Hot Chicken Takeover Delivers Damn Good Nashville-Style Birds at Crocker Park 

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Photo by Emanuel Wallace

Our nation is presently in the grip of a fried chicken frenzy. Celebrity chefs are unveiling fried chicken spin-offs, every other restaurant has added fried chicken sandwiches to the menu, and variations like Korean-fried chicken, fried chicken and waffles, and Nashville hot chicken continue to gain market share. Why are diners obsessed with fried chicken? Because it's delicious. Messy, but delicious.

The best fried chicken shacks keep it simple, do it right and deliver the goods in an attractive setting with great customer service. If you can add an inspiring social mission to the mix, all the better. That describes Hot Chicken Takeover right down to the job application. The Columbus-based company prides itself on being a fair-chance employer, opening the door to qualified applicants even if they happen to be one of the 70 million U.S. citizens with a criminal record.

In just five years, the company has grown from a weekend-only pop-up shop to a buzzworthy brand with four locations, three in Columbus and one in Westlake, which opened two months ago at Crocker Park. The restaurant succeeds because it employs a streamlined menu, constructs bold, striking restaurants, delivers exceptional customer service and, duh, produces consistently excellent fried chicken, spicy and otherwise.

While concise, the menu does have its quirks, some obvious, others cryptic. There are no chicken thighs in the building, a shortcoming belonging only to the Cleveland store owing to inconsistent supply. There are no combination plates, meaning that drums, wings and breasts are sold only as drums, wings and breasts. Those cuts, along with a sandwich, are offered as meals that include sides. You would be hard pressed to find it mentioned on the wall-mounted board or the small paper menus, but you can ditch the sides and save four bucks.

Hot chicken is in the name, so that's a great place to start. Chicken is offered in four spice levels: cold, warm, hot and holy. Cold chicken is still hot chicken, it's just not spicy chicken. The others build in heat from a mellow glow to a serious sizzle, topping out at a no-joke blaze. Obviously, personal spice tolerances vary. On your first visit, consider getting the drumsticks ($11.50) or the wings ($11.50), which come four and five to an order, respectively, and can be mixed in terms of heat levels. I've had the hottest version of Nashville hot chicken down south and found HCT's "holy" less incendiary, which is a good thing because there is always tomorrow. Most of the burn resides in the breading, so if your ego turns out bigger than your fortitude, you can always shed the bread and salvage the meal.

All chicken starts fresh, is brined, and then fried to order, meaning it's never sitting around. I'm not typically a drumstick fan, but when it's the only dark meat available, you roll with it. These proved better than most: meaty, tender and easily extracted from the bone. It is encased, like all the fried chicken sold here, in a craggy, crackly crust that is a joy to eat and the reason we love fried chicken. Wings are sold whole — flats, drumettes and tips — and are a tad on the dry side compared to the other cuts. They also are breaded, which can be a turnoff for Buffalo-style wing fans.

Breasts are available as a meal ($12.75) or in a sandwich ($13.25). Large, whole (both halves), boneless and skinless pieces arrive remarkably plush, juicy and flavorful. In sandwich form, the meat is tucked into slices of white bread and topped with slaw and snappy pickles. Meals come with a choice of two sides from a short list of three that includes thick and cheesy mac and cheese, a bright and crunchy mayo-free slaw, and dark, sweet and smoky beans.

After the chicken, the most popular item at Hot Chicken Takeover is likely the dreamy, creamy and refreshing ranch dressing, which flows free from a bottomless vessel and helps douse those cayenne-induced blazes. Also free are the iced teas, both sweetened and unsweetened. For dessert, there's banana pudding ($3.75) in a plastic cup that tastes like a summer picnic from 1975.

After ordering and paying, guests grab seats in the bright, colorful dining room outfitted with communal tables, low stools and red and white checked table-toppers. An upbeat soundtrack provides the backdrop for quick, casual and merry meals that are hard to find much fault in.

North Coasters seem to be digging the food, says "head fryer" (aka owner) Joe DeLoss, who reports a very positive reception while hinting at future growth.

"We're excited to keep expanding throughout Northeast Ohio, with a lot in the works already," he says.

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