The Lost Nashville Hot Chicken History of Los Angeles

In 1992, Kim Prince and her twin, Kelly, rode with their mother, Louise Prince, to Lancaster’s second-ever California Poppy Festival. The springtime event usually coincides with the flower’s annual bloom and draws visitors from around the world just to catch a glimpse of hills covered in a sea of orange and yellow flowers. California’s magnificent state flower is always a draw, but the Prince sisters — who were home from college on a visit — came to see what their father, Martin, was up to.

As the family parked the car and wandered through rows of food and retailers, they caught the scent of something familiar. Right there in the middle of the festival was Kim’s father hovering over a fryer in a small easy-up tent, knee-deep in a familiar process. Martin was busy deep-frying batch after batch of the Prince family’s signature dish, Nashville hot chicken.

“It was a little rinky-dink setup, and it was amazing that he could pump out all that chicken,” says Kim. “People would wrap a white slice of bread around the wing. We just jumped right in and started helping. He was a schoolteacher and track coach who was not trying to be a businessman. He just loves cooking chicken. He does it for the thrill.”

Martin set up the Poppy Festival stand as a one-time idea, but the organizers were smitten. “We ran out of chicken, as a matter of fact,” recalls Martin. “And they [the festival organizers] kept asking us to come back.” But Martin — a high school psychology teacher and head track coach — had a busy professional life and a close-knit family.

This moment at a local flower festival marks the region’s introduction to hot chicken. Martin Prince, the grand-nephew of Thornton Prince III — who created the hot fried chicken recipe in Nashville during the 1930s — initiated Southern California’s hot chicken era back in 1992. Armed with an outdoor kitchen, marinated wings and legs, a bag of spiced flour, and a cozy tent, Martin inadvertently introduced his family’s signature recipe to the area 24 years before it became a regional phenomenon.

Hotville chicken on a tray with checkered paper and pickles.

Matthew Kang

In 2021, that same crispy, crusty, heat-laden chicken maintains a ubiquitous presence throughout Southern California. It’s impossible to miss Nashville hot chicken’s ascension, especially in Los Angeles. Howlin’ Ray’s maintains a rabid fanbase, Dave’s Hot Chicken remains on a fast track to expansion, and other restaurants completely reworked their menus to include one of LA’s most-favored dishes. It’s not uncommon to see hot chicken pop-ups from Glendale to the San Fernando Valley. In November, Michael Mina opened a new takeout joint in Glendale, where the James Beard award-winning chef combined Japanese fried chicken with hot chicken. At Glendale’s Rockbird, the company ditched its char-broiled Cornish hens in favor of deep-fried chicken sandwiches. Of course, a spicy, crispy chicken patty is an option too. And in 2019, Kim Prince opened her brick-and-mortar Hotville Chicken inside the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall.

After 29 years, Nashville-style hot chicken has secured an undeniable spot at the center of Los Angeles life. A hot chicken detective could easily find fingerprints from at least one family member in its history.

Prior to 2015, hot chicken was nowhere to be found in LA, unless you were adjacent to a Prince family member. Back in Nashville in the late 1970s, Martin’s sister Andre Prince-Jeffries — the current matriarch of the Prince family business — quit her job working as a property appraiser to take over the family business while raising two daughters. Andre wanted to keep it in the family. “At my mother’s suggestion, I took over the restaurant,” says Andre. “Big businesses are taking over everything; mom-and-pop businesses are disappearing very fast.”

During Andre’s tenure, the Prince’s longstanding family business, originally known as the BBQ Chicken Shack, gained an international fandom. One of Andre’s first acts was to change the name to Prince’s Hot Chicken in 1980. She never looked back.

Around this same time, in 1971, Martin and Louise moved their family from Nashville to LA. The couple believed California held better opportunities for their children and stayed until 1978, when Martin and Andre’s mother became sick with breast cancer in Nashville. They waited until 1987 to move back to Southern California, but this time, they chose to live in Lancaster, a sleepy community 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The Princes first came to LA at the tail end of the second Great Migration — when Southern Blacks moved to northern and western states from 1940 to 1970 for better economic opportunities — and Southern California’s Black population expanded considerably. Southern transplants like the Princes moved into South LA and Antelope Valley, pushing cities like Palmdale and Lancaster into having LA County’s largest concentrations of Black residents. While many found work at places like Edwards Air Force Base or in the private sector, Martin and Louise both worked in education in neighboring Palmdale, where they continued their teaching careers and raised five children.

