How Hot Chicken Sandwiches Conquered San Fernando Valley Car Washes

A hot chicken sandwich from Raging Hot Chicken, which operates out of a car wash on Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

The crowd starts trickling in around 7 p.m., after Fashion Square Car Wash in Sherman Oaks shuts down for the day. A white cargo van pulls into the parking lot and a crew of six to eight workers start setting up equipment. Folding tables. Chairs. Fryers. By 7:30 p.m., a line has formed and the 40 people waiting in it aren't an anomaly. At four other car washes in an 11-mile radius, hungry Angelenos are queuing up for one thing — hot chicken.

Spicy fried chicken has become one of L.A.'s hottest trends, fueled by the tongue-scorching success of Nashville export Howlin' Ray's. Hoping to cash in on the craving, everyone from mom-and-pop outfits to Popeye's have been touting their hot chicken sammies. All over Los Angeles County, street stands and brick-and-mortar outlets have sprouted up to sell this item but ground zero for the boom is the San Fernando Valley, where these deep fried entrepreneurs have gravitated toward a particular locale: the car wash parking lot.

Hot chicken fresh from the fryer at Chips n Chicks in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

It makes a lot of sense. Poultry peddlers get a visible, reasonably safe spot (with parking) to sell their wares. Car wash owners earn a little extra money from a space that would otherwise sit dormant at night. It's a well worn path. Taquerias — like Leo's Taco Truck at the corner of Glendale Blvd. and Temple St. in Historic Filipinotown and Tacos Super Gallito at Bluewave Car Wash in Westwood — have been operating out of car washes for more than a decade.

Most Southern California fried chicken entrepreneurs started their businesses in their kitchens so any location is a step up.

Before he launched Hawaiian Hot Chicken in Northridge, Mike Mkrtchyan and his pals weren't sure if the praise they received from their friends was legit. Maybe their buddies were just being nice. "But even the grandmas loved it," Mkrtchyan says so he decided to move ahead. Without much capital, he and his pals needed a low-cost spot with enough space for their fryers and a few tables.

Two employees prepare hot chicken sandwiches at Chips n Chicks in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Harut Haroutunian, who opened Chips n Chicks in North Hollywood with his partner, has a similar story. "We put all the money we had saved into buying equipment so we couldn't afford to pay too much rent," he says. Haroutunian knew he wanted to open in North Hollywood but spent three months operating out of Vermont Handwash in Hollywood while searching for his ideal location. He eventually landed at Plaza Hand Car Wash on Laurel Canyon near Victory Blvd.

Gabriel Killian was the first San Fernando Valley hot chicken pop-up to take up residence at a car wash when he debuted Raging Hot Chicken at Best Tires & Auto Repair shop in December 2017 — before moving to his current car wash on Laurel Canyon.

People wait for hot chicken sandwiches at Raging Hot Chicken, which operates out of a car wash on Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

For Killian and many others, it all started with Howlin' Rays. Killian was middle school classmates with Howlin' Ray's owner Johnny Zone, in Los Angeles. When Howlin' Ray's opened, he stood in line along with hundreds of other hungry Angelenos and he was blown away with what he tasted.

"I became so hooked on it that I started working on my own recipe, so I could eat it whenever I wanted without having to kill an entire afternoon," Killian says. Killian's father (who is the head chef at Raging Hot Chicken) met the car wash owner, whose name he won't reveal, one fateful day while visiting the adjacent auto body shop. The rest is history.

Employees prepare hot chicken sandwiches at Spicy Boyz Chicken, which operates out of the Vineland Carwash in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

For Arthur Barseghian, who started Spicy Boyz Chicken in North Hollywood in May 2019, opening at a car wash is a no-brainer. His dad owns the Vineland Car Wash lot at the corner of Vineland Ave. and Vanowen St. The busy location made him think it would be a good spot to do business.

When George Galajian and his cousins decided to open Hot Motha Clucker, they looked where there was enough space to set up their kitchen and for patrons to park. They called the owner of Fashion Square car wash in Sherman Oaks, who was open to the idea. The surrounding communities seem like they've embraced these businesses. Hot Motha Clucker's first customers were kids from the neighborhood, who then brought their family and friends. Now LAPD officers line up for their food.

