Are you crying because it’s too good, or are you crying because it’s too spicy? Practically glowing red with cayenne pepper and crunchy from a dunk in the deep-fryer, Nashville-style hot chicken is juicy, searing and craveable enough to keep Angelenos waiting hours in line for a taste at the likes of Howlin’ Ray’s and pop-ups in parking lots. The Tennessee classic is such a hit in L.A., in fact, that it’s got local restaurants thinking beyond the bird for totally unique spins on the dish that don’t involve chicken at all. Here’s where the most creative takes go to roost, ranked in order of spiciest.
Feeling hot, hot, hot?
Mei Lin’s giving us the poultriest thing to Nashville hot chicken on this list, and the Top Chef winner adds some haute to the hot. In lieu of the traditional bird, she uses the daintier, more refined quail, which gets brined in soy and buttermilk, fried, dipped in a house chili oil, then placed atop Japanese milk bread. And because Nightshade draws on Chinese tradition to bring us something nostalgic but new, the chef’s Nashville-hot blend involves both red and green Szechuan peppercorns—in addition to around 20 other spices such as cardamom and fennel—for a bird that’s got a slightly numbing bite. $26.
Vartan Abgaryan’s new restaurant goes that extra mile on every dish (hello, chicken-liver-mousse layer cake), but this is especially true when it comes to bringing the heat. Abgaryan deep-fries three meaty Australian prawns and stands them atop a square of Japanese milk bread with a side of cabbage slaw. It took the chef-owner seven tries (why, yes, he is a bit of a perfectionist) to nail the spice blend, a mix of smoked paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne and Aleppo pepper. But the real flavor comes from boiling the prawn shells in hot oil so the spices don’t overwhelm the natural seafood essence. $29.
If you like it then you should put a ring on it—specifically, one dusted with a ton of cayenne. Michael’s may lean toward classic California cuisine, but on the bar and lounge menu, things get a little hotter and a little wilder. It’s there—and only during happy hour (Mon–Sat 5:30–7pm)—that calamari gets the Tennessee treatment: deep-fried Japanese squid rings coated in a spicy mix of cayenne, Aleppo pepper, and onion and garlic powders, which you can mellow by dunking your ring in a side of house ranch. $12.
This take is a showstopper: After all, it’s not every day that a red-hot deboned whole fish, crispy and crunchy from head to tail, lands on your table. After it’s dredged through a batter of flour and cornstarch, then fried, the seasonal fish gets brushed with a house chili oil featuring cayenne, Aleppo pepper, Korean and Thai chilies, smoked paprika and jalapeño. Forget the bread-and-butter pickles; an entrée this dramatic gets a mound of dill-pickled green beans, plus its own watercress salad and creamy, soothing Delta sauce to cool it down. Talk about a good catch. $38.