Eat the Heat: Mrs. Chicken brings fire and flavor to the Phoenix food scene

Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, August 2019 Issue.

Normally, signing a legal waiver before your meal

is not a good sign. However, at Mrs. Chicken — established by the owner

and namesake of Frasher’s Smokehouse — to try the hottest of their Nashville

hot chicken, you’ll have to do just that.

Though the

waiver is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, when it comes to fried chicken and

barbecue, George Frasher is serious as a ghost pepper’s Scoville Heat Unit

ranking of over one million. As a reference for non “pepper-heads,” the term

Frasher describes spice lovers with, that’s roughly 125 times hotter than

jalapenos. Whether he’s traveling the country to judge barbecue contests or

lighting his own mouth ablaze testing his chicken’s kick, Frasher’s passion for

food and flavor are clear as my sinuses were after trying the hottest spice

level at Mrs. Chicken.

For Frasher, running his own restaurant has

been a dream since he was a teen washing dishes in his hometown of St. Louis.

He worked in kitchens at the city’s most well-known icons, such as the 630-foot

tall Gateway Arch and the steam-powered paddleboats chugging along the

Mississippi River. He refined his culinary game studying hospitality at the University

of Missouri. After graduating, Frasher moved to Kansas City to manage a

restaurant for the barbecue sauce manufacturer KC Masterpiece. He honed his

meat roasting skills there while studying the four major regional schools of

American barbecue: Texas, Memphis, Carolina and, of course, Kansas City.

Yardbird sandwich w/ red beans and rice.

Eventually, Frasher was lured to the Valley

by a former boss’s offer to serve as area manager for a barbecue chain. After

three years, Frasher was finally ready to fulfill his life’s dream. Having

secured a location in Scottsdale, he opened Frasher’s Steak House and Lounge in

1999. Though it closed in 2015 due to its building being sold, Frasher packed

up everything he could and opened his eponymous smokehouse in Phoenix. Serving

slow-cooked barbecue, Frasher’s Smokehouse quickly established itself as one of

Phoenix’s premier meat markets, and one of the few places in the Valley where

one can get brisket burnt ends. On Sundays, he filled a cast iron skillet with

peanut oil, and served one of his personal favorites for the daily special:

fried chicken.

Fried chicken holds a special place in

Frasher’s heart, and stomach. Unfortunately, it took 25 minutes to cook, while

other dishes came straight from the smoker ready to go. Frasher reluctantly

pulled fried chicken from the rotation because of this. Even so, while touring

the nation to participate in and judge barbecue competitions, he also sampled

the best fried chicken he could find. One fiery variety in particular was music

to his gut. “I went to Nashville and fell in love with hot chicken,”

he recalls.

Two-piece breast quarters with sides.

Like a juicy chicken breast marinating in

buttermilk brine, Frasher immersed himself in the fascinating history of

Nashville Hot Chicken. He visited the capital of country music’s best chicken

peddlers, such as Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which helped popularize the dish

nationally. Of course, he paid homage to the first restaurant to serve the now

famous dish, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. There he met André Prince Jeffries and

learned how her great uncle Thorton Prince’s philandering led to the creation

of the peppery poultry. “The way the story goes is that Thorton came home late

one Saturday night. On Sunday, his lady friend got up and started cooking

his favorite meal: fried chicken,” Frasher explained with a grin.

“She thought she’d get even and threw a whole bunch of extra

cayenne pepper in the chicken. Well, it ended up backfiring. He

lapped it up and asked for seconds. That’s how hot chicken was invented.”

While Frasher was at the Jack Daniel’s

World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Tennessee, the landlord of a

recently closed Mexican restaurant phoned. Located a few blocks south of

Frasher’s Smokehouse on 32nd Street and Indian School, the

building’s owner asked if he might be interested in leasing it. Though

initially reluctant, Frasher realized it was the perfect opportunity to share

his love of hot chicken with the Valley.

At various times an ice cream parlor,

burger joint, Italian restaurant and others, Frasher completely remodeled the

mid-century building to give it the feel of a true Southern chicken shack. He

had custom windows installed, complete with chicken wire. The counters were

made from thick slabs of alligator juniper and the walls covered in gleaming

white subway tile. With the building ready, Frasher named the restaurant after

one his father and uncle had once run, and thus Mrs. Chicken opened its doors

on April 20.

Patrons can order all the classic cuts of

chicken, with white or dark meat options, as well as wings, tenders and a

sandwich. All these are available in a range of spice levels, from no heat to

potentially harmful. While Frasher plans to increase the heat by incorporating

newer varieties of peppers in the future — such as the Trinidad Scorpion Pepper

and the Carolina Reaper — our party found it plenty hot as is. A word of

warning to the brave few who sign the waiver and try the “Burn Our Face Off”

spice level; don’t be fooled by the first bite! Though initially it didn’t seem

so hot, I foolheartedly kept chowing down. After a minute, it felt like I was

using a stun gun for a lollypop. Luckily, there are free refills for drinks,

plus Kool-Aid and milk are available. I recommend sticking to the mid-spiciness

levels, as it lets the full range of flavors shine through the capsaicin burn.

Being a wimp, I ordered my yard bird

sandwich mild. The breast was a fresh cut of Mary’s Free Range Chicken, made

juicier by soaking in a brine and then dredged in flour, spices and buttermilk.

Served on a brioche bun with Provel cheese, mustard slaw, pickle chips and

honky-tonk sauce, the texture and flavors just right. My dining companion, who

fancies herself as heat-resistant as a Targaryen, went with the second hottest

level. This proved just the right amount of fire for her.

George Frasher, owner of Mrs. Chicken.

Rounding out the menu are a range of sides

drawn from Frasher’s southern culinary roots. Though sadly they were out of the

baked potato salad when we came in, the collard greens and mustard slaw did not

disappoint. The bacon-infused collard greens were tender with a complex flavor,

seeming to melt in the mouth. The slaw was particularly good, not drowned in

bland mayo but crunchy and rich with tangy mustard goodness. The crinkle cut

fries, dusted in barbecue spices, were a fine savory companion, especially when

dipped in the honky-tonk sauce.

While the number of restaurants offering Nashville hot chicken throughout the Valley are proliferating almost as quickly as our governor’s attack on an insufficiently patriotic footwear manufacturer, Mrs. Chicken rules the roost in my book.

Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

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