Excitement was palpable when the owners of Dempsey's Burger Pub, still one of my favorite restaurants in town, were opening up a new concept across the street that specializes in hot chicken. Originating at Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, the dish has an interesting story but a straightforward premise: fried chicken, but hot. Sometimes extremely hot.
It’s a trend in the food world that has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the past few years, ricocheting from its humble roots in east Nashville to the upper echelons of fine dining back down to your local KFC just as fast as you could upload a seven-minute video about it to put on YouTube. Dempsey’s Biscuit takes the best parts about Nashville hot chicken and adds to it, creating a restaurant that can burn your face off if you’re in the mood, but can also just supply some flavorful fried chicken if you’re not.
For the uninitiated, it’s basically normal fried chicken - heavily battered to make it extra crunchy - and after cooking it's basted in a sauce made from a seasoning blend that contains a mixture of cayenne pepper, sugar, and paprika. Although there has been some variation in the cooking times across my frequent visits, the first bite into the crunchy exterior has always been nothing short of satisfying, the spicy and sweet exterior giving way to tender and juicy meat.
I wasn’t an expert on Nashville hot chicken, so in preparation for this review I went to the source and visited Hattie B’s, one of the major chicken players in Nashville. The flavor of the Nashville bird was less sweet and the crust was less thick, similar to your typical non-hot fried chicken. Dempsey’s crust is a little thicker and a little sweeter (two things I think add to the experience), but still well in the realm of “authentic,” if that’s something you require of your hot chicken.
The initial calibration of the heat levels for Dempsey's hot chicken treated the hottest level of the three-tiered scale much too easily, making the Reaper chicken an easy feat to conquer on even a slow weekday lunch. Recalibration of the Scoville units in the months since opening has rectified this error, and now the hottest level of chicken is excruciatingly hot. Not just because of the amount of cayenne, but because as you sit there and eat the two pieces of radioactive-colored chicken with your hands, the oil spreading across your tongue, fingers, and anything you happen to touch in between. Be warned: if you choose the hottest level of hot you will sweat and feel the pain, likely for the rest of the day.
With a name like Dempsey’s Biscuit Co., you might be a little caught off guard at the biscuit you get, but there’s a good reason for the craggy and chewy drop biscuit: it stands up to the pile of wet ingredients that are piled on top of most of the sandwiches. The term “sandwich” is used loosely: good luck trying to pick it up with your hands, because there's usually so much gravy or egg yolk covering it that a knife and fork is almost mandatory. Too much gravy or runny egg yolk is a nice problem to have, so I certainly didn't mind taking the open-faced approach. And although it's not the picture of a biscuit that people have in their mind, I actually prefer the little more chew and the caramelized bumpy tops of these Batch 7 biscuits to the traditional approach. They're excellent at sopping up whatever's left at the bottom of your plate.
The addition of the sandwiches does a good job at expanding the menu to get more people who aren’t necessarily in the mood for a heavy plate of fried chicken, but it also clouds the purpose of the restaurant. Is it a fried chicken restaurant, or is it a southern biscuit concept? There’s not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. The concept is muddled even more by the addition of rotating dinner specials that sometimes have nothing to do with chicken nor biscuits. Some of that effort might be better spent on developing a more robust variety of sides - the smoked macaroni and cheese has a lot of good flavor, but the pea and potato salads are forgettable and don’t do much to cut through the rich fatty flavors of the chicken.
Since September the Dempsey's brand has been bolstered by the addition of chef Bill Crites, and the Biscuit Co. has been refined even further, turning the restaurant into a full service eatery on the weekends. It makes for a more leisurely meal. They still offer specials on the weekend that have nothing to do with chicken or biscuits, and now there’s a whole separate menu of four or five different appetizers to go along with the entree of the evening. If you find fried Brussels sprouts on that menu, order them immediately: the sharp vinegar on the tender brassicas serve as a much more interesting side than anything normally offered. Maybe Dempsey’s Biscuit Co. tries to do too much, but it’s hard to deny their ambition or the quality of flavors they produce.
Dempsey's Biscuit Co.
Address: 3425 E. Douglas Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-midnight (closed from 2-3 p.m.) Saturday and Sunday.
Entrees: $8-$12 for chicken and signature dishes; $2-3 for side dishes. Kids menu available.
Credit cards : yes