A hot chicken sandwich from Hot Motha Clucker, which operates out of the Fashion Square Car Wash in Sherman Oaks. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

One of the partners at Hawaiian Hot Chicken frequents the Northridge Car Wash enough to know the manager, who approached him about the pop-up idea. The car wash used to house Ubatuba Acai so they were familiar with the requirements for hosting a food business. Hawaiian Hot Chicken's neighboring businesses have also welcomed them. They partner with Sugar Fix Boba Cafe next door to offer drinks that wash down the hot chicken.

Operating a food business at a car wash isn't without its challenges. You have to set up shop every day then break down and clean up at the end of the night. Sometimes, the car wash closes late and set-up is rushed. But both customers and staff seem to love the late night street food vibe at these places. Some blast hip-hop (but not too loud so they don't annoy the neighbors) while others organize car meets. Spicy Boyz Chicken even held a movie week earlier this summer.

For some fried chicken peddlers, the car wash is a stepping stone. Hot Motha Clucker has expanded by adding a brick-and-mortar location while Chips n Chicks is working toward that. But all of these business owners say they plan to keep their car wash pop-ups open.

If you want a hot chicken sandwich and the ambiance of a neighborhood street party, head to the San Fernando Valley.

A hot chicken sandwich from Raging Hot Chicken, which operates out of a car wash on Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Raging Hot Chicken

As the first hot chicken pop-up at a car wash in the San Fernando Valley, Raging Hot Chicken set the bar high. To achieve the proper level of insane heat, owner Gabriel Killian tasted peppers from around the world and selected some of the spiciest. His recipe is a secret but it includes that Nashville signature, cayenne pepper. Customers also like the Frankenfries, which are topped with fried chicken, and their spicy, mayo-based Mississippi Mean Sauce. They don't open until 8 p.m., when NoHo Carwash closes, but that means they also stay open later— until they sell out — so this a great late-night pit stop.

  • 5950 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.
A hot chicken sandwich at Chips n Chicks in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Chips n Chicks

Chips n Chicks at the Tujunga Car Wash combines a few different trends. They're slinging hot chicken covered with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Nashville style hot chicken and elote bowls. Cheeto crumbs add crunch to the batter and the spiciness of their sandwiches is more low-key than some. You can order the chicken as tenders or sliders and if that's not enough, you can also order a Hot Cheetos chicken grilled cheese sandwich

  • Chips n Chicks. 6462 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.
A hot chicken sandwich and fries from Spicy Boyz Chicken, which operates out of the Vineland Carwash in North Hollywood. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Spicy Boyz Chicken

Located at the Vineland Carwash parking lot, Spicy Boyz uses organic chicken for their long chicken tenders, served in a hot dog bun with coleslaw. The heat level is dialed down a notch compared to most other vendors in this category, which is good if you're still building up your spice tolerance, but ordering their spiciest sandwich still requires you to sign a waiver. Spicy Boyz also offers their hot chicken protein-style or in taco form, because Los Angeles.

  • 11005 Vanowen St., North Hollywood.
Hot chicken sandwiches from Hot Motha Clucker, which operates out of the Fashion Square Car Wash in Sherman Oaks. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Hot Motha Clucker

Known for their crispy chicken tenders, Hot Motha Clucker recently expanded from their Sherman Oaks car wash to a brick and mortar location in Hollywood. Their dry rub helps lock in the juiciness of the chicken. Customers can get a "doozy," where they add cheese and honey to the chicken for $1 extra. Bonus: Hot Motha Clucker also serves some of the better fried pickles in town.

  • 4625 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks.
  • 1708 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood
Patrons line up for Hawaiian Hot Chicken at a car wash in Northridge. (Fiona Chandra for LAist)

Hawaiian Hot Chicken

This pop-up's proximity to CSUN contributes to its popularity and the hour-long line each night, accompanied by hip-hop playing through the speakers. The sandwiches are served on sweet King's Hawaiian buns, complementingthe spiciness of the chicken, and the coleslaw includes chunks of pineapple for a tropical touch. There are five heat levels from mild to Kilauea, named after Hawaii's active volcano.

  • 9240 Reseda Blvd., Northridge.