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Even The Cookshack’s “not hot” chicken had the tiniest spark from a hint of cayenne. Photo by Shilo Urban

The Cookshack, 500 University Dr, FW. 817-367-9151. 11am-10pm daily. All major credit cards accepted.

Fresh chicken tenders fry in minutes at The Cookshack, but they’ve been years in the making. Co-owners Stephen Payne and Mark Rogers have been perfecting their hot chicken recipe for two years and plotting world domination with their new concept restaurant. They’ve cooked together far longer (25 years) at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, which Rogers’ father co-founded in 1979. Now they’ve let loose at The Cookshack, a fast-casual joint with an early buzz that’s just as hot as the spicy chicken.

A firestorm of energy swirled through the restaurant at a recent busy weekday lunch, every table filled with a miscellaneous mix of businessmen in suits, Gen Z hipsters, blue-collar workers, and randos like me. Fried chicken flew out of the kitchen with Payne himself running the action. Diners choose between five levels of heat: not hot, mild, medium, Texas hot, and AMF (which stands for “adios, my friend,” of course). Tenders reign supreme on the menu, and each order includes a side, an un-toasted slab of Texas toast, and a dipping sauce (not that you need it for flavor). Everything on the menu is scratch-made except for the barbecue sauce and the ice cream.

FW Axe Factory Rectangle

I started from the bottom with the “not hot” chicken, which still had the tiniest spark from a hint of cayenne. Every bite of the ginormous tenders crunched and crackled as juice dripped out from the meat within. I had scarfed down an entire tender before I even thought about any sauces or sides. The “Texas hot” tenders ratcheted up the mouth-fire to “oh, damn.” These chicken tenders straight packed the heat, and the honey mustard dip soothed the flames. I saved the sweet-heat and buffalo sauces for less-spicy bites. Our chicken and waffles were also served with a dipping sauce, along with syrup and a sphere of delicious cinnamon-sugar butter. The waffles felt a little flimsy, perhaps pulled from the iron a little too early in the lunch rush onslaught. Meat fell off the applewood-smoked ribs as it should, but they definitely needed the barbecue sauce that was served alongside.

Salads can be an afterthought at meat-centric restaurants but not at The Cookshack. Flavors burst from the Shack Salad, a chunky lunch that would not leave you hungry an hour later. The kitchen didn’t skimp on anything, from the champagne vinaigrette to the grilled chicken, goat cheese, almonds, avocados, and dates. The kale salad delighted us with its bright blend of citrus, parmesan, and peanuts — and just a little sugar on top. Now that’s my kind of salad.

Gobs of gooey cheese were crammed inside the mac ’n’ cheese, a soothing caress of a side dish next to the spicy chicken. I expected black-eyed peas in the Texas caviar, but The Cookshack outclassed the traditional version with a colorful fiesta of black beans, corn, red bell peppers, purple onion, and cilantro. It’s hard to go wrong with hand-cut fried potatoes fresh from the kitchen, but the dusting of spice on the Dragon Fries didn’t quite live up to the name. Maybe it’s a baby dragon? Waffle-cut should be the new standard for sweet potato fries –– the extra surface area created extra crunch to balance out the denser starch. A touch of cinnamon added style.

Ice cream sandwiches kept the easy-breezy casual vibe going for dessert. Choose from butterscotch or chocolate chip cookie varieties. Thoughtfully cut into quarters for easy eating and sharing, the frozen sweets would soon save my life.

In the name of research, I capped off my meal by sampling the highest heat level on the menu. The AMF chicken tender looked much like its less-spicy brothers that I had just eaten, but three of the planet’s hottest peppers hid inside: ghost peppers, scorpion peppers, and the infamous Carolina Reapers (which can be 800 times hotter than jalapeños). The spice blend is basically like eating pepper spray. I bit a tiny nub of the tender, shrugged it off like Drake, and then spent the next 10 minutes rubbing ice cream on my face and crying. My guest also cried — not from the peppers but because she was laughing so hard at my pain. By the way, my guest was my mother. Thanks, mom.

Later, I found out that the restaurant actually offers a sixth level of ballistic heat called Cluck Norris, which is rolled out only sporadically and announced via social media. I won’t be trying it — but I will be back to The Cookshack for some salads and primo hot fried chicken.

The Cookshack
Chicken tenders (2) $7
Chicken & waffles $11.50
Shack Salad $12
Half-rack of ribs $14
Sweet potato fries $2.75

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