Restaurant Review: This Hot Chicken Spot Is a Bona Fide Phenomenon, but Does It Deserve the Hype?

Howlin' Ray's chicken sandwich with pickles
Howlin' Ray's chicken sandwich with pickles
Anne Fishbein

At 10:30 on a Sunday morning, the line for Howlin' Ray's already stretches through the entire bottom level of Chinatown's Far East Plaza. It starts at the restaurant's door — which won't open for another half-hour — then extends around the picnic tables at the center of the plaza, past the sign that indicates the wait from that point will be 45 minutes to an hour, past the door of Roy Choi's Chego, through the center atrium that's open to the sky, past the elevator column and the vintage clothing store and more picnic tables and the booth that sells toys and 3-D posters of puppies and $6 sunglasses, all the way to the street on the far side of Far East Plaza. The people at the very end of the line will wait about four hours to get what they came for: a very spicy fried chicken sandwich.

Living through the hours-long wait is now as much a part of the Howlin' Ray's experience as the fried chicken payoff at the line's end. The mood is different on different days — most subdued (and shortest) on Wednesdays, most raucous (and longest) on Saturdays.

On Sunday there's a kind of hungover, fuzzy feel to the crowd, though some folks have started the party over again. The scent of weed is omnipresent. One large group of friends is passing around a bottle of Hennessy, getting rowdier as they inch toward the front of the line. Though the demographic skews young, in every other way this is probably the most diverse crowd you'll find gathered for a shared purpose anywhere in the city. One woman bides her time studying a giant medical textbook as her young son does his own homework, tracing over lower- and uppercase letters of the alphabet.

Every so often, a bemused older couple or group of men from the neighborhood wander by. One stops to ask me why we're standing in line, and then goes back to his wife to report. "Fried chicken," he says, with a heavy Cantonese accent. She doesn't understand. "Popeye's! Chicken sandwich!" She shakes her head in wonderment and they wander off.

It's hard to explain to anyone why this many people would stand in a line this long for a fried chicken sandwich, or why the most popular food item in town is Nashville-style hot chicken, an import that's been around for decades in another state. Perhaps even harder to explain, though, is why it took so long for hot chicken to spread across the land. Seven years ago, when I watched a fried chicken shack open, falter and close in Atlanta, I remember saying to someone: "Why didn't they do hot chicken? There would have been a line around the block for that."

The dude who came to that conclusion here in L.A. has a name worthy of a Marvel villain or a rockabilly icon: Johnny Ray Zone. The L.A. native discovered hot chicken in 2014 while he was staging at the Nashville outpost of Sean Brock's Husk. Zone became so enamored that he returned to Tennessee to do a "hot chicken tour," learning as much about the dish as possible.

The upshot of that research was Howlin' Ray's food truck, which Zone launched with his wife, Amanda Chapman, in mid-2015. After six months the couple traded the truck for a space in Far East Plaza, and in mid-2016 Howlin' Ray's opened. The lines were quick to follow. On its busiest days, the place now serves as much as 600 pounds of all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken.

Chef Johnny Ray Zone with the chicken sandwich
Chef Johnny Ray Zone with the chicken sandwich
Anne Fishbein

Part of the allure of Howlin' Ray's is undoubtedly the dare that lies at the end of that line: How hot can you handle? There are six levels of heat, and anything above the third level, called "medium," is hot enough that it comes with a warning. "Do not touch your face after eating the chicken," the guy at the cash register warns if you order anything "hot" or higher: "You will burn your skin."

Most of the media given to Howlin' Ray's revolves around that intense heat, and you can find plenty of videos on the internet of sweaty dudes sitting at the picnic tables in front of Howlin' Ray's, swooning and exclaiming over L.A.'s hottest chicken.

Zone, for his part, does everything he can to dissuade people from ordering the hottest level of chicken. There's a face he makes to show he isn't playing, that he finds the heat of his "howlin" chicken truly disturbing. And he's right. Because anything above the medium-level chicken will destroy your mouth so thoroughly that you might not get the chance to notice that this is genuinely fantastic fried chicken, beyond its ability to scald your innards.

I'm not judging — I tend to order the "hot" despite the fact that it renders me useless for the rest of the day. There's something about the burn of cayenne (as well as a ton of other kinds of peppers, including ghost peppers) that creates a similar endorphin rush to jumping into a freezing river or being initiated into Fight Club.

But to truly appreciate how good the chicken is, I suggest starting with an order of the "country" style chicken — that is, level one, no heat at all. The way the skin shatters and gives way, the utterly perfect spicing of the batter, the way it's indistinguishable from the skin of the bird, the juicy flesh underneath, all goes to show that this is incredible chicken, with or without the heat.

It also will leave your mouth functional enough to appreciate the smoky, deeply flavored, lightly funky collard greens, as good as any I've had outside of the South (and better than much of what I've had in the South). If you're hell-bent on spicy, do yourself a favor and get an order of the vinegar coleslaw, which offers something close to relief for a few brief seconds before the burn returns.

The lineEXPAND
The line
Anne Fishbein

On the weekends you can order chicken and waffles, and the waffles are big and fluffy and piping hot, made on a waffle iron in front of the counter. If you order fries, you should also order some comeback sauce to dip them in. Comeback sauce is actually a bit of Southern fusion. Similar to remoulade, it's a Mississippi specialty, invented in the 1930s by Greek immigrants in Jackson who ran restaurants that specialized in Gulf seafood. But it works wonders here, particularly alongside pickles and slaw on the chicken sandwich, which is probably the best fried chicken sandwich in town these days.

While talking with a friend about the enigma of Howlin' Ray's, and the mystery behind why anyone would stand in that line, he opined that the most important ingredient wasn't the ghost peppers or the cayenne but Zone himself. "He has been at the restaurant every single day since it opened," he said. "He expedites every order, sees every piece of chicken. I think that makes a huge difference."

Zone also knows how to set the mood in the tiny space. The place has a groove to it, an energy so festive it feels like a party, a cumulation of joy that builds as you inch closer toward it and envelops you once you finally step inside. Zone's banter is playful, the jubilant back-and-forth with his cooks a performance, though one that seems genuine. Once you've ordered and taken your seat at the counter, the cooks thank you for coming, with a kind of legitimate exuberance that's beyond rare in the service industry. It is fun to eat here, so much so that the long wait suddenly seems reasonable.

It's not reasonable, of course. Four hours is a ridiculous amount of time to wait for a chicken sandwich. But who said that life was reasonable? Take a look at the world! Everything is crazy! There are far worse things you could do than spend half a day with your fellow weirdos, waiting for chicken so good it's made us all lose our collective minds.

HOWLIN' RAY'S | Three stars | 727. N. Broadway, #128, Chinatown | (213) 935-8399 | howlinrays.com | Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. | Chicken: $3 (for one wing)-$28 (for a whole chicken) | No alcohol | Street and lot parking

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Howlin’ Ray’s

727 N. Broadway Ave., #128
Chinatown, Los Angeles, CA 90012

213-935-8399

howlinrays.com


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