NASHVILLE GOES HOLLYWOOD
NAME: Howlin’ Ray’s
PLACE: Los Angeles, CA
WHAT: Nashville Hot Chicken
ADDRESS: 727 N Broadway #128, Los Angeles, CA 90012
CHEF: Johnny Zone
PRICE: $ - $$
WHAT TO EAT: The Sando, Medium hot
NASHVILLE HOT CHICKEN IN LOS ANGELES??
I sat in front of my computer preparing for another culinary exploration in LA by looking for trending restaurants and dishes online, and in social media. The regular culprits were populating my searches. Street tacos, ramen, sushi, and oh yeah Korean food. Something strange also kept finding its way into my results, and that was Nashville Hot Chicken. Could that be right? Nashville Hot Chicken in LA? As I continued surfing, more articles kept popping up about this crazy little place that is sooo good that people wait in obscenely long lines for it. The trend continued, and as I saw numerous posts on Howlin’ Ray’s, it led me to rethink the question do you go to Los Angeles searching for Nashville Hot Chicken?
CAN A FAST FOOD SANDWICH BE WORTH AN HOUR WAIT?
I was with Dave this time. He is one of the great sales people that I work with. He rarely complains, and is always ready for a game of culinary Russian roulette. Searching out the address, I led us to the middle of Chinatown. We found the location, and instead of a freestanding establishment, there was a strip mall with a line of people inside. I’ve never been here before, but I know that people in a long line was part of what I was looking for. Assuming I was at the right place, we climbed the steps into the mall. The line was much bigger than I thought it would be, I mean it was HUGE. The line went around a couple of kiosks, past empty stores and restaurants, and ended somewhere down the hallway out of sight. I wondered immediately if this chicken could be worth the wait. I also wondered how much crap will Dave give me if it’s not?? We made our way to the end of the line and started surveying the people around us. There was a very excited guy in front of us who had been to Howlin’ Ray’s before, and happily informed us that the line was much shorter than usual. There was also a vegetarian next to us. She was visiting with friends and insisted she could find something to eat on the menu. Howlin’ Ray’s menu is little more than just chicken, and Dave openly questioned her sanity. I wisely kept the same thought inside my head. Meeting new people made the time pass quickly, and the line was a key part of the larger culinary experience. As we continued to move up in line a never-ending stream of people kept replacing us at the end. They would throw their hands in the air and cheer, just happy to be part of it. I started to think, was I missing something, or can a fast food chicken sandwich be worth an hour (or more) wait?
We finally made it inside the doorway. Howlin’ Ray’s is small and tight with only about ten counter seats and no real waiting space, so we were crammed in like sardines. The energy inside is palpable and my excitement intensified as I jealously watched others eating their sandwiches already in hand. Once you place your order the chef yells it to the line. The line cooks scream back a confirmation. There is a lot of activity and joking going on, the banter is high in energy and pours out of the compact kitchen into the tiny waiting area. The cadence of kitchen noise is fast paced like powerful waves hitting you in the chest and you get a little bouncy, hoping your number is called next. It is organized chaos as the cooks synchronize the orders, and I realized that the hollerin was yet another part of this chicken sandwich experience.
THE SANDO DELIVERY:
While waiting for our number to be screamed out, a miracle occurs and a couple of counter seats opened up. Dave and I made eye contact and moved like teenage boys after a six pack of red bull to snag the prized seats. I could feel the excitement of my upcoming sandwich. People were buzzing, drooling, lit up with the energy of the environment and the anticipation of their meal. Comeback sauce (a kind of ketchup aioli) is dripping all over. The joint was filled with the boisterous buzz of happy hungry customers. People steadily walked out with large white and red bags held high while cheering about their new found good fortune. I began to wonder if maybe they were putting crack on the food? How can a simple sandwich capture the imagination of so many people?
With my front row seat, I was strategically placed a mere two feet from the main sandwich maker. I watched as they toasted the buns, breaded the chicken, built the bases, dumped the breast, and shook the magic spice. There were lines of butter toasted buns dressed with comeback sauce, loaded with thick dill pickle slices, waiting to be finished. The chicken is pulled, golden and glistening from the fryer, and then dumped and heavily dusted with magic Nashville hot seasoning blend. Loaded with cayenne and other secret ingredients, the breast makes its way to the waiting bun where it is blessed with a handful of vinegar slaw before it is quickly kissed by a greasy thumb and wrapped with bright red and white checkered paper. The magic moment finally arrived when it was ceremoniously passed over the counter to me. I felt a twinge of panic as I took possession of the sandwich that I patiently waited in line 90 minutes for. What if I dropped it? What if it wasn’t every bit as good as I had every reason to expect it to be? I pushed those thoughts aside and securely grabbed it with two hands, snapped a quick picture for Instagram, and slammed that thing in my mouth.
A SANDO SO GOOD, IT COULD TURN A VEGETARIAN:
With the first bite down, I could feel it in my eyes and holy crap this thing is good. The heat built on top of my head, but for some reason I want more. It’s slightly unexplainable, but I wanted another bite even though this thing was hot. That monstrosity of a sandwich was indeed worth the wait. It was practically transcending. I looked around, and in that moment saw our vegetarian friend nose deep in a chicken Sando herself. I guess she did indeed find something she could eat. Apparently, this isn’t just the best sandwich I’ve eaten in years, it is also a Sando good enough to turn a vegetarian into a carnivore. That is one damn good sandwich.
HISTORY OF HOWLIN’ RAY’S:
Howlin’ Ray’s started off slowly as an idea that Chef Johnny and his partner, and wife, Amanda fell in love with in Nashville. They brought their love back to LA in the form a of a Howlin’ Ray’s food truck. In 2015 they parked the truck for good, and opened the doors to their Chinatown location where they can be found six days a week serving up some of the best Nashville Hot Chicken in the country to a cultish following of hot chicken lovers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
The Pig is formally trained in the culinary arts, a graduate of the C.I.A., worked in the food industry for over 40 years and currently travels the country as a research chef searching food trucks, street vendors, little restaurants and hole in the walls, seeking out the best this country has to offer. For more great articles, culinary travel guides, and tips on travel and cooking follow us to our website.