Royals' dining room. |Photo by Steve Coomes
Royals’ dining room |Photo by Steve Coomes

If you stop by Royals Hot Chicken during this week’s soft opening (5-9 p.m. until Monday), you may not recognize or even care that your meal is merely a test of the new concept’s systems, its staff’s ability to execute operating partner Ryan Rogers’ plan of service, and a means of gauging how well you like its products.

You’ll probably get wrapped up in soaking up the space’s attributes (basically all white floors, walls, tables and lights for now), the fast-casual order-at-the-counter system and, of course, the food. The fiery, fried goodness known as Nashville-style hot chicken is why you came and what you expect to be different from nearly any chicken option in town.

Through the door to the kitchen, you’ll catch a glimpse of Rogers and his co-executive chefs Joe Banet and Andy McCabe discussing what’s going well, what isn’t and how to tweak any issues. If that leads you to think, “It’s just fried chicken, what can be so hard about it?” then you’ve never worked in a chicken restaurant. Frying chicken itself isn’t hard, but making it delicious, unique and having it ready when guests arrive is no mean feat.

“People say, ‘It’s got to be easier than barbecue,’” said Rogers, founder and co-owner of Feast BBQ here and in New Albany. “Once you get into it, you realize there are way more components than you see on the surface.”

Such as brining all its chicken pieces for 12 to 24 hours, then breading it correctly.

Royals' baked sweet potato with sorghum butter and its quarter dark chicken with spice level Hot. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Royals’ baked sweet potato with sorghum butter and its quarter dark chicken with spice level hot | Photo by Steve Coomes

“We flour it into a wash and then go back into the flour … which, when you fry it, creates what’s called feathering of the chicken. We want to create a breading that’s light and airy and has holes and divots in it, flaky on the outside.

“With barbecue, it’s hot and we can sell it immediately. With fried chicken, you look out and see 20 people in line and then calculate that you’ll need X amount of chicken, and then figure out whether that’s six quarters of dark meat or white meat and whether we’ll sell 10 sandwiches.”

Rogers credited his experience working at McDonald’s as a teen for making him systems oriented. There he learned to gauge customer flow and kitchen production needs.

But seeing as it’s your job to eat and not calculate meat pars, such mental hurdles aren’t your responsibility. Your chore is to decide whether you want dark meat, white meat, one of two chicken sandwiches and what heat level you’d prefer.

And here is where Nashville hot chicken distinguishes itself from others. Once the chicken is pressure-fried, it’s tossed in a paste of oil and dried ground chiles that gives it a dense brown coating. That paste also is tailored to your preference for pepper-induced heat, ranging from mild to Gonzo, which, according to a diner seated next to me, delivered such a capsaicin-induced endorphin high, “It made me feel like I’d just smoked pot.”

I took his word for it and was glad I ordered mine two steps down at hot.

“Gonzo uses the three hottest peppers there are: Ghost, Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion,” he said. According to Rogers, each of those deliver more than 1 million Scoville heat units of palate-punishing burn. By comparison, cayenne peppers used in his hot choice register between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville heat units. “But none of our heat levels is just one note. We blend them with other spices to create a lot of flavors.”

Since my Insider colleague Kevin Gibson will do a more detailed review of the food in January, I’ll say little more than I really liked it — chicken, sides and all.

And I love the community tables and the fast-casual set up, a trend Rogers acknowledged may be the smartest way to go in the modern-day restaurant industry.

Royals' dining room. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Royals’ dining room | Photo by Steve Coomes

“If you look at the broad spectrum nationally, people are going fast-casual, and full-service restaurants, especially at the higher end, are declining as a whole,” Rogers said. “As a fast-casual operator, you have fewer employees to worry about, and you can turn tables faster than a fine-dining restaurant would.”

Rogers conceded that while restaurants are his creative outlet, no amount of creativity will keep it running if the economics aren’t sound. He said his silent partners help him there.

“I’m really lucky they’re the guys who crunch the numbers,” Rogers said. In his first year as the sole owner of Feast in New Albany, he admitted, “We were flying by the seat of our pants, but not at Feast in NuLu or here. They have very clear expectations of how we should operate.”

As demonstrated at Feast, Royals stays true to Rogers’ insistence on house-made food. Outside of the menu’s spicy potato wedge side, every menu item, dipping sauce, dessert, dressing and spice mix is made onsite.

“It kills me when I go to a place I think is going to be good, but then you find out the mac and cheese is made from powdered cheese sauce that’s rehydrated, and someone just threw in some overcooked macaroni,” he said.

All side items except the broccoli and bacon salad are ovo-lacto vegetarian friendly.

“You could get a whole baked sweet potato (with sorghum butter) and two sides, and just that is a meal in itself,” he said.

Of the dozen or so hot chicken spots he and his chefs visited in Tennessee, he said none had milkshakes on the menu. Dairy, if you’re not aware, is the ideal way to cool a pepper burn. Not water, not beer and especially not soda, whose carbonated tongue-scrubbing effect gives the appearance of fueling the fire.

“It’s a perfect pairing I’m surprised they all overlooked,” Rogers said.

And speaking of beer, none is available at the moment since Royals’ permit is still in the hands of the local authorities. When the taps do start flowing, expect about 20 choices on draft.

Rogers wished beer was available at the outset, but since an investment like that poured into the former Taco Punk space generates no return without customers, the partners opened the doors without it.

“You can’t just keep waiting,” said Rogers, who also had to gather his crew to tile the kitchen floor when tile setters failed to show up. “It’s never an easy process, opening a restaurant.”

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