Dearborn’s Holy Cluck does a mean take on the Nashville hot chicken sandwich

Hot chicken: The Holy Cluck sandwich.
Hot chicken: The Holy Cluck sandwich. Tom Perkins

Holy Cluck

15010 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn (food truck)
25827 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn Heights (brick and mortar store coming soon)
313-699-1272
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon–Fri; 2 p.m.- 10 p.m. Sat, Sun
$7-$16
Handicap accessible

This review comes a few months after I made a trip to Nashville and first tried Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, the legendary restaurant that invented the dish some 75 years ago. Tough break for Holy Cluck: The bar has been set real high. Prince's isn't just making the best Nashville hot chicken, it makes some of the best food out there.

For the uninitiated, hot chicken is a heat-packing, cayenne-fueled, volcanic-red, deep-fried bird that has been having its moment for a few years nationally, and it's still cropping up on menus across metro Detroit. Holy Cluck, a Dearborn food truck that's been up and running since Ramadan in April and is about to open a brick and mortar spot in Dearborn Heights, is among a handful of eateries around here to build a concept around the dish.

Like any good regional cuisine, hot chicken comes with a story. At some point in the 1930s, Thornton Prince, a tall, handsome womanizer, disappeared one night with a lady who wasn't his girlfriend. The next morning, she attempted to punish him by soaking his bird in hot pepper juice. But the plan backfired. Prince loved it so much that he opened a chicken shack, and Nashville's signature dish was born. (For a fascinating look at who deserves credit for popularizing the dish — the Black-owned Prince's or white-owned Hattie B's — see the excellent story in the Nashville Scene.)

On its face, the dish may appear to be no-frills, spicy fried chicken. But the nuances in its prep and ingredients are what sets restaurants apart. Some chefs put spice or hot sauce in the oil used to deep-fry the bird, while others work with a spicy brine, and some dunk the chicken in a spicy paste mixture before frying, or shake on a dry spice after it's cooked. Some have a thick crag, while others only lightly dredge the bird in flour. Some leave the skin on, some take it off. You get the picture.

At Holy Cluck, chef and owner Ali Bazzi brines the bird, though he declined to provide any details on that process, and incorporates the heat after the chicken is deep fried by dipping it in a hot chili oil. That approach solves several issues: it reduces the grit that can come with a dry coating and is a bit texturally unpleasant, and Bazzi says it also infuses and draws out the chili's flavor while keeping the package moist. The result is a lot more nuance in the heat than just brute cayenne.

Cluck's shell is thick and hard, providing a solid crunch and textural contrast to the soft brioche buns that Holy Cluck restocks from a local bakery every couple days. Many hot chicken spots use plain white bread, but Bazzi went with brioche because it better withstands the oil and heat while imparting a buttery component without demanding extra butter.

The truck's signature sandwich, the Holy Cluck, is comprised of fried white, skinless breast accompanied by a crunchy homemade slaw, a tangy housemade "Holy Sauce," and bread and butter pickle chips that are standard with hot chicken everywhere.

The menu also offers regular fried chicken sandwiches for the heat-averse, and the Mac N Cluck, which came without the hot sauce, included a wedge of cheesy mac and cheese, slaw, and ranch. Solid, but sure would've loved to see how the hot sauce interplayed with the cheese and ranch, and next time I'll be asking for it Nashville-style.

The tenders are composed of four big slabs of hot chicken atop a bed of crinkle-cut fries, though one can choose the heat level. Hot chicken is also applied to the Coop fries, a dish that's like a condiment stew of the bird, "bushki" sauce, holy sauce, nacho cheese, slaw, and pickles. Intense, and hard not to enjoy.

Holy Cluck is about to add more sandwiches to the roster including a hot honey, classic fried chicken sandwich, and BBQ fried chicken. Dessert is biscoff pudding that I sadly missed out on, and Bazzi notes that most everything from the sauces to slaw are made in house.

Don't want to deal with the bitter cold at the food truck? Bazzi says the new brick-and-mortar restaurant should be open in the coming weeks.

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