Behind sliding screen windows and in nondescript strip malls away from the national headlines, local chefs have been perfecting a Nashville classic: hot fish.
Harkening back to the fish shacks of a forgotten era, whiting or catfish (and sometimes tilapia) is deep fried and covered in a spicy dry rub or hot sauce before being topped with pickles, raw onion and yellow mustard in between two slices of white bread.
Wrapped in paper and made fresh to order, this symphony of savory, spice and tang represents the type of inexpensive, flavorful cuisine Music City should actually be known for.
There are no craft beers or Instagram murals, and set business hours are a suggestion rather than a fact. But they make fulfilling food for just a few dollars; and as hot chicken draws poor imitators from Los Angeles to Manhattan, hot fish carries the heavy burden of being authentic. Here are the best places to find it:
Whites Fish & BBQ
3801 Dickerson Pike
Painted blue picnic benches invite you to enjoy this expertly fried piece of heaven that, for about $6, will make you forget the traffic on Clarksville Pike. A light grease leaves bits of cornmeal on your fingers while you eat, and the near perfect balance of depth and flavor is only outshined by the smile of the person who served it. Who needs indoor seating when the food is this good?
Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish
624 Main St.
Originally constructed as a split-level built into the side of a hill, Bolton’s is a mainstay of Nashville’s East Side. The whiting fish is hearty and spicy due mainly to the sinus-clearing dry rub that made their hot chicken famous. I enjoyed the greens and watching tourists sweat, but wished I had ordered extra bread. When it comes to heat, Bolton’s can’t be beat.
Ed's Fish & Pizza House
1801 Dr. D. B, Todd Jr. Blvd.
Described by the owner as its “own kind of drug,” the whiting fish at Ed’s is a must stop for Tennessee State and Meharry alumni — especially during homecoming. With only a few seats, cold drinks are served from a vending machine as people literally pound on the windows for the chance to order food near closing time. Opened in 1972, Ed’s anchors the fast-growing Buchanan Street district with light, crispy fish that claims to have started it all. In short, you have not seen Nashville until you've eaten here.
Mama Nanny's Homestyle Fish
901 Madison Square
Featuring chalkboard walls with inspirational quotes and its four levels of spiciness, this newcomer to the hot-fish scene (Mama Nanny's has only been open about a year and a half) packs the same punch as the more veteran establishments. The fish comes out slightly red and open face, daring you to eat the spicy fillets with caution. My advice: ignore that caution and jump right in.
Hot Stuff Spicy Chicken and Fish
1309 Bell Road, Suite 218
Booths with tables covered in plastic line the walls of Hot Stuff where the diverse lifestyles and incomes of Antioch come to take a break from their busy lives. Numbers are called to guests eagerly awaiting fish that billows steam and has an audible crunch when biting into it, adding heat to the already spicy dry rub. The Mac and Cheese was delightful, and be sure not to miss the fruit tea served from behind the counter.
Bone's Fish & More
2597 Murfreesboro Pike
Under backyard lights on a deck big enough for just a handful of friends, Bone’s seems like it has been moved to Murfreesboro Pike straight from the banks of the river. The heartier crust (and a line of cars nearly a dozen strong on the hill just behind) speaks to the quality of the fish.
TJ's Bar-B-Que & Fish
1104 Ed Temple Blvd.
Situated at the corner of Ed Temple Boulevard and Jefferson Street, this drive-thru only restaurant serves dinner plates almost big enough for two people. The breading is heavy and strong in black pepper but balanced by a thick cut of fish that leaves you full and delighted. The fried okra was crisp and tasty, and the coleslaw was a welcome addition.
Mary's Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Que
1106 Jefferson St.
Wafts of barbecue smoke greet you as you walk in the front door of Mary's, with its hand-painted store hours and a pig logo appearing in the middle of the floor. Neighbors greet each other among airbrush paintings and a full, hand-drawn schematic of Jefferson Street. Hot sauce and mustard come in their own packets to be applied to the thin, crispy fish. A plate for under $10 included some wonderful baked beans.
Photo taken at Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish. Credit: Richard Exton Jr.