Most nights at Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, all eyes are on the chicken shack’s namesake proprietress. Her hair pulled back, she makes her way through the busy and bright retro dining room to sign cookbooks, chat with fans, and pose for photos. The Nashville native’s debut restaurant, which she opened in June with partner Evan Darnell, is an ode to that city and its signature dish of fiery, oil-dipped “hot chicken” — with a dash of 21st-century branding thrown in. The building’s exterior is emblazoned with the city’s name, and inside, a market named after Hall’s grandmother Freddie Mai sells Nashville-sourced products.
“My wife loves you on The Chew,” blurts a middle-aged dad who’s clearly excited to meet her in his own right. Juggling Ritz crackers and a logo-stamped cup of her salty pimento cheese spread in one hand, he fumbles for his phone. His wife’s parking the car — they drove to Brooklyn from Connecticut — but he’d love a quick selfie now. Hall, a food world presence since first uttering her catchphrase “Hootie hoo!” on Bravo’s Top Chef in 2008, is happy to oblige. But before Dad can find the perfect angle, a piercing dinner bell interrupts the Instagram moment. In front of the semi-open kitchen, a server hoists a plate of chicken into the air and the entire staff shouts, “Boom-shaka-laka!”
The noisy celebration honors those who order the menu’s spiciest chicken, and the cacophony inescapably punctuates every meal. The uproar is also a bit of a bluff: There are spicier and more deeply seasoned birds around town, though Hall’s fiercest option has a creeping heat that’s invigorating rather than mercilessly painful. Nevertheless, tackling anything larger than a drumstick is likely to leave your lips tingling and brow sweaty. For chile heads who favor a persistent heat, Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen delivers.
Sidle up to the front counter and order your chicken as individual pieces or in combination plates with sides. Diners choose their heat levels, from plain “Southern” to sweet “Hoot & Honey” to the aforementioned “Boomshakalaka,” and everything arrives clearly marked with toothpick flags to help avoid accidents. On its own, the chicken is all but faultless: moist and tender without being the least bit undercooked. By double-flouring before frying, the birds achieve an audibly crisp crust that’s surprisingly greaseless despite that final dunk in oil. Spice levels be damned — this is some easily devoured poultry. If you do find yourself in need of some palate relief, drinks like a Jack Daniels–spiked frozen lemonade do the trick.
From crowdfunding to renovation, Hall spent nearly two years on this project. Now, from her snug corner space in Brooklyn’s Columbia Street Waterfront District, the TV personality revels in her role as ubiquitous host. When she’s not signing autographs, she’s engaging with customers in other ways, like gently chiding a man who ordered a glass of milk. Ask her how she makes her cornbread and she’ll direct you to the bathroom (the recipe is framed above the toilet). She’s also prone to proselytizing about sauces. “I always tell everyone to try our sauces,” she confides to the Voice, and we’d recommend the same, whether it’s drizzling spicy honey over a “Hootie Hot” breast or dipping a beastly chicken tender into non-cloying honey mustard. And kudos to Hall for offering a version of Alabama’s lesser-known, mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce in addition to the more customary condiments; its creaminess is a welcome alternative.
While the chicken is a surefire bet, your mileage may vary with sides and desserts, all of which are vegetarian and nut-free. The best of the bunch are smoky collard greens, followed by candied yams and above-average macaroni and cheese sporting an admirable crust. Limp coleslaw and lumpy potato salad, on the other hand, both prove uninspiring. And while all birds are delivered on slices of white pullman loaf, every slice we tried was dry. Instead, opt for biscuits and cornbread, especially if you can catch them while they’re still hot.
Daily specials — written on a roll of butcher paper — include desserts like peach cobbler and a somewhat mushy, raisin-studded bread pudding. On my visits, these generally fared better than the menu mainstay: a rich, near-perfect banana pudding ultimately marred by banana flavoring in its marshmallow topping. But for the sweetest ending, look to Hall’s buttermilk soft-serve, which cleverly imbues the icy confection with both sour tang and Southern twang.
Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen
115 Columbia Street, Brooklyn 718-855-4668