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Angelenos: Get your hot chicken fix at Howlin’ Rays

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Howlin' Rays - Chef Johnny Ray Zone
Chef Johnny Ray Zone grew up in Silver Lake. He got hooked on hot chicken while living in Nashville. (Photo by Stan Lee)

When I was growing up, barbecue and bourbon crawls weren’t a thing. To eat a great meal of biscuits and gravy, country ham and fried green tomatoes, you had to make it yourself or take a trip south of the Mason-Dixon line. But the times, they are a-changin’. Just this year, I’ve eaten at a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles that are serving steaming bowls of Anson Mills grits, collard greens and waffles piled high with crispy fried chicken. I was shocked to see scrapple, a strange side of pork scraps I remember eating as a child in Virginia, on the brunch menu at Redbird. And in a small strip mall in LA’s Chinatown, there is bright paprika-colored, mouth-numbingly hot Nashville-style chicken.

Howlin’ Rays sold hot chicken from a food truck before setting up shop in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza in April. Far East Plaza may sound familiar because the strip mall is home to Chego, Unit 120, Pok Pok Phat Thai, Scoops and Endorffeine coffee. But the lines are longest outside Howlin’ Rays. Set aside a couple of hours to get your hot chicken fix, especially if you’re planning to go on a weekend. When you make it to the front of the line, manager Amanda Chapman will take your order and her husband, Chef Johnny Ray Zone, will fry up your bird to order. Choose dark or light meat, then select the level of spiciness: mild, medium, hot, x-hot or “Howlin’ hot,” and decide if you want your chicken solo or in a sandwich.

Howlin' Rays - Chicken Sandwich
It’s up to you how spicy you want your chicken sandwich. The fried chicken comes on a soft bun with slaw, some great briny pickles and Mississippi comeback sauce. (Photo by Stan Lee)

The name for the hottest chicken on the menu comes from the Howlin’ Wolf song “Moanin’ by Midnight.” The restaurant name is a nod to Johnny’s late dad, a cartoonist named Ray. If you don’t want any heat, you can order your bird country-style — this is the kind of fried chicken I grew up with in Virginia and it’s delicious too — find the recipe here. They’ll call your number and then you sweat out each tasty bite at the counter or at a picnic table outside with a cup of lemonade or peach iced tea. The first bite of chicken is excellent, says Jonathan Gold in his LA Times review of Howlin’ Rays. “Then the punch of heat lands — you may experience it almost as a blow to the chest. Your lips swell. Your scalp erupts in sweat. Your throat begins to close. You unconsciously mop your forehead with the back of your hand and suddenly there is a situation up there too, a sensation you may have experienced the last time you napped an hour too long on the beach. Your bloodstream floods with adrenaline, but then the endorphins kick in, and you float on an eddy of bliss for a moment or two. Then you go back in for some more. The hot chicken has won.”

Howlin' Rays - Medium Hot Chicken
Zone tried 47 different spice mixes before settling on the one that now goes into every box of hot chicken at Howlin’ Rays. The medium-hot chicken pictured here is “plenty hot,” says Jonathan Gold. (Photo by Stan Lee)

Chef Zone trained with Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay and staged with Sean Brock before he and Chapman started Howlin’ Rays. He got addicted to hot chicken living in Nashville, eating at what’s arguably the birthplace of this kind of fried chicken: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The secret to the Howlin’ Rays version, Zone tells me over a box of it outside, is what they fry it in: “All over the South, they use shortening because it’s cheaper than lard. We use peanut oil.” Then there is what the chicken is seasoned with: cayenne, habanero, ghost pepper, red savina, paprika, dark brown sugar, molasses, sorghum, Cajun spices, garlic, black pepper. Zone made 47 variations before settling on one to his liking.

Howlin' Rays - Country Fried Chicken + Potato Salad
Howlin’ Rays also serves fried chicken “country-style” made without heat. (Photo by Stan Lee)

Zone likes fermented foods, Korean barbecue and shrimp with the heads on so it’s no surprise the sides at Howlin’ Rays are not at all sweet. There are good sour briny pickles. The collards are stewed in pork and turkey neck and best eaten with a splash of tobacco pepper juice from a jar you’ll find on the table. “Do these taste like collard greens made by a guy from LA?” Zone asks, with a smirk. There are Fresno peppers in the potato salad and the crinkly fries come with spicy Mississippi comeback sauce. If you still need to kick it up a notch, there’s Crystal on the table, that hot sauce found all over restaurants in Nashville.

Recommendations from Jonathan Gold: Hot chicken — medium hot — and at least one piece Howlin’ hot. Order any combination of light or dark meat or wings, or order it in a sandwich with slaw, pickles and Mississippi comeback sauce.

Location: 727 North Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90012 | (213) 935-8399

Find more of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant recommendations here.

Photos by Stan Lee, FCS 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner.