March 3, 2020
Those who are schooled in the French language are already clued into the irony that underlies Robin Lindsey’s naming of his 6-month-old Novato restaurant, Le Col Rouge. No, this is not home to coq au vin, escargot or soufflé, an erroneous assumption that such a fancy French name might imply.
Lindsey is quick to clarify that the literal translation for his “down-home Southern kitchen with a kitschy menu” is “the red neck.”
“I can use that term because I am one,” says Lindsey, defending his re-appropriation of what’s often considered a pejorative expression, but that he’s chosen to lightheartedly pay homage to his rural upbringing. “I spent my summers visiting my grandmother in Oklahoma where she had a huge garden and taught me to cook.”
Personal history aside, the one-time Nashville-based songwriter believes it’s time to get in on the Southern city’s Nashville hot chicken craze that’s rapidly proliferating across the country, as well as in San Francisco and Oakland.
This is chicken with a purpose that, at its hottest, is an edible assailant on a paper plate. It’s your good old crunchy Southern fried delight that’s then bathed in a seasoned oil mixture. Specify your heat tolerance, but the hotter, the truer. Next, it’s placed on a spongy bed of absorbing white bread, or Texas toast, that soaks up the chicken’s released juice, grease and heat.
There’s anecdotal family lore affiliated with the 80-year-old Nashville recipe. It’s rumored to have been created during a woman’s scornful attempt to turn a pleasant batch of fried chicken into a mouth-burning, culinary weapon used to punish her philandering boyfriend. Her gastronomic expression of revenge backfired and instead, the burning hot chicken became a prized and addictive obsession. Her wayward bloke liked it so much he opened a restaurant, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, that’s still around today and run by his great-niece.
Every Nashville hot chicken place puts its own spin on the recipe and for Lindsey, it’s to adhere to Marin’s health-conscious ethos. He brines Mary’s free-range chicken for 24 hours in sugar, salt, juniper berries, bay leaves and spices, and then air chills it. From there, it goes from a dry spice mixture to a wet egg wash and back to dry. Then, it hits a moisture-retaining Henny Penny pressure fryer, an efficient cooker that can turn out 28 pounds of chicken in eight minutes. To go easy on the oil, he strokes the freshly fried chicken with a brush, rather than submerging it back into the fryer.
At Le Col Rouge, levels of heat progress from skerd (mild) to dang (medium) to red neckulous (hot). There’s also an off-the-menu option for those who can take the real deal heat. “That one is crazy hot,” he says.
The same Nashville treatment is applied to a variety of cuts — jumbo “love me tenders” ($13 for three with two sides), a leg and thigh ($14) or a chicken breast and wing ($15), the latter two both served on Texas toast with sweet fire pickles and two sides. All arrive at the table in a plastic red basket with a black-and-white checked paper liner.
The chicken also comes in a sandwich ($12). A tender boneless breast and made-to-order sweet and sour coleslaw are served in a soft bun pronged with two rippled pickle rounds. If you’re looking for some oomph, ask for it medium to hot.
A serving of eight chicken wings ($9), while appealingly fried and crunchy coated, yearned for something more. Although we were asked about desired heat level, we missed out on the instruction to pick from a list of dousing sauces like buffalo, teriyaki and honey barbecue. The slender celery sticks on the side are more like a garnish than an important counterbalance to the spicy wings. Tangy house-made ranch dressing is offered for dipping if requested.
The chalkboard menu has a few special preparations for your fried or grilled chicken — in a Caesar salad wrap ($14), on tacos ($13.50) or with waffles ($13.50).
Ownership of this Nave Shopping Center restaurant has changed over the years, but the smoker, an impressive relic that served as a mainstay for California Grill & Rotisserie, followed by Munther Massarweh’s Speakeasy BBQ, continues to be put to work. Lindsey says he’s been doing barbecue since he was 10 and uses it for smoked chicken ($14.95) with Alabama white sauce and to smoke up his grandmother’s recipe for mac and cheese ($4.50).
Lindsey’s flavorful Texas chili recipe ($5.95 to $8.95) is also from his grandma and includes both black and pinto beans, ground beef, a mild kick from jalapeno and a sprinkle of diced green and white onions, and shredded cheddar.
Southern sides ($4.50) include fried okra, sweet and crunchy coleslaw with apple cider vinegar and mayonnaise, black bean salad and seasonal Southern greens. Thin-cut sweet potato fries are crispy over a pillowy interior, but have little salt, so you’ll want to dip in ketchup or ranch. The Brussels sprouts are roasted in advance, so they become soggy and bland; Lindsey is rethinking the process or may do away with these entirely.
A few things on the list for next time include the fried dill pickles ($9), as well as the homemade peach cobbler ($5) that Lindsey says took 10 years to figure out.
Four daily beers on tap ($4 to $7) include Lagunitas Little Sumpin, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Blue Moon, and three additional varieties rotate. Bottle options ($5 to $6) range from Racer 5 IPA and Scrimshaw Pilsner to Budweiser and Coors Light. Five red and three white house wines come by the glass ($7) or bottle ($28).
The two dining spaces get a surface makeover with each change of hands in what 40 years ago was an A&W franchise location. Lindsey has made a number of improvements, piggybacking on what Massarweh started when he added trendy farmhouse elements like corrugated metal and reclaimed wood on counter faces and walls. The potted and hanging plants are a nice, fresh touch.
The interior has a fresh coat of vibrant red paint and couple of live edge wood slab tables. The main dining room is a large tented and infrared-heated concrete patio enclosed by plastic sheeting and a tarp roof. In warm weather, the sides roll up so that it better resembles an open-air, country-style roadside stand. Slab wood tables carry through to this area, but the crafty, upgraded look is in sharp contrast to two with faux plastic tile tops that remain.
Four large-screen televisions provide ample opportunity for viewing sports and other entertainment, and fittingly, country music croons in the background.
Lindsey has hired and trained a slew of local high schoolers who attentively take table orders and deliver food.
Fried chicken aficionados, occasional indulgers and those wishing to see what the fuss is all about should give Marin’s one and only Nashville hot chicken source a try. Check it out and see if you, too, succumb to its fiery charms.
Leanne Battelle is a freelance food writer. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments or restaurant recommendations. Or you can follow the Marin dining scene at instagram.com/therealdealmarin.