A “sammich” from the Nash & Proper food truck. (Photo courtesy Nash & Proper)

Nash & Proper Puts a Sacramento Spin on Nashville Hot Chicken

Back Web Only Jun 5, 2019 By Jennifer Fergesen

A “sammich” from the Nash & Proper food truck is not merely a sandwich; it’s a feat of engineering. There’s intent behind every stratum of the structure, from the coarse-cut slaw that props up the top bun to the pickles laid carefully on the bottom so they hit your tongue first.

The star, though, is the chicken: a boneless thigh fried shatteringly crisp, draped in a sauce that ranges in intensity from “mild” to “cluckin’ hot.” The menu on the side of the truck calls the last level “get the cluck outta here,” but no one in the snaking line shows signs of leaving.

“I wanted to take people on a journey when they eat this sandwich,” says Sacramento-born chef and co-owner Cecil L. Rhodes II, who debuted Nash & Proper with partner Jake Bombard at the Our Street Night Market in June 2018. Nash & Proper is Sacramento’s first eatery to focus exclusively on hot chicken, a fiery fried variety that originated in Nashville, Tenn. To get to Sacramento from the Music City, the sandwich went on a long and convoluted journey, running into detours that illustrate both the business potential of food fads and the problems that can lie behind them.

Though Nash & Proper is the first hot-chicken-centric spot in Sacramento, it’s far from the first place in town to carry it. By the time the food truck served its first sandwich in 2018, hot chicken had reached the zenith of a trend so huge even national brands jumped in. Nashville Hot Chicken hit KFC’s 4,000-plus U.S. branches in early 2016. Red Lobster made a Nashville Hot Shrimp topped with dill pickles in 2017. In 2018, Pringles released a limited-edition Nashville Hot Chicken flavor, which it suggested pairing with its Screamin’ Dill Pickle flavor.

In Sacramento, independent restaurants followed suit. LowBrau in Midtown serves a sandwich with the same components as Nash & Proper’s — spicy fried thigh, pickles, slaw — with added texture from a chunky house-made hot sauce. South in Southside Park put a hot chicken sandwich on the “new school” (i.e., not traditionally Southern) side of its menu, adding a California twist with green goddess dressing and fresh basil. “There was no way we wanted to try to, ingredient for ingredient, remake the [original dish],” says South co-owner N’Gina Kavookjian. “We wanted to make something that was signature South with a tip of the hat to the Prince family for paving the way. ”

From KFC to our mom-and-pops, every iteration of this dish leads back to the Princes. For almost 75 years, the family has run Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, a restaurant in the predominantly African American Hadley Park neighborhood in Nashville. While Prince’s has had a cult following for decades, hot chicken as a fad food is a more recent phenomenon. Eater traced it to former Mayor Bill Purcell’s campaign to market the dish as “Nashville’s only indigenous food,” culminating in a 2007 Hot Chicken Festival.

Most of the media attention, though, centered around Hattie B’s, which father-and-son team Gene and Nick Bishop launched in 2012. Hattie B’s now has six locations in the South and one in Las Vegas, but the first opened in Nashville’s midtown, a predominantly white neighborhood that has the same “hip” cache as Sacramento’s Midtown.

In addition to the more central location, Hattie B’s has an Instagram presence, a plan for national expansion and a young white chef who uses words like “umami bomb” in interviews — and was consequently dubbed cool in national media outlets like Food Republic. The uneven coverage led to backlash that accused Hattie B’s of cultural appropriation. “If it’s only when the white people come in and decide to monetize it that you declare it cool, then you are the problem with America,” Betsy Phillips wrote in Nashville Scene, a local alternative weekly newspaper.

Gail P. Myers, an Oakland-based academic and activist who studies the history and culture of black food and farming, agrees that the hot chicken trend can be read as another chapter in the long history of outsiders appropriating the cultural achievements of the African American community. This history also includes the white appropriation of jazz, hip-hop, and rock and roll — an apt metaphor for a Music City dish.

“These new hot chicken restaurants start in the middle of the story,” says Myers, who runs West Oakland’s Freedom Farmers’ Market to connect black farmers with communities in need. “They’re picking up the pieces that other people struggled to put in place. In order to honor that struggle, they need to tell the story from the beginning. They need to connect with the source.”

Rhodes, who is black, has never been to Nashville, though he visited Hattie B’s Las Vegas location soon after it opened in October 2018. He and Bombard, who is white, also have made a pilgrimage to Howlin’ Ray’s, a hot chicken restaurant in Los Angeles famous for its spicy sandwiches and long wait times — up to five hours on holidays. All this came after Rhodes and Bombard developed their recipe, though; Rhodes admits that the only hot chicken he tried before opening Nash & Proper was KFC’s. “I didn’t want any kind of influence,” he says. “I just wanted to come up with our own style of hot chicken.”

That style, which Rhodes bills “Nashville inspired, Sacramento made,” takes advantage of the fresh produce and diverse cultural influences available to a California chef. First, there’s the double fry that Rhodes uses to achieve that craggy crust, robust enough to hold up to the sauce — a technique Rhodes learned from studying Korean fried chicken. Then there’s the local produce he buys at the Sacramento Farmers Market for his crisp, lightly dressed slaw, which holds its own against the chicken. That slaw includes fresh jalapeños, a quintessentially Californian ingredient (by way of Mexico) that is as foreign to a traditional hot chicken sandwich as avocado or kale.

It’s this originality, Rhodes says, that sets Nash & Proper apart from the bandwagoners who co-opt Nashville hot chicken without considering its history. “The controversy around Hattie B’s is a big issue,” he says. “But I’m never going to try to recreate anything like Prince’s, or Hattie B’s or anything. … I can only put my spin on things.”

For now, Rhodes is focusing on building a hot chicken tradition in Sacramento. “The reception that we’ve been getting from Sacramento is just astounding,” he says. “There are people who’ve been following us since day one.” To serve those followers, Nash & Proper recently expanded to include both a truck and a trailer, which make stops around the Sacramento region and as far away as Napa, where the crew worked the BottleRock music festival in May.

Nash & Proper’s busy calendar demonstrates the diversity of its clientele. People line up for their sammiches wherever they go, like Oak Park’s Black Book Fair in May, Sacramento Pride in June, and the Asian-inspired Norcal Night Market in July and September. The truck’s most frequent home is T&R Taste of Texas Barbecue in Oak Park, where it parks from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Rhodes says he has regulars who show up for a hot chicken lunch every week, and that group of devotees keeps growing.

“I’m doing something a little bit different here,” Rhodes says, to explain why customers keep coming back. “Call it Sacramento hot chicken.”

Comments

Cassandra Sharp (not verified)June 17, 2019 - 2:59pm

Love this food truck! The best chicken ever that I tasted off of a food truck before and the best yet so far that have i tasted in any restaurant that I have ever been too so far! I tell everyone to try them!

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