We started out for Joella’s Hot Chicken at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Surprisingly, we were not the first customers in line.
That should tell you how well the Joella’s Hot Chicken chain is doing in its Lexington restaurant, which opened in January.
Skipping breakfast is not a half-bad idea before you head out to Joella’s at lunch: You get a lot of food for less than $10. I have spent more per plate at drive-throughs and not had nearly the quality meal that Joella’s provides.
On my first visit, we ordered the chicken tenders. So shoot me. I know chicken tenders are not artisanal eating and they’re certainly not the visual origami that hot chicken on the bone is. I don’t care: As a delivery system for Joella’s spices, which range from zero (Southern style) to “Fire-in-da-Hole,” chicken tenders get the job done.
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If you go for on-the-bone and eat the chicken with your fingers, you will be wearing pepper sauce on your face. Don’t mind that? Bone-in chicken for you, then.
Hot chicken was first served at Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville in the 1950s, although this is both a guess and a claim: You assume someone must have figured out the pairing of chicken and spice a tad earlier somewhere. Hot chicken is traditional fried chicken that is given more zip by the addition of spice blends. Sometimes that is done with a cayenne paste or other pepper sauce. At Joella’s, the chicken is brined overnight, fried and then sauced with a spice blend.
My chicken on both visits was “Hot,” a step down from the top “Fire” level. It was plenty spicy for my taste level, which can be summed up as “needs more jalapeños.” The chicken is served with one dipping sauce and sides, unless you get the chicken and waffles, which is its own meal.
You should pace yourself on the spice, though: Automatically ordering the the spiciest thing you think you can choke down might be a tongue-cratering experience.
Sides tried on our visits included Parmesan garlic shoestring fries, kale salad, vinegar cole slaw, creamy broccoli slaw, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad. When you’re eating spicy food, you need something to counter: Kale salad was a nice palate-cleanser, lemony and brisk, but it was the creamier items — the broccoli slaw, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese — that best complemented the chicken.
On the first visit, I could taste neither Parmesan nor garlic in the fries because my mouth was on fire from the hot chicken. By the second visit, I had learned that if you’re going to taste the fries, it’s best to have at it before you attack the chicken. One order of fries easily serves two.
Also, be warned: The chicken will sometimes have “hot spots” where the chicken was more liberally glazed with the spice mixture. My colleagues ordered the milder Ella’s Fav and Spiked Honey sauces, and both were more than satisfied with the heat.
I had wanted to try “Fire-in-da-Hole,” the hottest. But so far, after two meals at the next hottest level, I leave the table with running eyes and my sinuses opened, so I think I’ve hit my optimum heat level.
The thin slice of bread beneath the chicken appears to be there not to make a sandwich but to sop up the grease and spice that would otherwise pool on your dish when your chicken is brought out. I like that the bread literally dissolves beneath the weight of spice and grease: It entertains me.
On the healthier side, you can get chicken in a salad or order the vegetarian patty. My colleague was not impressed with her vegetarian patties, calling them tasteless delivery systems for sauce.
Joella’s has a Boylan’s soda fountain where you get cane-sugar sodas, including a cream soda that my cream soda-loving colleague liked so much he drank three cups.
Desserts include a banana pudding, which was just OK, and Nutella poppers, warm beignet-like pastries filled with hazelnut paste. The poppers were the go-to dessert option in our informal survey.
Service was friendly and prompt. The counter help explained everything needed for a first-time customer and offered helpful suggestions. There’s a cash-only tip bucket option at the counter: Don’t take advantage of the counter ordering to cheap out.
The tiny lot fills up quickly and spills over to Cochran Road, which is not optimal but also not a big deal. The dining room warms up quickly when full, but the big windows open, providing a welcome breeze and creating a picnic effect.
Lunch for two with one shared dessert was $22 plus tip; lunch for four with two shared desserts was $48.97 plus tip. On the second visit, we used all the napkins at our table because hot chicken is a messy business.
Joella’s is tasty, fast, filling, inexpensive and cheerful. If you want more out of a restaurant, can I have your spot in line?
Joella’s Hot Chicken
Where: 101 Cochran Road
Hours: Closed Monday. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday