Inside Howlin' Ray's, Where People Wait 3 Hours In Line For The Best Hot Chicken In L.A.
It's 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. Inside Chinatown's Far East Plaza, a line is forming. The crowd will continue to grow unencumbered until 11 a.m., and by noon, may easily reach three-hours long. The wait, of course, is for Howlin' Ray's—the one-year-old Nashville-style hot chicken purveyor that has single-handedly launched an obsession in Los Angeles.
"On weekends, people start lining up at 8 a.m.," Mario Aguilar, assistant manager and one of Howlin's opening crew members, told LAist. That's three hours before they open their doors.
The idea here is simple: serve the highest quality fried chicken to Los Angeles—a goal chef and co-founder Johnny Ray Zone has pursued relentlessly.
"Thomas Keller would always say that we're in pursuit of perfection, but we never attain it," Zone, who was on the opening crew of Keller's Bouchon Beverly Hills, says.
Before Bouchon, Zone also worked at Gordon Ramsay's The London when it received a Michelin star, and Nobu West Hollywood. Zone then took his fine dining experience to La Poubelle, where he was brought on as the head chef. And his time there was a success—"they had a 400% increase when I was at La Poubelle, so I thought, why am I not doing this for myself?" His first stop was Tennessee.
"I thought to move to Nashville, because of guys like Sean Brock," Zone continues. He would briefly work a stint at Brock's Husk in 2014. "I was really into antebellum ingredients. Like, there's a bean pod, called Leather Britches, and you hang it over a fire pit where you cook meat. You leave it there for a few days, and then when you reconstitute the beans, they taste exactly like meat. It's trapped all the smoke and fat."
It was during this time in Nashville that Zone ate at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack for the first time. "I love Los Angeles so much, that I knew I had to bring this back to L.A.," the native Angeleno adds. And so, Howlin' Ray's was born.
By the end of 2015, Zone and wife Amanda Chapman started Howlin' Ray's as a food truck, Their two most popular spots where Silver Lake and the Arts District. After six months, they would open Howlin' as a brick-and-mortar in Chinatown (which, among other factors, is in between their two food truck hotspots).
And the lines? They started almost immediately. "I thought it would go down after the first six months or so," Zone says. "That's when you get the most hype and everyone is coming to check you out, but it's only grown."
On a typical day, Howlin' Ray's will serve 600 people in the five hours they are open, and dish out some 400-500 pounds of chicken. It's a grueling task for anyone to handle, yet Zone has built a team that functions with almost militaristic precision. Throughout the day, directions are shouted at the the team in drill sergeant-style, with a "Yes, Chef!" shouted in a unison response similar to enlists at Fort Jackson.
And expansion plans are underway. Zone is hesitant to give an exact opening date, but expect are larger Howlin' Ray's sometime in late summer.
"We'll have a larger kitchen and an expanded counter," Zone says. "It'll help us stay open longer, and maybe add some items to the menu."
Howlin' Ray's is located at 727 North Broadway, Suite #128, in Los Angeles. (213) 935-8399. They are open Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.