly's Hot Chicken.
For those who dare, an extra-hot chicken sandwich from Holly’s Hot Chicken. Photo by Peter Hum /Postmedia

In all, Laham’s chicken sandwiches tasted like hand-made quality products and were best enjoyed immediately, on the steps outside her store or in a nearby car.

I also tried chicken sandwiches from three new brands that have popped up during the pandemic. Frankie’s Nashville Hot Chicken is a side hustle inside more than 20 Lone Star Texas Grill locations in Ontario while Renegade Chicken comes out of Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill kitchens. Hanley’s Nashville Hot Chicken is a two-year-old brand that has four locations from Stittsville to Orleans. On the Hanley’s website, it calls itself “a cloud kitchen network partnering with restaurant operators.”

In general, it’s harder to be definitive about sandwiches from these brands because quality seemed to vary depending on the locations I visited and how long the trip home was.

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Frankie’s, which launched a bit more than a year ago, stresses its “straight from Tennessee” bona fides on its website and says its chicken strips are marinated for a day and a half, all in a bid to “push the limits on heat and flavor. ”

The Frankie’s sandwiches that I took home were a little unwieldy, consisting of three large chicken strips between their buns. The chicken, while admirably moist, lacked a bit of salt and, more than that, crunch.

Frankie’s “hot” chicken was not all that hot. To be fair, rather than order an ominously named “hot AF (as Frankie)” sandwich, I chickened out.

I am mindful of what chef David Chang once said after eating a too-hot Nashville hot chicken sandwich. “It was one of the worst, maybe one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Chang said during an episode of his Netflix TV show Ugly Delicious.

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When Renegade Chicken launched in May 2021, it was candid about its origin story.

A press release stated that Service Inspired Restaurants (the parent company for Jack Astor’s) experienced “major challenges” due to lockdown restrictions, leading to declining sales, layoffs and even restaurant closures.

“It’s been incredibly difficult to say the least. Renegade Chicken was born as a reaction to these challenging times, taking advantage of the incredible talent we’ve been able to keep with us and our existing restaurant locations. ”

This pandemic pivot’s website exhorts that its chickens are “Canadian-raised and antibiotic free, sustainably farmed, never frozen and marinated for a minimum of 24 hours before it’s hand-dipped, fried and tossed in our signature secret blend of seasonings. We are also a proud scratch kitchen. ”

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And yet, despite this buildup, the Renegade sandwiches that we brought home – the biggest and most expensive of this survey – were at best inconsistent. Some recent samples from Renegade’s Lansdowne location were alright, if very light on crunch. But a few weeks ago, sandwiches from the Hunt Club location were sloppy, over-sauced letdowns with overly salted chicken.

Consistency was also an issue with the Hanley’s sandwiches we had at Queen St. Fare, where Capitol Burger Counter also dispenses Hanley’s chicken sandwiches. A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I had a distressingly overcooked Hanley’s chicken sandwich with a punishingly crunchy shell. At a lunchtime visit this week, the specimens was much better with crispy, thick exteriors encasing moist, nicely seasoned meat.

Ultimately, I’d make a special effort to go to Holly’s if a craving for chicken sandwiches arose. There, or Popeye’s.

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