All hail our new poultry overlords

It's a phenomenon that propels otherwise reasonable people to wait in long lines for something designed to cause pain. Those who go full throttle on it — I've done that — can expect a brain-jarring experience.

It's the Nashville-style hot chicken craze, and it's spreading throughout town like the wildfire the dangerously addictive poultry ignites in your mouth.

Seriously, show me a new Columbus restaurant and I'll show you a new hot-chicken sandwich. But the original local purveyor of this incendiary delicacy still comes closest to the Nashville classic: Hot Chicken Takeover, a madly popular enterprise that recently opened an often-mobbed restaurant in Clintonville.

Hot Chicken Takeover, aka HCT, launched about three years ago as a weekends-only pop-up operating out of a window in thenow-defunctNear East Side Cooperative Market. After a few months, the instant sensation moved into the North Market where it maintains a shop. At all locations, the company has followed a policy of employing previously homeless and incarcerated people who are working to turn their lives around.

That we're-all-in-this-together spirit informs HCT's simple, open digs in Clintonville. The counter-ordering space features: communal tables with red-and-white plastic tablecloths; chalkboards for self-expression; an R&B-leaning soundtrack; and free, high-quality, DIY iced tea — both sweetened and, my preference, unsweetened.

The menu is equally simple: a few sides and add-ons; one worthy dessert; free, fresh-tasting house ranch dressing; and four varieties of fried chicken ranging in spiciness from not-at-all to somebody-help-me hot.

Spiciness aside, all pieces offer uncommonly tender and juicy, buttermilk-brined meat. Exteriors vary from the pleasantly crisp surfaces of the gigantic boneless and skinless breasts to the fantastically crackly thicker crusts of the hefty skin-on, bone-in pieces.

Prices are modest and largely based on whether chicken is ordered a la carte or in a meal. Meals come with accessories that help diners deal with facial flames: industrial white bread; good slaw with a semisweet, red-wine vinaigrette; stout pickles; and “Ma's Mac,” a popular but unfortunately sauce-less preparation that's about equal parts soft elbow macaroni and melted cheese.

The exception to this meal rule is HCT's priciest item — the $13 sandwich meal — which teams a double-helping of Ma's Mac with a gloriously messy tower of boneless breast meat, pickles, slaw and bread.

A la carte costs are $6.50 for either five wings, four drumsticks or a dark meat quarter-chicken; enormous breast pieces, both boneless and bone-in, are $7.50. Orders with multiple pieces can feature two heat levels.

I tried all four flavors — “cold,” “warm,” “hot” and “holy” — and can report that with entry-level “cold,” despite this place's name, I just received damn good, golden-brown, perfectly seasoned and delicious fried chicken.

With “warm,” I noticed the telltale sign of real Nashville-style hot chicken: a shiny, crunchy and stout red crust that delivers a rich and irresistibly salty rush of cayenne-pepper sting. This level imparts a palpable tingle but not a burn.

Moving up to “hot,” I encountered the “just right” Goldilocks standard of true Nashville-style fiery heat. This tastes like the real Tennessee deal, which is traditionally created by slathering just-fried chicken with a lard-and-cayenne paste. I'm a fan, but this level will definitely light you up.

For a diversion, you can tack on a waffle ($2.50) sprinkled with powdered sugar; warm syrup is available from a dispenser. I enjoyed this sweet-and-spicy partnership, but because the crunchy waffle is deep-fried, it's an oily combo.

Miss B's Banana Pudding ($3.50) — layers of comforting pudding, whipped cream and salted vanilla wafer crumbles — is a better heat-fighting treat. And you'll need it, possibly along with counseling, if you venture into “holy” — so named, I believe, because eating it could make an atheist pray.