When asked why her father didn’t open a hot chicken restaurant in California, Kim replies, “It wasn’t his calling. The water wasn’t always right.”

Perhaps it’s because Martin Prince considers himself a country boy at heart. He now lives in Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. Martin has vivid memories of his grandfather delivering chickens to the BBQ Chicken Shack, when uncles Thornton and Alphonso still ran the shop.

As for Kim, she settled into post-college life in LA and continued to prepare and share the family dish. “I made hot chicken for my friends at church, and in 2004 when working in television at CBS,” she recalls. “[In 2009], I remember cooking in my friend’s yard because he had an outdoor turkey fryer where he brought all these frozen chicken wings.”

Kim continued down this path for years before her Chinatown hot chicken pop-ups and events. Four years before opening her popular Hotville Chicken restaurant in 2019, Kim was invited to cater at an event for 200 people at Pacific Mariner’s Yacht Club in Marina del Rey. A club member heard about Nashville chicken and convinced Kim to prepare lunch. The pressure was on, so she knew who to call for help: her father.

On a warm summer day in Marina del Rey, Kim stood and watched a spectacle unfold in the yacht club’s kitchen. The guests were due to arrive at any moment to eat hot fried chicken, barbecue baked beans, and kale coleslaw with buttermilk dressing. She was nervous, but she had a support team in place with her daughter Kendall, a friend, and Martin, who flew all the way in from Tennessee.

Even though no fryers were available, the elder Prince got busy on the stovetop and their team quickly settled into a rhythm. This wasn’t the first time she had cooked with her father, so Kim hid the salt shaker from him, knowing he was a bit heavy-handed with the sodium, but let him fry the chicken while she prepared for the crowds to show up.

“Hot chicken can smoke up any place,” Kim says. “My dad started cooking, took his time poking at the frying chicken, and it drew people into the kitchen. They came in because of the smell and were curious to know what was cooking. And my dad was doing it. Those folks came into the kitchen and started hanging out in the kitchen with us.”

As yacht club members entered the kitchen to observe, the Princes put guests to work, quoting Kim’s Aunt Andre, who always said, “If you’re gonna be in the kitchen, you’ve got to work.” People happily participated, setting up tables while the elder Prince continued to fry.

“It’s a spirit around hot chicken,” says Kim. “It brings people together.”

Hotville Chicken owner Kim Prince stands confidently in front of a banner in the restaurant’s LA location.

Kim Prince

The event happened in the summer of 2015, when Nashville hot chicken was still fairly unknown in Los Angeles. That changed in 2016, when Howlin’ Ray’s opened in Chinatown. As Howlin’s lines got longer and longer, hot chicken exploded in the region.

Throughout its years-long rise to popularity, Andre Prince-Jeffries watched from nearly 3,000 miles away, keeping up through phone calls, articles, and secondhand stories from family and friends. She loved hearing about Martin’s experience frying chicken next to poppy fields, and beamed with pride when she heard accounts of Kim’s lunch at the yacht club. The close-knit family keeps up with each other regularly, even more so now as Andre recovers from knee surgery. She hopes to travel to California when the coronavirus pandemic is over. “I’m very proud of them, praise God!” says Andre. “That’s what it’s all about. I’m almost 75 years old. I would love to see [Los Angeles] someday.”

Andre still marvels over hot chicken’s prominence. In 1996, former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell declared Prince’s to be the best restaurant in Tennessee. She shared how even President Barack Obama’s secret service agents scheduled a sandwich pickup. And hot chicken continues to expand across Los Angeles. Andre is humbled, but not surprised. “‘Keep it going,’ as my mother always said,” Andre says. “People will do anything, but they always got to eat. That has encouraged me because people do eat. I’m glad when folks don’t cook.”

Andre marveled when Howlin’ Ray’s owner Johnny Ray Zone brought his staff to Nashville to try the chicken and observe the Prince operations. “They stayed all day,” she laughs. “I was blown away. But they don’t have the recipe. That’s a secret, of course.”

One can barely travel a few LA blocks without stumbling upon a hot chicken spot. And while it’s possible that Martin and Kim Prince’s early appeal factored into Nashville hot chicken’s national popularity, Andre finds it all positive. “If anyone anywhere has anything to do with hot chicken,” she says, “it’s a tribute to Nashville, my family, and all goes back to my great-uncle.”


Leave a Reply