I waited 2 hours to eat at LA’s hottest chicken spot, and it was the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had

Howlin' Ray's has been open for years, but the ridiculous lines haven't gone away.

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Howlin’ Ray’s has been open for years, but the ridiculous lines haven’t gone away.
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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I howl, you howl, we all howl for hot chicken.

The chicken sandwich was perhaps the food that defined 2019. But before Popeyes’ chicken sandwich was drawing lines around the block, there was Howlin’ Ray’s.

Howlin’ Ray’s started out as a scrappy Los Angeles food truck hawking hot chicken and chicken sandwiches. After an inspiring trip to Nashville, chef Johnny Ray Zone and his wife, Amanda Chapman, gambled everything on bringing hot chicken to Los Angeles. It paid off.

Hordes of hungry hot-chicken fans stormed the food truck on the regular, turning it into one of the hottest food spots in town. Soon enough, Howlin’ Ray’s moved from the truck to a storefront in a Chinatown strip mall. Now, Zone and Chapman plan to open a second location in Pasadena. But the food remains the same – as do the ridiculous lines to get to it.

When I went to LA for a week, my editor had Howlin’ Ray’s on his mind. “Go forth, and eat thee some hot chicken,” he said.

So I did.


At 4 p.m., I walked from downtown LA to the restaurant in Chinatown.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Google led me to a nondescript strip mall with a bunch of Chinese restaurants and stores. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

But at the bottom of the strip-mall sign was Howlin’ Ray’s Nashville Hot Chicken.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

As soon as I walked into the mall, I saw the line extending from the storefront. I went straight to the end.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

It didn’t look too bad. I’ve seen lines move pretty quickly at fast-food restaurants. But Howlin’ Ray’s is no fast-food restaurant.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I’m not someone who typically waits in lines for things. I’d rather just wait for the hype to die down.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

But with Howlin’ Ray’s in its third year and still drawing hours-long lines every day, it seems unlikely that the hype for this hot chicken will die down anytime soon.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I was still full from brunch, so I was worried I wouldn’t have an appetite. But after waiting an hour, I was barely halfway through the line.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The place was blasting loud music, a common tactic restaurants use to encourage turnover.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

But even though most people were ordering takeout, the line moved at a glacial speed.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I could smell the chili frying from outside, and my stomach started to grumble.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Every so often, I’d hear yelling from the kitchen. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I dug the energy.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Finally, around 6 p.m., after about two hours of waiting in line, I was in.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I got a medium spicy chicken sandwich, a side of fries, and lemonade mixed with peach tea. After ordering from the employee at the door, I took a seat at the bar in front of the kitchen.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The atmosphere in the kitchen was extremely fast-paced but jovial and casual. I was stunned by how friendly everyone was.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

There was someone manning each station, and each action was performed with expert panache.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

It was like a hot-chicken assembly line. Gordon Ramsay would be proud of this kitchen.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

When orders were called out to the kitchen, they were met with a whole-chested, simultaneous “Yes, chef!” from the team.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Every so often, the kitchen communicated with its customers over a mic.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The guys in the kitchen started me off with a complimentary piece of mild chicken, as well as toast, pickles, and comeback sauce.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

There are six levels of spice at Howlin’ Ray’s: country (no heat), mild, medium, hot, x-hot, and howlin’.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I love spicy food, so I was surprised when the guys told me to start with mild to see if I wanted to go any higher.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

And I had to admit, mild was what most restaurants would call medium or even spicy.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Other than the prominent savory flavor of the chili-pepper powder, this was just a very, very good piece of fried chicken. But paired with comeback sauce (a spicy ranch sauce), it was unstoppable.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Still, I couldn’t go too crazy. I had my sandwich to think of.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

While I waited, I chatted with some of the guys in the kitchen. One of them had moved from Minnesota to LA to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. Howlin’ Ray’s was the first step in that direction.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Julian, the manager, is an iconic face at Howlin’ Ray’s.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

When I told him I was a food journalist, he seemed more than happy to play with the camera.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The way he handed me that chicken sandwich made me feel like royalty.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Or maybe it was the chicken sandwich that was royalty.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Behold, the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

It was a big bite, but worth it. The journey began with a soft and sweet brioche bun that gave way into cool, crispy cabbage, thick, tart pickles, and hot battered chicken.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The guys were right: Medium is pretty dang spicy.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I have no idea what’s in comeback sauce. To me, it tasted like a spicy, smoky ranch.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

But whatever it is, it adds the extra oomph to this sandwich that makes it truly irresistible.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I’m not one to neglect my fried potatoes, so I turned my attention to my shake fries.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Crinkle cut? Bold move, but it worked for Shake Shack.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I immediately went for the comeback sauce. Thank god the guys had given me a cup.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

These fries, too, were perfect. They were crispy and full of flavor and seasoning.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I washed down all the salt and heat with a couple of big gulps of peach lemonade.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

That was one fragrant, juicy-sweet cup of tea.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Despite the long line outside, the warm atmosphere inside made me feel at home. I didn’t at all feel rushed, so I took my time to savor my sandwich.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I’d punctuate bites of crispy hot chicken with a thick slab of pickle …

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

… followed by a fry or two.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

I felt pretty full by the time I got through half of my sandwich. But there’s just something about the nutty smell of chili powder in the fryer that keeps you going.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Finally, I gave up and asked for a box. It was time to give someone else a seat at Howlin’ Ray’s.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

It wasn’t just the chicken that made my meal at Howlin’ Ray’s special. It was the fun, life-affirming energy of the people who work there. The food was so good that the staff could probably get away with terrible service. But the staff members treated each of their guests like a VIP.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider

It’s a darn shame that, at least in the near future, it doesn’t seem likely that Howlin’ Ray’s will make its way out of SoCal. If Howlin’ Ray’s, instead of McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, were the global face of American capitalism, the world would probably be a much better place.

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Irene Jiang / Business Insider