Tucked away in a plaza in Chinatown, Howlin’ Ray’s serves up Nashville-style hot fried chicken to an L.A. audience. It’s so coveted that lines stretch for hours on a daily basis.
We’ve had problems with lines in the past, but this time we were ready and anxious to see if Howlin’ Ray’s would live up to its social media hype. Bringing along the Daily Titan sports editor Jared Eprem (well, he was our placeholder as we showed up late), we prepared ourselves for either disappointment or elation.
As we weaved through L.A. traffic, our lives were continuously flashing before our eyes; we were certain death was chasing us. Finally finding parking after circling the plaza (what felt like 20 times), we trekked in.
We got there just after 11 a.m., its opening time, and the line already stretched far enough to the point where we couldn’t see the restaurant. Mostly covered in shade, some spots in the line allowed us to momentarily sunbathe.
The line itself acted like a paradox. What seemed like a handful of minutes also gave us time to contemplate mortality, some of us battling the fear that time had stopped completely.
As we got closer to the front, people began passing us, their prizes in hand. Some carried multiple large bags of aromatic fried chicken, smiling ear to ear and inspiring us to continue.
We hit the 1-hour mark when we first saw customers actually eating. Some indulged causally, savoring each bite of their sandwich or chicken piece. Others, however, chose the more risky option.
Slipping on gloves, these thrill-seekers tenderly handled the blazing red, famous Howlin’ chicken. Made with a mix of fiery hot peppers like the Carolina Reaper and scorpion peppers (two of the world’s hottest peppers) the color alone seemed to warn of danger. We heeded its warning as we discussed what we would eat.
The second hour seemed to pass by more quickly as we watched patrons eat. We reached the front of the line just after 1 p.m.
Our mouths watered as we tried to order. The venue was tiny compared to the line, and they had everyone order at the door. The host gladly explained everything about Howlin’ Ray’s to us because we told him it was our first time.
We ordered the mild chicken sando (basically a sandwich), which is explained as a “brush of heat,” the medium chicken sandos and a half bird (a breast, wing, leg and thigh) labeled “feel the burn,” and one country style chicken sando with no heat (for the tall dumpling who can’t brave any spice) with fries all around.
Jared tried sacrificing himself by ordering the Howlin’ chicken sando for the sake of quality reporting, but the host advised against it, warning the chicken would be too hot to enjoy in sandwich form. Jared continued to press, but the host was firm. Instead, he suggested for Jared to order a Howlin’ chicken wing on the side.
After we ordered, space opened up inside and we were one of the lucky ones who were able to file in. We sat along the bar, absorbing the abnormally-high energy levels of the staff. They entertained as they worked, simultaneously holding conversation with us, roaring orders and belting along with songs.
While waiting for our food and watching in awe as the staff bust out tons of orders of hot chicken, the cooks in front of us called our attention as they set up an order of waffles. On Saturdays and Sundays only, Howlin’ Ray’s serves fresh waffles that you can order with your chicken. After giving them the final touches, which included a drizzle of heavenly maple syrup, they pushed the waffles toward us. Our cook Julian said they were “on the house.” Their hospitality amazed us (can you beat free food?).
The waffle was fresh off the griddle and topped with tons of butter, powdered sugar and maple syrup. Sweet, fluffy and divine are only a few adjectives we’d throw at them. Waffle House who?
At this point, we were buzzing with excitement for our hot chicken. Our numbers were called and one by one we were all gracefully handed our chicken sandos, as if it were a sacred ceremony. Jared was also given his special Howlin’ wing with a side of blue latex gloves as a safety precaution. We all began to grub, uttering sounds of disbelief.
The piece of chicken was larger than life, barely covered by the bun and coleslaw. Topped with copious amounts of pickles, coleslaw and its special “comeback sauce.” However, as a fair warning, there’s a good amount of pickles in the sando, so if you’re not really a pickle person (like our little dumpling), feel free to pick them out. For those who love pickles, they offer extra on the side.
After finishing his meal, Jared slipped on the blue latex gloves and braved the Howlin’ wing. Drenched in dark red powder, the wing looked intimidating. He took the first bite.
“It started fine,” Jared said. “Then my body started getting warm. I started sweating. My mouth started burning. There were sharp pains in my chest. I lost all sense of taste.”
His lips turned pink from the contact with the chili powder. One bite was all it took. He couldn’t bear to take another, and decided to save it for the next day to share with our fellow newsroom colleagues (though no one dared to touch it).
Stomachs stuffed with fried chicken sandos, fries and waffles, we were sad to leave. The cooks and hosts of Howlin’ Ray’s opened their arms to us and made us feel welcomed. Was it worth the hype and the wait? We definitely think so. But maybe not Jared.
“It gave me nightmares,” Jared said.