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At Counting House, Holding the Chicken in Nashville Hot Chicken

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Josh Munchel remembers the first time he ate Nashville hot chicken. In fact, four years ago, he and several other chefs from his hometown of Cincinnati made a road trip with the mission of visiting Prince's, the epicenter of the pungent regional favorite. He remembers not only how it tasted—he liked the crunch and zest—but especially how it felt.

"We tried all the levels of spice that they have," says Munchel. "And the hottest one shot tingles through you, those crazy nerve-ending feelings, like your arms and legs went to sleep on you."

Nashville Hot Chicken at Counting House - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Nashville Hot Chicken at Counting House

You won't get the same sensation from Munchel's latest creation at the bar of the Counting House, the high-ceilinged restaurant he helms on the ground floor of Durham's 21c Museum Hotel. You won't get chicken, either. Instead, Munchel has applied the idea of Nashville's notoriously spicy bird (now so vogue it's on the menu at Kentucky Fried Chicken and the basis for a new Durham food truck) to tempeh, the meat substitute made from fermented soybeans.

Munchel first encountered tempeh while working at a sushi restaurant early in his career, but he imagined this dish only after the Durham Vegan Drinks crew reserved a table for an evening cocktail at the Counting House. Munchel sources his beans from TempehGirl, a Hillsborough-based upstart that skips popular tempeh-making shortcuts to up the flavor.

As you would do with chicken, Munchel brines the tempeh in a high-spice solution before dredging it through a batter of flour, cornstarch, soy milk, and a healthy dose of potent flavors, including paprika and cayenne. When each piece emerges from the fryer, he stirs it through a spiced fat bath, so that the tempeh's skin seems actually to bleed heat. This, Munchel confesses, is the real Nashville secret.

"That fat makes it pop," he says. "It adds that spicy coating to the fritter."

As the tempeh cools, Munchel ladles a very mild vegan ranch dressing—made from mixing pureed firm tofu with more soy milk and a light spice blend—on a rectangular piece of shiny slate. He plops five pieces of tempeh in a crooked line through the spread, curls thinly sliced pickles around and alongside them, and sprinkles greens across the top.

No, Munchel's tempeh skins won't make you cry, or even tingle. But at five dollars a plate, they may make you demand a second, sizzling round.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fowl Play"

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