Some people will come just for the bar. The new Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in Arden is a greatly expanded version of its West Asheville location. Besides being double the size of the Patton Avenue eatery, South Side Rocky’s also boasts a liquor license. (West Side Rocky’s makes do with beer and wine.)
Not counting sports bars and chain restaurants, there’s no full-service bar in the South Asheville/Arden area that screams trendy/local/foodie-centric, and the one at South Side Rocky’s fills the niche. On a recent Wednesday night, patrons were belly-deep at the handsome bar, a wraparound model crafted to blend in with the overall décor: light wood, earth-toned paint, and Americana art not too kitschy to be tasteful. The mixologist never stopped mixing, serving up drinks that included a menu of $7-$10 signature cocktails.
Beyond the bar, the new Rocky’s painstakingly recreates its thriving West Side cousin, including the corrugated-metal siding on the covered patio and even down to the freshly planted oak hydrangeas edging the parking-lot landscaping. Old-timers of more than five years’ local residency might remember the long-gone original Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, basically a cinderblock box, also in Arden. It moved to the west end of Patton Avenue and blossomed from obscure cult status to undeniable It Spot after investors Rich and Lauren Cundiff stepped in with an expanded menu and an eye for style.
The recipes of Rocky Lindsley, a local musician who discovered Tennessee-style hot chicken while on tour, are still used at both the West and new South locations, though Rocky himself is no longer involved with the increasingly flashy operation that bears his name.
The fried chicken is offered in nine degrees of spice, starting with plain and honey and quickly escalating. A mix of cayenne and other spices kicks in with “Mild” (subtitled “not so”), and the ghost chili, which clocks 1,000,000 units on the Scoville scale (habañeros are only 300,000), enters the picture for the spiciest offerings in the house. The heat peaks at “Mount Saint Hell No,” an adventure attempted by few.
Those who “climb the mountain” have been known to sweat, cry, and, in a few cases, release other bodily fluids, the ones best not discussed. But once they triumph, they usually go back. Rocky’s addicts claim the heat is otherworldly, even hallucinogenic. A typical reaction: “I entered a higher dimension.”
When Rocky’s first started, the underlying message was, if you couldn’t take the heat, not only should you get out of the proverbial kitchen, you probably shouldn’t have stopped by in the first place. West Side Rocky’s still exhibits a vestige of this punchy air, though the friendly staff is happy to explain in detail the difference in gradations of spice. But no one’s taking any chances with the clientele at the South location. On a prominent wall menu, each level of heat is explained in wordy, careful detail: You surely won’t mistake “Mildium,” a legitimate choice, for “Mild” or “Medium.”
If the last speck of attitude is lost in the restaurant’s newest incarnation, at least South Side Rocky’s hasn’t sacrificed the quality of its food. Portions are great, especially the breast, and the chicken is juicy and spanking fresh. Whether or not you opt for spice, the crust is the best around, all crunch and volume and decadence.
No one can dispute the homemade deliciousness of the sweet-potato casserole or macaroni-and-cheese, just two in a long list of sides and appetizers. The deep-fried pickles come with a cayenne cream sauce, the fried green tomatoes are topped with goat cheese and pepper jelly: There’s just enough of a foodie touch for it to feel like Asheville, stopping short of pretentiousness.
Pretty much everything is delicious, with an unstated subtext: “We don’t skimp.” You can’t go for fried every time and keep your cholesterol happy, so Rocky’s also offers chicken salad, an enormous chef’s salad with at least three kinds of protein, and a chicken pot pie. The pot pie is a marvel: both hearty and delicate, with a beautiful buttery crust and a hint of white wine in the juice, and exactly half the price of a similar dish of much lesser quality at a local restaurant I will not name.
Thank you, Rocky’s, for having dessert — especially when a disturbing amount of trendy restaurants are opting out of this seeming necessity — and for having it be so consistently good. The Coca-Cola cake is pure, rich madness, and the three flavors of pudding are cunningly served in baby Mason jars.
Even though there’s no real shack left in this Shack, most of us addicts are too fat and happy to quibble anymore.
Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack
3749 Sweeten Creek Rd, Arden