When Ryan Cook moved to Eugene in 2019, ready to open Pyre Nashville Hot Chicken off of River Road, he was warned not to make his food too spicy.
People in Eugene aren’t fans of spicy foods, he remembers being told.
“There’s this fear that if you go too spicy, people won’t come visit you,” he says. “And I completely disagree.” The success of his cart, he says, is a testament that there is local desire for spicy food.
Hot chicken, a type of fried chicken with a base seasoning of cayenne pepper, is gaining in popularity at locations from Plank Town to Hot Mama’s, and has attracted a nationwide chain to open a store in Eugene, but Cook says Pyre is the only place to find Nashville food prepared in its traditional form.
Cook says he worked in the restaurant industry for about 30 years before opening Pyre in March 2022. During the decade he was running restaurants in Nashville, he explored other hot chicken offerings at some of the city’s most famous kitchens. And when he was running a restaurant called Mad Donna’s in Nashville, he had hot chicken on the brunch menu, finding that there was an insatiable demand for it, he says.
In 2019, Cook moved to Eugene and saw a number of restaurants trying to sell hot chicken, none of which he says are the real thing or are as spicy as what is sold in Nashville — and none of them prepare it traditionally, he says. “I want to be the Nashville hot chicken guy,” he says.
Here’s how Cook says his chicken is different compared to other establishments, including the Dave’s Hot Chicken chain that opened its first location in Eugene July 8. He says proper Nashville hot chicken is dredged in what is usually lard. In a city like Eugene that is health-oriented, he says he substitutes lard for something healthier. Then he deep fries it and puts a dry rub on top that allows him to adjust the heat level, from mild to extra hot.
Nashville hot chicken dry rub starts with cayenne pepper as its base spice. Cook says with each gradual spice level, he adds in habanero, and then the hottest level is scorpion pepper, a spice that’s ranked in Scoville Heat Units near police-grade pepper spray. But he’s planning on adding new spice levels soon. “I hope to have five: mild, medium, hot, extra hot and extra, extra hot,” he adds.
“My No. 1 favorite feedback comment on Yelp! and Facebook is, ‘When this guy says he’s doing hot chicken, he’s doing hot chicken,’” he says.
And he’s not wrong when he says he’s not afraid to bring the heat.
Like Cook, I’ve often found myself bargaining with restaurants that don’t believe I want the spiciest level they offer, so I ordered Pyre’s hot chicken extra hot.
After my first bite, I knew I found my spicy match. The multiple hot peppers in the dry rub balanced well with the juicy chicken thigh, and luckily I had a side of potato salad and a can of root beer that provided a brief respite from the spiciness.
For those averse to spicy food, Cook says he also offers a regular fried chicken option. He says he brines the chicken during the day, which gives the meat flavor and keeps it moist when it cooks.
Cook says he’s working out a vegetarian option, but he’s still looking for the right protein that can handle the spices and deep fryer so that “even a meat eater will come here and take the vegetarian option.”
Pyre opened just a few months ago, but Cook says he’s already looking to expand his business. He’s hoping to open a brick and mortar restaurant in Springfield later this year or early next year, and he’s eyeing new carts throughout the state, including in Albany and Portland.
“I’m going to blow Dave’s out of the water,” Cook says, referencing the chain. “Dave’s has no idea what’s coming on.”
Pyre Nashville Hot Chicken is at 102 Thomason Lane, off River Road near The OG Corner Market. Hours are noon to 6 pm Friday through Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, closed Tuesday. Visit PyreNashvilleHotChicken.com for more information.