I've read nothing but incredible reviews of Howlin' Rays Nashville-style Hot Chicken for a year, and months ago made a failed mid-afternoon attempt to try their professed delicious fare (the line was comfortably over three hours long, and after thirty minutes of standing in the exact same spot, my companions and I threw in the towel and vowed to return another day!). Well, return we did -- and this time, we learned our lesson, planting ourselves second in line at 8:50 AM in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza to await the petite but mighty restaurant's opening at 11:00. Even at that early hour, the restaurant's adorably convivial crew was energized and entertaining, and when the glass front door was finally propped open -- at which point the line behind us was three hundred people long -- we gratefully entered deep fried paradise. We were warmly greeted by Chef Johnny Ray Zone (formerly of The London, Nobu West Hollywood, and Bouchon Beverly Hills), half of the husband and wife duo behind this hot chicken institution, who delightfully bantered with us while we ordered a hefty portion of his menu. The famed tiered spice levels were too tempting to resist, so we ordered the fried chicken and waffles with the chicken in its purest "country" level with absolutely no heat, the Hot Chicken Sandwich at Medium "feel the burn" spicy, and then solo wings at X-Hot ("You've been warned" spicy) and the ultimate Howlin' ("Can't touch this. 10++ spicy") to give the spiciest levels a whirl. From our first perfectly cooked, incredibly juicy, crisply coated bites, we knew the hours-long wait was absolutely worth it. Howlin' Rays creates fried chicken at its absolute finest, and it's truly no wonder the restaurant -- which will soon expand within the plaza, more than doubling their footprint -- has established such a cult following. The hype is real, and completely and utterly deserved.
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