Signatures: Hot Chicken Sandwich at South on Main

Most Arkansas restaurants have that one dish that they’re known by. It’s the dish that you crave, the one that puts the restaurant on the map. It’s the signature dish. This series tells the stories behind some of Little Rock’s most iconic plates and explores what makes them so memorable.

The signature dish: Hot Chicken Sandwich with Pickles and Coleslaw at South on Main

Availability: South on Main serves this one at lunch between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. It’s also on the bar menu, which is available all through dinner until closing time.

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The story: Nashville hot chicken is a distinctly southern American staple. There’s evidence to suggest it was being served in Central Tennessee as early as 1930, though it’s definitely been served at restaurants since the mid-1970s. What makes it different from other spicy chicken dishes is the spice paste made with lard or shortening, cayenne pepper and a host of other seasonings. The paste is usually applied by hand to the fried chicken and rubbed into the hot skin. It’s traditionally served on slices of white bread with pickles. When Chef Matt Bell was preparing to open South on Main, he knew this was a regional style that would be perfect for the menu.

“We try to explore the best of the South, not just the best in Arkansas,” said Bell. “Prior to opening, we had done a couple of events in Nashville and really wanted to find a way to make the hot chicken play a role over here. It’s one of those things we’re really proud of.”

What makes it unique: You’ll notice that South on Main does not call it a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, and that’s because of the spice paste. Chef Matt Bell uses duck fat instead of lard to make the paste. He also uses a chicken thigh marinated in buttermilk and hot sauce that gets breaded and fried before the duck fat paste goes on. The result is a crispy chicken sandwich that coats your palate in spicy goodness while the coleslaw on the side helps keep things from getting out of hand.  Chef Bell says his goal is to make it hot, just not too hot.

“I want it to be hot enough that, if you don’t like hot, you won’t order it, but it also needs to be really good.”

The price: At a very reasonable $10, this little burner is an ideal lunchtime delight. You’ll spend almost that much on fast food nowadays, and you won’t get a wonderfully crafted meal with decades of thought and love poured into it.

The verdict: This one is as close as you’ll get to Nashville without driving six hours. The balance of heat, crunch and light sweetness will make your eyes water as you dive back in for bite after bite. Whether those are tears from the heat or from just how good the sandwich is, I’ll let you decide.

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Signatures: Hot Chicken Sandwich at South on Main