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Heat is the name of the game in this fried chicken sub-division hailing from Nashville, Tennessee. Hot chicken has been a tradition in Nashville since the 1930s, but didn’t make its way to Los Angeles in earnest until the opening of Howlin’ Rays, a Chinatown crowd-pleaser since 2015.

While Los Angeles has a wealth of fried chicken options (and quite good ones), I’ve decided to focus on this particular category as I believe it deserves its own special attention, both for its flavor and story. The flavor is unique enough to deserve its own write-up, but the history belongs in its own league. 

The Prince family of Nashville is widely credited for creating the dish. However, the dish was not created for enjoyment, but rather as a punishment for a womanizing Thornton Prince who had stepped out on his woman one too many times. Upon his return home from a night spent away, Prince’s wife prepared him a plate of fried chicken, but with a bit more “love,” we could say. This love came in the form of extra hot pepper, meant to torch the mouth. The effect was immediate, but different from his wife’s objective — Prince loved the taste. He loved the correctional dish so much that he took the recipe and started sharing it with friends and family, who encouraged him to open an establishment. 

Now, this was the mid 1930s in the segregated south, and a black man was running one of the most popular joints in town with a flavor popular to both black and white. In an interesting historical note, Prince allowed white patrons to get their hands on his chicken, but only through the back door! That original shack is open and serving to this day.

The hot chicken tradition has spread all over the United States. Even fried chicken giant KFC rolled out a temporary promotion of their take on Nashville Hot Chicken within the last two years. It’s a flavor described by some (this writer included) as addictive. What makes it special? Beauty through simplicity and consistency. Hot chicken is typically bathed in buttermilk, sometimes overnight. The buttermilk helps the chicken retain juices when fried. Like other fried chicken variants, the chicken is breaded and put through a deep-fry or pan-fry process. Immediately upon being pulled from the fryer, the hot chicken is doused with a sauce. While every restaurant’s sauce is different, the two near-constants are fat and cayenne pepper. The fats range from bacon fat to chicken fat, and sometimes even a combination of multiple fats. Cayenne is the dominating spice, but chefs experiment with different, complex flavor profiles and heat levels. After the sauce is applied, some add a spice rub that can be made up of garlic, onion, powdered vinegar or a variety of other spices.

Since our city was introduced to hot chicken in 2015, Angelenos have shown willingness to fight traffic, brave long lines and scald taste buds — all to feed a craving that can only be satisfied by this special breed of bird. The scene has been dominated by two major players: Howlin’ Rays and Dave’s Hot Chicken. All your favorite parts of the bird are typically offered; I would recommend cutting to the chase and order sandwich style, including sauce, coleslaw and pickles. Hot chicken sandwiches seem to be the claim to fame for L.A.’s triumvirate. Each offers their own variation on a mayonnaise-based aioli sauce for topping sandwiches and dipping fries.

 

The Restaurants

 

Dave’s Hot Chicken

 

Dave’s Hot Chicken started off as a late-night unofficial pop-up looking to perfect a craft. Just three months ago, owners Arman, Dave and Tommy were lucky enough to find a vacant space to lease in an East Hollywood strip mall. Lines have stretched out the door ever since. I was lucky enough to chat with one of the owners, Arman, despite how busy the place was on the night of my visit. Ironically, I pulled him aside to ask for the owner, and was surprised to learn that he was one of them. He was plating, bagging and calling out orders in the trenches with his employees. In the time I got to chat with him, I learned that he, Dave and Tommy were inspired by Howlin’ Ray’s. The three were lovers of fried chicken and spicy food, and hot chicken provided them a combo they never knew they needed.

I went with my girlfriend, Emma, who carried with her the baggage of a low heat tolerance. We can pray that her spice tolerance improves, but until then, she’s sticking to the heatless offerings. Again, I went mild. By now, I have a predictable hot chicken order: a sandwich on the middle of the heat spectrum and fries. I order their two-slider and French fry meal, and Arman threw in a complimentary mac n’ cheese. Immediately, the bun strikes me as a standout — buttery and spongy. The coleslaw provides the perfect cooling component for the heat of the chicken. The pickle adds a crunch, but also an acidity that cuts right through to compliment the chicken.

 

Howlin’ Rays

 

Believe the hype. Husband and wife team Johnny and Amanda are credited with bringing hot chicken out of Nashville to Los Angeles. Since their 2015 inception, a line shorter than two hours is a near-impossibility in this unassuming Chinatown strip mall. Your meal and the impeccable customer service you’ll receive will more than makeup for your wait time. That being said, I’d recommend bringing a book or someone you wouldn’t mind talking to for two hours. Luckily, I had my friend JP to help me kill time in line. Upon reaching the front of line, music is blaring, and the workers are excited to greet you. After ordering, I was greeted by a staffer who asked, “Hey man, you like pickles?,” to which I responded, “Yeah, I like pickles.” Immediately, he handed me a cup of sliced pickle chips to snack on. That, my friends, is customer service. My snacking pickles pushed the experience over the top. The staff, from top to bottom, has a way of making each customer feel like he or she is the most important customer of that day.

You’ll have six heat options ranging from country (not spicy) to Howlin’ (their hottest flavor and topic of a Buzzfeed video). I ordered “The Sando,” the famous sandwich that includes a boneless breast, coleslaw, aioli sauce and pickle slices. I chose to have my chicken medium heat, which is in the middle of the spectrum, heat-wise. I also ordered fries, sprinkled with their spice dry-rub. Medium was the perfect heat for someone who likes a kick, without succumbing to a full-inferno. JP donated an extra wing to my meal, letting me experience the chicken outside of the buttered bun. The chicken on its own holds up — it’s delicious. Howlin’ Rays is surrounded by hype, and the hype is well-warranted.

Nashville hot chicken is a craving that can truly only be satisfied by Nashville hot chicken, and I’m hooked.

Raging Hot Chicken

I can’t stay away from L.A.’s underground, pop-up food scene. Another fine example of off-the-map grub, North Hollywood’s hot chicken offering serves up a delicious product without the “foodie”-style glam of Howlin’ Rays. Raging Hot sets up shop in a smog-check parking lot after the auto shop has closed for the night. A menu is written on a dry-erase board. Family members run the entire operation. Chef and owner Gabe Killian has spent a week in Nashville once before and has been inspired by L.A.’s other hot chicken joints. He tells me he had searched for his key spices all over the world, and they are what makes his recipe unique. Killian was quick to offer answers to my questions and introduce me to his family members operating the makeshift kitchen.

The food was unquestionably tasty. I opted for the “Biggie Smalls” meal, which comes with one sandwich and a slider. I also got macaroni salad and French fries. Again, I opted for middle-of-the-table heat, which left my taste buds perfectly satisfied. Any spicier, and I may not have enjoyed it as much. Again, I traveled with good pals, C.J. and Alexander, who both ordered the same meal. Where the other two establishments may take the win is bread, but other than that, the chicken is considered some of the best in the city for a reason. Moist, tender and hot, it has all the makings of a perfected Nashville hot chicken. The sides were delicious and the aioli sauce an incredible compliment.

Note: As of 3/15, Raging Hot has been temporarily shut down. Killian is looking for a more permanent situation in order to offer the city his delicious recipe. Follow @raginghotchicken on Instagram for re-opening updates.

Nashville hot chicken is a craving that can truly only be satisfied by Nashville hot chicken, and I’m hooked.

This is the opinion of Niko Klein, a senior business management major from Los Angeles, California. Tweet comments to @LALoyolan or email chutchinson@theloyolan.com.

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