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For Some Small Dallas Businesses, Hot Chicken Isn’t a Fad. It’s a Lifeline.

Maybe the reason Dallas has so much Nashville hot chicken is because Dallas' hot chicken is so darn good.
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Brian Reinhart

Foodies often get stuck in a bubble. We keep up with all the latest openings, listen to all the hype, and flock to restaurants that the public-relations machine dubs “hot.” As a result, restaurant obsessives can get jaded about the latest fads.

Take Nashville hot chicken. I’ve been grumpy for a while about the way that a historic regional food, primarily made by Black people, suddenly became a gazillion-dollar bonanza for anyone—well, mostly not Black people—with a deep fat fryer. Metro Dallas now has something like three dozen hot chicken joints. When does it become too much?

Then, last month, I had a conversation that changed my mind. See, for some of us on the outside, hot chicken can look like a fad. But for some small business owners, it’s a lifeline.

Sal Afridi is one of those people. When I spoke with him two years ago for a Texas Monthly article, he was operating a Plano franchise of Peri Peri Original, a UK-based chain selling garlicky, vinegary, citrusy peri peri chicken. That’s a style of marination and grilling that can range from mild to ferociously spicy, thanks to the generous use of African bird’s eye chili peppers.

Peri peri is bold, attention-grabbing, and delicious. It’s popular across almost the entire rest of the globe. But it’s still a relative unknown in North Texas, and Peri Peri Original struggled to bring in customers who didn’t already know what the dish was.

But Texans certainly understand other forms of spicy chicken.

“The name ‘Nashville hot chicken’ speaks to more people,” Afridi told me after I grabbed lunch at his restaurant, which reopened this spring as Sal’s Nashville Hot Chicken. “Though peri peri is growing in the U.S., I do think that it is going to take a little bit longer.”

His transition from South African grilled hot chicken to Southern American fried hot chicken didn’t take place overnight. Afridi and his crew spent six months doing research and development during the pandemic, creating recipes for every stage of the process, from the batter to the comeback sauce.

“I actually tasted all of these peppers straight into my mouth,” Afridi said. “I had to know what I was dealing with. I don’t eat spices myself, I was raised eating less spices. It was not fun.”

“I can safely say that the Dallas market has some of the best hot chicken. D.C. does not compare. Houston does not compare.”

Sal Afridi, owner, Sal’s Nashville Hot Chicken

The coronavirus pandemic affected not just foot traffic in the store but also the UK-based parent company’s ability to send his franchise supplies and support. Effectively left alone, the team was able to test its new recipes and conduct a sort of soft opening. For a while, the two menus lived side-by-side. When the Nashville items began outselling the peri peri, Afridi took down the old signage, changed the name, and reopened.

I’m not an expert on Nashville hot chicken, but the results, to me, are pretty great. My lunch order was the #1, a standard chicken sandwich, with medium spice level. Both chicken and fries were cooked to order. The chicken is an inch-thick cut that covers the whole bun—it’s made for easy eating, not for posting on Instagram, like some rivals’ taller, messier versions.

Breading and fry quality were excellent, and the spice level was gently punishing. I took a few breaks to sip water and eat fries, but enjoyed the burn. There are hotter levels available at Sal’s, although they probably won’t stack up to some of the egregious Man Versus Food-type challenges at competing joints.

“A lot of hot chicken places add more and more of their hot spices,” Afridi said. “That sounds really cool for TikTok videos, but I wanted people to feel the heat and be able to enjoy the food. It’s easy to add spice to food, because all you have to do is add more ghost pepper or scorpion or habanero or reaper. What’s harder is to taper it off and make sure people enjoy it while staying in those categories [of mild, medium, and hot].”

One touch I especially appreciated at Sal’s was the incorporation of fresh herbs into the slaw that sits on top of the chicken breast. Every so often, a bracing jolt of cilantro or parsley cut through the chicken and its heat.

With that kind of quality, it’s reassuring to hear that the store has already seen an increase in traffic from its peri peri days. Still, I asked Afridi if he was worried that he was jumping onto a bandwagon, trying to catch a fad before it ends. He raised three interesting points to me. One is Nashville’s abiding popularity, which has helped bring new life to his business. Another is that Nashville chicken has now become so ubiquitous, there may be no turning back. Spicy chicken sandwiches of one form or another have been a fast-food staple for decades, and there is no reason that a better version can’t have staying power.

But the third point was the most interesting to me: Dallas is experiencing an especially big Hot Chicken Moment because our versions are great. We’re surrounded by the stuff because we have some of the best in the country.

“I can safely say that the Dallas market has some of the best hot chicken,” Afridi told me. “I’ve tried Ricky’s, Lucky’s, Hot Chicks. I tried Roaming Rooster in D.C., some places in Houston. D.C. does not compare. Houston does not compare. The Dallas competition is true and fierce.”

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Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.

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