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Chatham’s Hot Chi Chicken N’ Cones Brings Southern Tradition With Middle Eastern Spin To Former 87th Street Harold’s

Hot Chi Chicken N' Cones infuses Middle Eastern flavors with Nashville hot. It quickly became a hit with Chatham neighbors and foodies.

Co-owner Amer Abdullah poses for a photo at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHATHAM — Opening Hot Chi Chicken N’ Cones was a bold move for Amer Abdullah, his brother and business partner.

The spot launched in October at 100 W. 87th St., the former home to arguably the best Harold’s Chicken outpost in the city. As though that wasn’t enough pressure, the trio modeled their menu after Nashville hot chicken, a tradition perfected in Black Southern kitchens.

It’s far from the entrepreneurs’ comfort zone. They have spent decades running family businesses in Hyde Park, and weathered downturns during the pandemic. But the spot — known for serving Cheat Day Fries and the Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich while hip hop plays — has gained a national following and the support of its South Side neighbors by melding the Nashville inspiration with “Middle Eastern seasonings and sauces,” Abdullah said.

“We were worried that the community wouldn’t support us as much as they have,” Abdullah said. “That was our fear. But things are very good. The community has really supported us.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A hot pack, consisting of a hot honey butta’ chicken sandwich, the “Popeye’s Ain’t Sh!t” chicken sandwich, Nashville hot chicken tenders and fries at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.

‘Let’s Open Up Something Here’

Abdullah never thought he’d be in the Nashville hot chicken business. 

A native of the south suburbs, Abdullah spent most of his life helping his family operate Hyde Park’s Harper Foods, a 40-year-old grocery store on 57th Street. For the past 30 years, he’s owned and managed Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, a restaurant specializing in crispy falafel and lentil soup at 1206 E. 53rd St.

But the pandemic brought its share of downfalls and unexpected opportunities, Abdullah said. 

Abdullah’s brother, Mutaz Abdullah, owns Downtown restaurants Mezza Mediterranean Grill and Habanero Baja Grill, which struggled as the pandemic hit and thousands of workers shifted to working from home.

With Downtown business flailing, Mutaz Abdullah decided it was time to open a restaurant in the heart of a neighborhood, Amer Abdullah said. So he started driving, cruising through Lincoln Park and Hyde Park before he landed at Chatham’s 87th Street strip just off the Dan Ryan, Amer Abdullah said. 

“He was in Chatham, and he reached out to me like, ‘Yo, I think we should go to this little strip area right here. It’s been popping for years, and it feels like it’s going to be popping even more. Let’s open up something here,’” Amer Abdullah said. 

Next came choosing a cuisine. 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Customers wait in line at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.

Over at Cedars, Amer Abdullah and his business partner, Kinan Moufti, partnered with a chef to add menu items like a Nashville hot chicken-inspired fried wrap, Amer Abdullah said. At the time, Popeyes and Chick-fil-A were duking it out to see which had the best chicken sandwich. 

“I was like, ‘These fried chicken wars are hilarious, and this chicken sandwich wrap is amazing. What if I skip the wrap and put a brioche bun in there? We’ve got ourselves a killer chicken sandwich,’” Amer Abdullah said. “It’s like a pimped-out sandwich. But I was like, ‘I think this thing is better than the Popeyes sandwich.’” 

Amer Abdullah swapped out the wrap for a bun and renamed the dish the Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich, he said. 

Neighbors loved the name and the sandwich, Amer Abdullah said. Nashville hot chicken had always been one of the top contenders for the Chatham restaurant; the Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t Chicken Sandwich’s success solidified the choice. 

But if they were going to do it, they had to do it right, Amer Abdullah said.

“Nashville hot chicken was born in the Black neighborhoods of Nashville, but here are a bunch of white people, and everyone’s profiting off of it,” Amer Abdullah said. “So we had to be extra careful.”

Nashville hot is seasoned and battered fried chicken often spiced with cayenne pepper and covered in a spicy oil or sauce.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A hot pack at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.

Wanting to honor the tradition, Mutaz Abdullah flew to Nashville, knocked on the doors of places like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and befriended chefs who coached him on how to make their signature chicken, Amer Abdullah said. 

Mutaz Abdullah came back to Chicago with encouragement to move forward with their business and a plan to incorporate their culinary backgrounds to make their Nashville hot chicken stand out. 

Hot Chi Chicken adds garlic, paprika, sumac, onions and “flavors big in Middle Eastern cuisine” into the batter, Amer Abdullah said. The Popeyes Ain’t Sh!t is dipped in a Harissa glaze and topped with toum, a garlic sauce. The coleslaw is made with cilantro and lemon instead of mayonnaise. 

“We take the Nashville inspiration, but when you take the first bite, you get the Nashville flavor and some other funky, garlicky, paprika sauces and flavors,” Amer Abdullah said. “What was important to us was being real, but adding our spin to it.”

‘The Community Has Really Supported Us’

Hot Chi Chicken’s location was once home to Harold’s Chicken #55, one of the chain’s most popular locations. 

Owner Percy Billings closed the eatery in 2020 after a dispute with the shopping center’s management company. Fans, including Chance The Rapper, were dismayed at the news. 

Amer Abdullah said he was wary of taking over the space.

“Harold’s is a longtime, legacy-type kind of place,” Amer Abdullah said. “I was like, ‘You want to take over that spot? That’s going to cause some emotion in that community. We have to tread lightly.’”

Amer Abdullah reached out to friends in the community for advice. They told him: Ask for permission before you come in, and invite community leaders into the space. Abdullah said they’ve connected with Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) and My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole, among others. They’ve also hosted pop-up vaccination events and committed to only hiring from within the neighborhood, Amer Abdullah said. 

The goal is to bring life to the community, not take away from Black neighbors, businesses or leaders, Abdullah said. 

“I feel honored that we together decided to hire, coach and train staff from the community. They are a killer staff. And because they love what they’re doing, the customers feel that,” Amer Abdullah said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Customers place orders at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.

Since its opening, Hot Chi Chicken has found its rhythm as a business. 

The restaurant has become more of a takeout spot rather than a sit-down eatery, but that’s OK, Amer Abdullah said. 

Neighbors and enthusiasts on YouTube and TikTok have traveled far and wide to test Hot Chi Chicken’s varying heat levels ranging from mild to Call Ya Mama! while bumping along to the music.  

Expanding with another location might one day be an option, but for now, the goal is to serve the Chatham community and to do it well, Amer Abdullah said. So far, the gamble has paid off.

“We hoped that we’d be able to do enough to feed our families and keep the business open, and it’s more than expected,” Amer Abdullah said. “We feel blessed by God to be succeeding in this way.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Kevin Bingham enjoys a sandwich at Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.
Credit: Provided/Kinan Moufti
Hot Chi Chicken and Cones co-owners Kinan Moufti, Amer and Mutaz Abdullah pose for a photo at their Chatham restaurant.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Hot Chi Chicken and Cones, 100 W. 87th St., in Chatham on April 19, 2022.

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