By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Nashville’s crunkest hot-fish sandwich is also its biggest. The Giant King, signature dish at Eastside Fish, is a pair of whiting fillets, each at least a half pound, dredged in seasoned cornmeal and fried crisp, then sandwiched between doubled slices of soft supermarket white bread. The fish is moist and delicate, its brittle crust mottled with splotches of four-alarm Louisiana hot sauce and festooned with crunchy raw onion, dill-pickle chips, and smooth yellow mustard.
Hot-fish sandwiches are a staple at soul-food restaurants throughout the South, but the tradition is strongest in Nashville, where they are the specialty of shacks, stands, and drive-throughs. Donald “Bo” Boatright, who started Eastside Fish in 2003, grew up eating them as part of what he calls “summer nights of fun”—evenings when neighbors gathered to play cards and eat hot fish. Standard companions for the fish are bread, hush puppies, coleslaw, and, strangely enough, spaghetti with meat sauce.
When Boatright opened his shop, his goal was to set a benchmark for hot fish: bigger, juicier, crisper, and just-right hot. “As long as anybody has been living here in Nashville, there has never been a sandwich this big before,” he boasts. “We did not invent the wheel. We improved it. We are the crunkest in town, hands down.” Inside a goldfish bowl serving as a tip jar at the counter a sign announces, “Triple C’s Is How We Rate: Crowned Cashville’s Crunkest.”
What exactly is crunk? Slang lexicons suggest it may be a contraction of crazy and drunk, customarily used to describe high-energy hip-hop music. Boatright puts it this way: “Crunk is hyper. It’s the most and the best. The cutting edge. You see those kids wave-surfing at a concert? That’s crunk.”
He adds, “Eastside pride, that’s what I’m talking about. Everybody who walks in here gets the best southern crunk hospitality.” No kidding.
During the couple of days we spent around the counter where people come to get their call-in orders or to place an order and wait, we did not see a single customer, black or white, whom Bo didn’t personally greet or who didn’t get a shout-out from one of the folks back in the kitchen. By our second afternoon at Eastside, even we were greeted by everyday regulars when they stopped in for their sandwiches, and the staff had come to learn that Jane abjures pickles and Michael likes his fish “burner-hot,” but not taken to the ultimate level, known here as “stupid.”
The small storefront, tucked back from Gallatin Pike, has a single tall table with a couple of stools, but Eastside’s business is virtually all take-out. Whiting is traditional; you can also get catfish, tilapia, or trout. There is no heat lamp to keep fish on hold, so from the time an order is placed, it takes a good 10 to 15 minutes for it to arrive. The brown paper bags in which customers receive their fish are steaming hot and splotched with oil, the sandwich inside wrapped in wax paper and held together with toothpicks.
There is rivalry among Nashville’s several hot-fish restaurants, especially between Eastside and a newcomer that calls itself KingFish, a name Boatright sees as an infringement of his own royal title. “We are the kings of fish,” he insists. “Let the people decide.” King Fish offers grilled fish (unheard of in the old-time places), and it claims to be king not only of fish but of chicken, too.
Hot chicken is as much a local passion as hot fish. It’s similarly fried and also available in varying degrees of Scoville-scale hurt. At Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, the whiting is fiery enough that you’ll hear spontaneous yelps in the tiny dining room as customers’ tongues light up a few moments after the first bite. Dolly Graham, Bolton’s manager, once promised us, “Our chicken is hot, but it won’t cause you to lose your composure.” Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack serves halves and quarters that are red-hot down to the bone, even when ordered mild. The hot stuff that permeates the meat is so compelling that our dining companions, whose order arrived 10 minutes after ours, were begging pieces of sauce-saturated bread from our brown paper bag full of chicken. We spoke with one customer who said that she needs a half chicken every weekday at lunch—extra-hot for the energy it gives her to get through the day. The hot wings at Eastside Fish are also terrific: jumbo drumettes fried so the skin develops a luxurious chewy crunch. They are served sauceless, so they don’t look hot—but they will clear your sinuses.
Devotees of hot fish and chicken sometimes call eating such intensely flavored food a “religious experience”—a metaphor for the rapture induced by its dizzying potency. But it is not uncommon for soul-food restaurants in the area to be decorated with overt religious imagery. The crown-wearing fish painted on the Eastside window has a cross where its eye would be, and Boatright makes a point of telling us that his use of the term King Fish to describe the product is subliminal. “We are the kings of fish, but Jesus is the King Fish. First, fresh, and foremost, honor and praise go to Him.” To explain, he offers an allegory about his personal journey into the hot-fish-sandwich business. “I was a man swimming in troublesome waters, like Nemo, down with the sharks, the octopus, and the whale. It was dark below and I went deep, deeper where there was no light. Then I found a treasure chest. In that chest was a skillet and a recipe. And I was blessed. I came into the light, and now I know. I tell people, Don’t be tricked by drugs or alcohol. The truth is in the skillet.”
Eastside Fish (permanently closed)
2617 Gallatin Pike
King Fish (permanently closed)
708 Monroe Ave.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack