CHATHAM — Opening Hot Chi Chicken N’ Cones was a bold move for Amer Abdullah, his brother and business partner.
The ad opened in October at 100 W. 87th St., the former home of arguably the best Harold’s Chicken outpost in town. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, the trio modeled their menu after Nashville Hot Chicken, a tradition perfected in Black Southern kitchens.
It’s far from the entrepreneur’s comfort zone. They’ve spent decades running family businesses in Hyde Park and weathered downturns during the pandemic. But the spot known for serving up Cheat Day Fries and the Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich while hip-hop is playing has garnered a national following and the support of its South Side neighbors by offering the Nashville -Inspiration with “Middle Eastern Seasonings and Sauces,” said Abdullah.
“We were concerned that the community would not support us as much as they have,” Abdullah said. “That was our fear. But things are very good. The community has really supported us.”
“Let’s open something here”
Abdullah never thought he would be in the Nashville Hot Chicken business.
A native of the southern suburbs, Abdullah has spent most of his life helping his family run Harper Foods in Hyde Park, a 40-year-old grocery store on 57th Street. For the past 30 years, he has owned and managed Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, a restaurant specializing in crispy falafel and lentil soup at 1206 E. 53rd St.
But the pandemic has brought its share of falls and unexpected opportunities, Abdullah said.
Abdullah’s brother Mutaz Abdullah owns the downtown restaurants Mezza Mediterranean Grill and Habanero Baja Grill, which struggled when the pandemic hit and thousands of workers switched to remote work.
As business in the city center was poor, Mutaz Abdullah decided it was time to open a restaurant in the heart of a neighborhood, Amer Abdullah said. So he started driving, driving through Lincoln Park and Hyde Park before landing on Chatham’s 87th Street Strip right next to the Dan Ryan, Amer Abdullah said.
“He was in Chatham and he was like, ‘Yo, I think we should go to this little strip area right here. It’s been popping for years, and it feels like it’s going to pop even more. Let’s open something here,'” said Amer Abdullah.
Next came choosing a kitchen.
Over at Cedars, Amer Abdullah and his business partner Kinan Moufti have teamed up with a chef to add menu items like a Nashville Hot Chicken-inspired fried wrap, Amer Abdullah said. At the time, Popeyes and Chick-fil-A were fighting over who had the best chicken sandwich.
“I was like, ‘These fried chicken wars are hilarious, and this chicken sandwich wrap is amazing. What if I omit the wrap and put a brioche bun inside? We got ourselves a killer chicken sandwich,” said Amer Abdullah. “It’s like a souped-up sandwich. But I was like, ‘I think this thing is better than the Popeyes sandwich.'”
Amer Abdullah swapped the wrapper for a bun and renamed the dish Popeye’s Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich, he said.
Neighbors loved the name and the sandwich, Amer Abdullah said. Nashville Hot Chicken has always been one of Chatham’s best competitors; The success of Popeye’s Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich confirmed the choice.
But if they wanted to do it, they had to do it right, Amer Abdullah said.
“Nashville Hot Chicken was born in the black neighborhoods of Nashville, but there are a few white people here and everyone is benefiting,” said Amer Abdullah. “So we had to be extra careful.”
Nashville Hot is seasoned and breaded fried chicken, often seasoned with cayenne pepper and coated in a spicy oil or hot sauce.
To honor the tradition, Mutaz Abdullah flew to Nashville, knocked on the doors of places like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and befriended chefs who taught him how to cook their signature chicken, Amer Abdullah said.
Mutaz Abdullah returned to Chicago with encouragement to further her business and a plan to incorporate her culinary background to highlight her Nashville hot chicken.
Hot Chi Chicken adds garlic, peppers, sumac, onions and “flavors that are big in Middle Eastern cuisine to the batter,” Amer Abdullah said. The Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t is dipped in a harissa glaze and topped with toum, a garlic sauce. The coleslaw is prepared with coriander and lemon instead of mayonnaise.
“We took inspiration from Nashville, but when you take that first bite, you get the Nashville flavor and some other funky, garlicky pepper sauces and flavors,” said Amer Abdullah. “For us it was important to be real but add our spin.”
“The community really supported us”
Hot Chi Chicken’s location was once home to Harold’s Chicken #55, one of the chain’s most popular locations.
Owner Percy Billings closed the restaurant in 2020 after a dispute with the mall’s management company. Fans, including Chance The Rapper, were dismayed by the news.
Amer Abdullah said he was cautious about taking over the space.
“Harold’s is a place with a long history,” said Amer Abdullah. “I thought, ‘Do you want to take this seat? This will cause some emotions in this community. We have to tread carefully.’”
Amer Abdullah asked friends in the community for advice. They told him: Ask permission before you come in and invite community leaders into the room. Abdullah said they were in contact with Ald. Among others Howard Brookins (21st) and My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole. They have also held pop-up vaccination events and committed to hiring only neighborhood workers, Amer Abdullah said.
The goal is to breathe life into the community, not take something away from black neighbors, businesses or leaders, Abdullah said.
“I am honored that together we have decided to hire, coach and train community workers. You are a killer stick. And because they love what they do, customers feel that too,” said Amer Abdullah.
Since opening, Hot Chi Chicken has found its rhythm as a business.
The restaurant has become more of a take-out place than a sit-in place, but that’s fine, Amer Abdullah said.
Neighbors and enthusiasts on YouTube and TikTok have traveled far to test Hot Chi Chicken’s varying degrees of heat, ranging from mild to Call Ya Mama! while you fetch to the music.
Expansion with another location might be an option one day, but for now the goal is to serve the Chatham community and do well, Amer Abdullah said. So far the risk has paid off.
“We hoped we could do enough to support our families and keep the business going, and that’s more than we expected,” Amer Abdullah said. “We feel blessed of God to be successful in this way.”
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