Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, August 2019 Issue.
Normally, signing a legal waiver before your meal is not a good sign. However, at Mrs. Chicken — established by the owner and namesake of Frasher’s Smokehouse — to try the hottest of their Nashville hot chicken, you’ll have to do just that.
Though the waiver is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, when it comes to fried chicken and barbecue, George Frasher is serious as a ghost pepper’s Scoville Heat Unit ranking of over one million. As a reference for non “pepper-heads,” the term Frasher describes spice lovers with, that’s roughly 125 times hotter than jalapenos. Whether he’s traveling the country to judge barbecue contests or lighting his own mouth ablaze testing his chicken’s kick, Frasher’s passion for food and flavor are clear as my sinuses were after trying the hottest spice level at Mrs. Chicken.
For Frasher, running his own restaurant has been a dream since he was a teen washing dishes in his hometown of St. Louis. He worked in kitchens at the city’s most well-known icons, such as the 630-foot tall Gateway Arch and the steam-powered paddleboats chugging along the Mississippi River. He refined his culinary game studying hospitality at the University of Missouri. After graduating, Frasher moved to Kansas City to manage a restaurant for the barbecue sauce manufacturer KC Masterpiece. He honed his meat roasting skills there while studying the four major regional schools of American barbecue: Texas, Memphis, Carolina and, of course, Kansas City.
Eventually, Frasher was lured to the Valley by a former boss’s offer to serve as area manager for a barbecue chain. After three years, Frasher was finally ready to fulfill his life’s dream. Having secured a location in Scottsdale, he opened Frasher’s Steak House and Lounge in 1999. Though it closed in 2015 due to its building being sold, Frasher packed up everything he could and opened his eponymous smokehouse in Phoenix. Serving slow-cooked barbecue, Frasher’s Smokehouse quickly established itself as one of Phoenix’s premier meat markets, and one of the few places in the Valley where one can get brisket burnt ends. On Sundays, he filled a cast iron skillet with peanut oil, and served one of his personal favorites for the daily special: fried chicken.
Fried chicken holds a special place in Frasher’s heart, and stomach. Unfortunately, it took 25 minutes to cook, while other dishes came straight from the smoker ready to go. Frasher reluctantly pulled fried chicken from the rotation because of this. Even so, while touring the nation to participate in and judge barbecue competitions, he also sampled the best fried chicken he could find. One fiery variety in particular was music to his gut. “I went to Nashville and fell in love with hot chicken,” he recalls.
Like a juicy chicken breast marinating in buttermilk brine, Frasher immersed himself in the fascinating history of Nashville Hot Chicken. He visited the capital of country music’s best chicken peddlers, such as Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which helped popularize the dish nationally. Of course, he paid homage to the first restaurant to serve the now famous dish, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. There he met André Prince Jeffries and learned how her great uncle Thorton Prince’s philandering led to the creation of the peppery poultry. “The way the story goes is that Thorton came home late one Saturday night. On Sunday, his lady friend got up and started cooking his favorite meal: fried chicken,” Frasher explained with a grin. “She thought she’d get even and threw a whole bunch of extra cayenne pepper in the chicken. Well, it ended up backfiring. He lapped it up and asked for seconds. That’s how hot chicken was invented.”
While Frasher was at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Tennessee, the landlord of a recently closed Mexican restaurant phoned. Located a few blocks south of Frasher’s Smokehouse on 32nd Street and Indian School, the building’s owner asked if he might be interested in leasing it. Though initially reluctant, Frasher realized it was the perfect opportunity to share his love of hot chicken with the Valley.
At various times an ice cream parlor, burger joint, Italian restaurant and others, Frasher completely remodeled the mid-century building to give it the feel of a true Southern chicken shack. He had custom windows installed, complete with chicken wire. The counters were made from thick slabs of alligator juniper and the walls covered in gleaming white subway tile. With the building ready, Frasher named the restaurant after one his father and uncle had once run, and thus Mrs. Chicken opened its doors on April 20.
Patrons can order all the classic cuts of chicken, with white or dark meat options, as well as wings, tenders and a sandwich. All these are available in a range of spice levels, from no heat to potentially harmful. While Frasher plans to increase the heat by incorporating newer varieties of peppers in the future — such as the Trinidad Scorpion Pepper and the Carolina Reaper — our party found it plenty hot as is. A word of warning to the brave few who sign the waiver and try the “Burn Our Face Off” spice level; don’t be fooled by the first bite! Though initially it didn’t seem so hot, I foolheartedly kept chowing down. After a minute, it felt like I was using a stun gun for a lollypop. Luckily, there are free refills for drinks, plus Kool-Aid and milk are available. I recommend sticking to the mid-spiciness levels, as it lets the full range of flavors shine through the capsaicin burn.
Being a wimp, I ordered my yard bird sandwich mild. The breast was a fresh cut of Mary’s Free Range Chicken, made juicier by soaking in a brine and then dredged in flour, spices and buttermilk. Served on a brioche bun with Provel cheese, mustard slaw, pickle chips and honky-tonk sauce, the texture and flavors just right. My dining companion, who fancies herself as heat-resistant as a Targaryen, went with the second hottest level. This proved just the right amount of fire for her.
Rounding out the menu are a range of sides drawn from Frasher’s southern culinary roots. Though sadly they were out of the baked potato salad when we came in, the collard greens and mustard slaw did not disappoint. The bacon-infused collard greens were tender with a complex flavor, seeming to melt in the mouth. The slaw was particularly good, not drowned in bland mayo but crunchy and rich with tangy mustard goodness. The crinkle cut fries, dusted in barbecue spices, were a fine savory companion, especially when dipped in the honky-tonk sauce.
While the number of restaurants offering Nashville hot chicken throughout the Valley are proliferating almost as quickly as our governor’s attack on an insufficiently patriotic footwear manufacturer, Mrs. Chicken rules the roost in my book.