30 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY february 22-28, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com “You ate the hot?” Chef Rudolfo Ponce says with astonishment. “Oh my God! I don’t even eat the hot.” He is, of course, the one who came up with the diabolical recipe and placed it on the menu—a take on Nashville hot chicken, a dish that has escaped the confines of Music City and is sweeping the nation. Ponce serves it once a week, on Sundays, when he transforms his Italian spot Rudolfo’s in downtown Pacific Grove to an in-house pop-up known as Heatwaves. It’s an apt name, if you venture beyond level one or two on Ponce’s thermometer. There are four heat levels to choose from, with the highest— level four, or hot—more of a dare. “Scorpion, Reaper, Ghost…” the chef says, ticking off the notorious chiles in his recipe. Habanero is one of the milder ingredients. For reference, habaneros measure in the 200,000 Scoville Units range, while the feared Carolina Reaper flares up to 2.2 million. Jalapeños are meek by comparison, at around 5,000. There’s no requirement that diners must open the blast furnace, however. Mild—level two—is simply a straightup good piece of fried chicken, tender with a crackling veneer of crust. Ponce brines the meat for 12 hours, first in a wet bath then a dry spell, with fans subjecting the birds to a steady breeze. It’s a trick he learned while working with famed chef Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Yountville. “It makes the skin more crispy,” he explains. Ponce starts bringing the heat at level three, or medium. This version lures, pretending to be manageable. The first bite carries a swarthy spice that ripples with earthiness and even a soft, nutty savor. A delicate, brittle crust is satisfying in the captivating manner of Southern church basement fried chicken. Simply put, the chicken is really good. But the seasoning doesn’t wait long before unleashing its fiendish reign. It sizzles like a fuse and then ignites on the palate. This is what made Nashville hot chicken all the rage. Like a flame, the spice has different hues that layer, albeit with ferocity. “Nobody was doing anything like this [on the Peninsula], and it was a trend,” Ponce says of the reasoning behind Heatwaves. The pop-up quickly became a sensation among those who crave the endorphin rush sparked by chiles. “We have merchandise now.” As the story goes, Nashville hot chicken was first created by a wife looking to punish her womanizing husband. So she spiked his favorite dish, hoping to see him tear up in pain. Instead, he loved the fired-up bird. So did friends he shared it with. So why did it take so long for the rest of the world to find out about it? Well, according to Rachel L. Martin, a scholar writing in The Bitter Southerner, hot chicken made it to a diner, Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack, in a Black neighborhood of segregated Nashville some 80 years ago. There it remained, bound to a small but devoted market by racist traditions. Eventually, Prince’s moved to a location within whiffing distance of Ryman Auditorium of Grand Ole Opry fame. Martin cites country star Lorrie Morgan, who remembers her father and country legend George Morgan, being enticed by the aroma of hot chicken, but unable to trace its source. Once he found it, however, Morgan was hooked. Other country music stars followed, also becoming fans—which presented the staff at Prince’s with the problem of where to seat white folks. Nashville hot chicken finally reached a broader audience thanks to a little in-house tiff that caused Prince’s cook, Bolton Polk, to bolt and open his own chicken shack in the late 1970s. So popularity was slow to come. But now, Ponce observes, “We have people come in all the time for the hot.” Fortunately, the presentation includes a cool slaw—sweet and creamy, with herbal notes and a grounded spice. It’s a side dish (or sandwich topping) with a purpose, crafted to contend with Nashville hot chicken and well suited to the contest. The slaw and the cleaving snap of pickle can cause it to relent momentarily, giving you a chance to contemplate the implications of Dante. Rudolfo’s Café and Heatwaves, 543 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. 920-1381, rudolfoscafe.com. First course Chef Rudolfo Ponce doesn’t wish to punish guests of Heatwaves, so he offers four different heat levels, from “this is great fried chicken” to “I can’t feel my face!” Trailside Specials…Trailside Café is switching up their weekly evening specials. Now Mondays are Diego’s rib night; Tuesdays are Mug Club Member nights (for members only, sorry); on Wednesdays get wild and have breakfast for dinner; Thursdays enjoy a schnitzel special; Fridays and Saturdays get down to live music; and Sundays are for spreading local love. Guests with a Big Sur, Carmel or Carmel Valley zip code get 10 percent off when dining in. 3 Del Fino Place, Carmel Valley. 2987453, trailsidecafecv.com. Leap Day…We get a bonus day this year, so make it a good one. The Pocket is hosting a five-course dinner with wine pairings from Stags Leap Wine Cellar (see what they did there?). For $200 per person you can make the most of this Leap Day, with reservations from 5:309pm on Thursday, Feb. 29. For reservations call 626-8000. Lincoln Street near 6th Avenue, Carmel. 626-8000, thepocketcarmel.com. Familia Meals…Angelina’s Pizzeria wants to help make family meals easier by offering family size pasta platters Monday through Wednesday. They have five pasta options; all come with garlic knots and green salad, available for takeout. Perfect for parties of four, or those who consider one large takeout order meal prepping (that can’t just be me). 22736 Portola Drive, Salinas. 484-1164, angelinaspizzeria.org. Culinary Roundup…Rancho Cielo’s 14th Annual Culinary Roundup benefit event takes place on Sunday, Feb. 25 at the Portola Hotel & Spa from 4-7pm. Be wined and dined by some of Monterey’s finest food and beverage providers and meet Rancho Cielo’s Drummond Culinary Students. Guests can participate in a silent auction to help underserved youth in Monterey County. $195 per person. Portola Hotel at 2 Portola Plaza, Monterey. 649-4511, portolahotel.com. Rancho Cielo at 710 Old Stage Road, Salinas. 444-3533, ranchocieloyc.org. Let Them Eat Nachos…That’s what she said, right? Nacho Bizness is hosting a movie night on Thursday, Feb. 22 from 6:30-9pm. For $30 per person guests receive an order of nachos or a burrito to enjoy while watching Marie Antoinette, and each ticket covers a donation to Meals On Wheels. Tickets must be purchased in advance online. 470 Alvarado St., Monterey. 241-6948, nachobiz.biz. By Jacqueline Weixel morsels Send a bite to eatanddrink@mcweekly.com “Oh my God! I don’t even eat the hot.” Eat + DrinK Daniel Dreifuss New Flame Nashville hot chicken is, well, hot—and Rudolfo’s in Pacific Grove brings it. By Dave Faries