My brother Mario–seven years younger, much better looking and quite a bit smarter–and I have shared many memorable firsts. There was the time I taught him how to drive on our dad’s 1965 standard transmission Chevrolet pickup truck. He was a quick study, soon terrifying our grandmother with drifting skills Formula D drivers would envy. I took him to his first championship wrestling match at Albuquerque’s Civic Auditorium where we watched “Rapid” Ricky Romero dispatch “Yellow Belly” Robley. Mario would go on to similarly dominate high school wrestling opponents. Already in our grizzled 30s, we once beat two much younger (and ostensibly more fit) starters on Peñasco’s state championship basketball team. That may not have been a first, but like the four touchdowns scored by Al Bundy, it was one of those youth-reclaiming victories we’ll boast of well into our 80s. Fittingly, I was with Mario when he experienced Nashville hot chicken for the first time.
There are some things brothers will confide only in one another. One of us told the other the Nashville hot chicken too hot to handle, but the name of the brother to make that startling and cowardly admission is not something that will be divulged here. Nor will there be any jokes about taking away his (or my) man card. Nor will we disclose which of us in a teary-eyed coughing and sputtering fit uttered “no mas” after finishing but half of the hot chicken sandwich we shared. Not even Rudy Vigil, who recommended FireBird Nashville Hot Chicken to us, will pry that blackmail-worthy nugget from us. Besides, Rudy as I’m led to understand, ordered his Nashville hot chicken at the wimpy “mild” degree of heat so he’s not likely to cast aspersions.
Before you cast the first chicken bone and brag about the time you ate two cinnamon red hots without drinking water…or about the time you ate half a bag of Lay’s Sriracha flavored potato chips…or how on a dare you once ate a tube of Ultra Brite toothpaste–try walking a mile in our shoes and eating Nashville hot chicken at the “really clucking hot” degree of piquancy. Conquering Nashville hot chicken at the level at which we ordered it puts us (or at least one of us) at the same pain threshold level as the circus fire-eater. Had we consumed the entirety of the hot chicken sandwich sans bun, we’d be on that pantheon of manliness alongside Chuck Norris and Roger Staubach.
Nashville hot chicken packs a punch! As Mario put it, “it’s much hotter than Sadie’s chile.” It’s so hot, it would make a Carolina Reaper sweat. Okay, maybe it really doesn’t pack 1.6 million Scoville units of heat as the Carolina Reaper does, but it sure feels that way. Unlike the type of heat that sneaks up on you and doesn’t burn until after you’ve declared it “not very hot,” Nashville hot chicken attacks you from the start. It’s got the aggressiveness of the Tasmanian Devil and the ferocity of The Dude, our debonair dachshund, as he threatens the interloping mailman.
Nashville hot chicken, as its name indicates, has its genesis in Music City U.S.A. It all started in the 1930s when a charming philanderer named Thornton Prince cheated on one woman too many. Instead of walking out, she conceived a different way to get even. Knowing that after staying out all night Thornton would come home expecting breakfast, she didn’t prepare a typical bland, hangover-assuaging meal. She made him fried chicken with all the spiciest items available in the kitchen. Alas, the best-laid plans of scorned girlfriends often go awry. Not only did Thornton love the hot chicken, so did his brothers. They turned her idea into Prince’s Hot Chicken. The rest, as the proverbial “they” is history.
The Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition whose motto is “to protect and to burn” tells us “While each Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant may have their own secret blend of spices, many note that it’s not just an intense amount of heat that makes it authentic, it’s that heat and flavor. The chicken is fried and coated in these seasonings, most typically in a “dry” sauce – often made with a base of lard or oil. The use of a “wet” sauce (such as Buffalo-style chicken) is NOT Nashville Hot Chicken.” The site adds: “What really makes it authentic is…the finished flavor of the chicken itself. It’s overwhelmingly spicy, yet abundantly flavorful.”
The finished flavor of the hot chicken at FireBird is both overwhelmingly spicy and abundantly flavorful. That’s probably why every seat was occupied with a line twenty deep waiting to place their orders when Mario and I arrived. Several hirsute male masochists (including a couple of knuckle-draggers sporting New York Giants caps) came to test their mettle against the potent poultry. Some of the women we observed also ordered their chicken at the “really cluckin hot” level just as we did for the chicken sandwich we split. Piquancy levels are mild, medium, hot, cluckin hot and really cluckin hot.
FireBird’s torrid temptations aren’t limited to hot fried chicken though that’s understandably the big draw. The menu also boasts of barbecue pulled pork and chopped brisket sandwiches as well as catfish. Okay, enough about them. Nashville hot chicken comes in many forms such as “Hot Cluck” meals, served with white bread, pickles and a beverage. Meals include legs and thighs, breasts and wings, tenders and half birds. You can also order hot chicken with waffles. Sides aren’t quite as fiery. They include crispy fries, onion rings, cornbread, fried okra, mashed potatoes and gravy and several other Southern staples. For dessert, there’s banana pudding and pecan pie.
15 March 2019: Firebird’s hot chicken sandwich is constructed from a hot chicken boneless breast so large you might wonder if it came from an ostrich or maybe a pterodactyl. It extends far beyond its sizeable buns (insert your own Kim Kardashian joke here). The chicken breast is generously topped with a sweet coleslaw that does little to obfuscate the hot chicken’s heat. This sandwich is a rarity in that not only does the chicken burn, burn, burn like a certain Johnny Cash song, it tastes really good. Yes, despite its piquancy, you’ll be able to taste and appreciate the deliciousness of fried hot chicken. The sandwich comes with one side. Make it the very good Southern cornbread in a cupcake baking cup which does a good job taking away some of the hot chicken’s bite.
15 March 2019: If you do order one item of hot chicken at the really cluckin’ hot level and another item at a lesser degree of piquancy, make sure you eat the meeker hot chicken first. If you don’t, you risk not being able to fully appreciate the less potent poultry until the burn from the volcano-level hot chicken has been extinguished. That was the case in our experience. We should have consumed the leg and thigh which we ordered at the “medium” level first. Despite scalded taste buds and charred tongues from the really cluckin hot chicken sandwich, it was obvious the leg and thigh were superb. As in, nearly as good as my mom’s fried chicken good.
06 April 2019: Homer Simpson’s bucket list actually includes a bucket. A bucket of fried chicken, that is. Of course, his bucket would also include shrimp, tartar sauce, chili, popcorn and cholesterol medicine. Maybe it doesn’t rise to the level of bucket list wish, but one of my Kim’s fondest wishes is for the Duke City to enjoy fried chicken as transformative as we discovered during our November, 2018 visit to Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken in Austin. After her inaugural visit to FireBird, she used such terms as “the next best thing to Gus’s” and “the best fried chicken in Albuquerque.” As someone who’s been preparing my mom’s fried chicken recipe for more than three decades, she should know.
Of course, being of the smarter gender, she saw no need to prove how much pain she can endure so she ordered her hot chicken at the Rudy Vigil (mild) level. Just in case mild was a misnomer, she ordered her chicken (leg and thigh) with a waffle. Indeed, at the mild level, the focus is exclusively on the peerless flavor of the poultry. She even ate the crispy, golden skin, something she almost never does. The single golden waffle doused in sweet syrup is a perfect foil for the salty, savory chicken. These are among the very best Chicken and waffles in the metropolitan area.
15 March 2019: Another lesson learned for next time we decide we want the “pain is a flavor” level is to use the banana pudding as a palate cleanser…or more appropriately, a coolant in between bites. Not only is this banana pudding among the very best in the city (along with the banana pudding at Vick’s Vittles), it’s served cold and really tames the heat of the chicken. There’s a bounty of bananas in each cup and the vanilla wafers are fresh and crisp, not soft and mushy.
FireBird Nashville Hot Chicken is the sister restaurant of Down N’ Dirty Seafood Boil, the great folks who introduced Albuquerque to the seafood boil. Trust them to begin another food trend that has captured the imagination and taste buds of Duke City diners, including those of two brothers who won’t betray which one is wimpier than the other.
FireBird Nashville Hot Chicken
3005 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 April 2019
1st VISIT: 15 March 2019
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Hot Chicken Sandwich, Thigh and Leg, Wing and Breast Cornbread, Banana Pudding, Chicken & Waffle