PICTURED: A chicken “sando” in The Good spice level with comeback sauce. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

nshaffer@timespublications.com

Burnin’ Mouth Nashville Hot Chicken
The Annex Food Hall at The Collection
500 Collection Blvd. #180, Oxnard
805-485-1288
burninmouth.com
$3-14


A few years back, I met up with friends in Los Angeles’ Chinatown for dim sum. Heading to the restaurant, I noticed a long line forming at a small, nondescript eatery in Far East Plaza. The place didn’t appear to be open yet. About two hours later, as we emerged for a little sojourn to walk off some of the bao and siu mai, I noticed that the line had expanded outside the plaza and halfway down the block. That place was Howlin’ Ray’s, a purveyor of Nashville hot chicken, and one of the early meccas in Southern California for the spicy fried specialty.

For those not in the know, Nashville hot chicken is fried chicken that gets doused with cayenne and plenty of it — sometimes in the fry spices, sometimes as a sauce or paste applied after cooking. It can be eaten on its own or in a bun as a sandwich (aka “sando”), and traditional accompaniments include pickles, coleslaw and comeback sauce, a spicy mayonnaise similar to remoulade.

Few foods are so good that I’d be willing to wait in the kind of line I saw at Howlin’ Ray’s, so it was some time before I found myself biting into my first piece of Nashville hot chicken, courtesy of the newly opened Burnin’ Mouth at the Collection in RiverPark. It was a somewhat painful, but delicious, revelation.

Before I go too far down the capsicum path, I should note that there are levels of spice that can be applied, meaning everyone can enjoy Burnin’ Mouth without…burning their mouth. The Simple is the lightest option, with little or no heat at all, followed by The Mild, The Good, The Ugly and The Insane. It’s a wide spectrum.

Our order included the Chick Tender Combo in Simple (chicken tenders); Chick Wing (chicken wings) in Mild; a Coo Coo Combo in Good and a Bang Bang Combo in Ugly. (I was, frankly, too scared to try The Insane.) All included fries, cheese balls, pickles and coleslaw; the tenders and wings also came with Texas toast.

The Simple tenders were wonderfully crispy and while not even a little spicy, still amply seasoned — no bland chicken here! Same with the Mild wings; absolutely delectable, with just a touch of heat — think paprika not chile. Both offered plenty of flavor and crunch, just without the pain. 

The Coo Coo Combo, also referred to as Nashville Style, included a spicy fried chicken breast on a lovely, soft brioche bun topped with pickles and slaw. This was in The Good spice level and had a decent kick — enough to feel it, not overly intense. I felt brave enough to add a little comeback sauce, which did increase the heat quite a bit. The perfect “sando” for the medium-spice lovers of the world.

The Bang Bang Combo, described as Burnin’ Mouth’s Signature Style, was our Ugly choice. This chicken sando was slathered in a sweet-hot glaze — the bang bang sauce — and was a true party-in-the-mouth experience. It was also <em>really</em> hot. I was shoveling in the fries and cheese balls to take the edge off between bites. I loved it, but it’s not for the faint of tastebud. 

The sides were good, not great. The crinkle-cut fries were lightly dusted with paprika and could have been saltier and crispier. I liked the creamy coleslaw, which soothed my tongue a bit, and the Texas toast. The cheese balls were more breadlike than cheesy; not bad but kind of heavy and a bit bland. (On the other hand, maybe bland is preferable when you’re dealing with a flavor overload.)

Take home message: Burnin’ Mouth will live up to its name, if you let it. But if you’re just looking for some really good, simple, tasty fried chicken — well, it does that beautifully, too. No matter where you’re at, the spice is right.