Downlow Chicken Shack hosted a trial run for some friends and family last night and I eagerly slipped in early with my family to give it a shot. The bare bones, counter-service room looked to be 95% complete — no small feat considering the state the 1,000 sqft space was in when chefs Doug Stephen and Lindsey Mann took it over a month ago.
The patio platform next to the alley is still in need of a rebuild, but the 24 seat interior – as you can see in the shot above – is ready to go (though it was still missing its big menu board on the wall, a copy of which I’ve supplied below). It’s a utilitarian, no frills spot; its lack of pretense amplified by a cool chicken head logo drawn up by local artist Alex Usow (aka Rhek). Note that they don’t have a liquor license yet.
The food was totally (deliciously) in line with the “Nashville Hot” style I’d previously enjoyed at Doug and Lindsey’s other Commercial Drive eatery, Merchant’s Workshop, where it was a popular weekly special. It’s crispy, juicy stuff that can – if so desired by the guest – really pack a heat wallop. As I wrote previously:
If you’ve never heard of that style before, it’s a Tennessee variant invented in the 1930s as means of revenge. According to its origins story, a girlfriend made it for her cheating fella as punishment for his infidelity, but he ended up loving it so much that he and his brothers replicated the method/recipe and opened their own restaurant during the Great Depression. As to whether or not any of that is true is immaterial because it taste so damn good.
The marinated is meat is well seasoned, floured, buttermilked and deep fried before being sauced with a signature spice paste. The heat typically comes from cayenne, but its Scoville levels can be upped with any number of peppers (eg. Ghosts, even Carolina Reapers) depending on the lunacy of the person preparing it. Speaking personally, I’ll stick with medium. Again, it’s damn good stuff.
Doug and Lindsey have perfected the recipe, and they’re aiming to serve half birds, wings and breast sandwiches. A preview version of the sandwich is pictured at top. It’s plenty of chicken with a bright, wet outer crunch that packs a sweet and spicy kick. A sweet and sour coleslaw cap complicates the flavour further and provides textural contrast, as do sweet waffled pickle coins and a smear of special Mississippi-style “Comeback Sauce”, which is sort of like a remoulade with a light lick of heat to it (so-called, I presume, because it’ll make you want to come back to the restaurant). The bread is supposed to be soft and light, ideally a fluffy milk bun.
Doug tells me they’ll do mild, medium, hot, and extra hot versions, plus an over-the-top iteration called “A Side of Milk” for the heat-crazies. The small restaurant (15-20 seats) will also serve cornbread, coleslaw and fries — either curly or waffle-cut (they haven’t committed yet, though waffle-cut is the way in Tennessee). They also plan on serving a Hot Fish special once a week.
I can report that they have settled on crinkle cut fries instead of waffle or curly fries. These are coated with potato starch so they keep their crispiness and internal heat longer. They’re also spice-dusted, but not as intensely as the chicken. And speaking of chicken, prices start at $9 for a quarter bird and go up to $32 for a whole bird. Prediction: the $12 sandwich – done with thigh meat at Merchant’s Workshop but now all breast at DL – will rule the roost. Unsung hero? The pickle coins — they love fighting the heat!
DL’s official opening is set for June 13th, but I expect they’ll be doing more trial runs over the next few days, not to mention a couple of media services. Will they be open on Italian Day this weekend? Yes, but only serving sandwiches, and likely just through the window. Hours will be Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30am to 9:30pm, “or until chicken runs out”. Take a look: