Howlin’ Ray’s In Los Angeles Is A Food Odyssey Worth The Huge Wait

Howlin Rays

I wish I could tell you that standing in line for two hours just to get spicy chicken was a fool’s errand. Extreme spice is so often treated as a novelty, with flavor taking a backseat to the Scoville scale just so that the restaurant in question can give you a ridiculous contract to sign and therefore make themselves more newsworthy, that it seemed silly to even give Howlin’ Rays a try. But after an interminably long wait — during which I prayed that the whole thing would prove a waste of time, thereby allowing me to write a chicken hit piece — I discovered that LA’s most famous Nashville Hot Chicken joint defies this trend.

Yes, the food is hot, but that heat actually contributes to the flavor. The result? A restaurant that draws absurd crowds but still manages to be worth the trouble.

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It’s impossible to lead off an article about Howlin’ Rays without mentioning the giant line of people that snakes its way through the Far East Plaza toward the restaurant. They shuffle along the concrete, cracking jokes and snapping photos. Most guests seem to arrive knowing about the wait times, too, so there’s a sense of everyone being “in this thing together.” Besides, new friends are easy to make when there’s the promise (however distant) of good food in the future.

Six days a week (the restaurant is closed Mondays) hundreds of food aficionados embark on this a culinary adventure. Naturally, passers-by grow curious. They ask what all the fuss is about and the moment they get an answer they’re prone to exclaim:

“Must be some good chicken!”

As these non-believers walk away, chuckling at the absurdity of our food culture — where eating a meal is a day-dominating activity — no one in the line seems to give them a second thought. It’s an environment of excitement and anticipation; almost aggressively kind. People cheer for you as you finally place your order, others who have already finished eating encourage those stuck in line.

“You’re almost there!”

“Make sure to get the waffles!”

And Howlin’ Ray’s knows your time is valuable, too. They’re constantly updating their Twitter feed with approximate wait times, and the line has markers letting you know how long it’ll be until you reach spicy chicken bliss.

Michelle Santos

No matter how skeptical a diner is upon arrival — food writers and anyone who’s actually lived in Nashville being high on this scale — the verdict seems to be the same. It is worth the wait.

Howlin’ Ray’s has a small menu but they’ve perfected it. There’s an attention to detail revealed in every dish. As for the spice, they have six levels of heat, ranging from Country style to Howlin.’ The latter variety is so hot that the staff gives you gloves with your order. At first glance, the gloves can seem like a gimmick, but as someone who is no stranger to spice-induced temporary blindness, they’re much appreciated. (The heat is no joke, play it safe by ordering a level lower than you think you can handle. I’ve seen many grown-ups left in tears halfway through their meal. Others simply give up, and you don’t want to do that after waiting for two hours to eat.)

My first time arriving at the front of the line, I ordered the Skinny Jimmy — a boneless breast fried and tossed in spices. I know spicy wings are extremely popular, and Howlin’ Ray’s has got you covered there, but when dealing with spicy food I don’t mess with any bones. To be honest, I don’t trust myself with bones. Spicy food makes me eat like I’m in a panic, nerves jangling like Johnny Depp’s bracelets. That just seems like a recipe for bone-biting and I’m not having it.

The real victory of the restaurant is that the intensity of the spice doesn’t get in the way of the flavor. The chicken is deliciously tender, practically melting in your mouth as soon as you bite through the crunchy breading. For exactly one millisecond the high quality of the chicken really shines, until it’s followed by an eye and mouth-watering wave of spice that propels you into your next bite.

It’s this brief moment between bites where the diner gets to savor the full flavor profile. But know that as you do, the heat builds. The longer you wait to take another bite the hotter your mouth feels — creating a delectable feedback loop between your taste-buds and your brain. You want to take another bite, you need to take another bite, but you also crave a respite from the burn.

Should you drink milk? Ask to buy a plain bun? Gargle ice water for an hour?

Nah. You’re hungry and you’re ultimately going to let that urge to take another bite win. Over and over until the meal is through. It’s a propulsive experience; you just have to ride the wave.

The momentum that the heat at Howlin’ Ray’s generates as your tear through your chicken is part of the fun. And maybe the line is, too. They’re both key parts of the journey. It’s an odyssey — full of interesting people, Instagram poses, and stories traded by rookies and veterans alike. It’s a trip that doesn’t end at the front of the line, it stays with you beyond the last bite. Until the next time you brave the line, with new converts in tow.

Because you’re not just waiting two hours in line for chicken, that would be absurd. You’re having an experience.