Dave's Hot Chicken exterior

Nashville-style hot chicken is a bona fide national food sensation and Los Angeles is the epicenter of its expansion beyond Music City. Chef Johnny Zone helped fuel the city’s hunger for sublimely spiced fried chicken when he opened his first Howlin’ Ray’s brick and mortar outpost in 2016. There are now dozens of hot chicken retailers throughout LA, but no one has been able to capitalize on the phenomenon as successfully as Dave’s Hot Chicken (no affiliation with bbq franchise Famous Dave’s) which specializes in crispy tenders of various spice levels. What began as a modest Hollywood street stall has grown into a full-fledged chain with 23 locations in four states, plus a pair of spots in Toronto.

And speaking of Toronto, the city’s pride and joy, Mr. Champagne Papi himself, Aubrey Drake Graham recently announced he is joining the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Boston Red Sox chairman Tim Werner as an investor in Dave’s Hot Chicken. With Drizzy’s backing, the heat is most certainly on for the rapidly expanding franchise which has already signed off on over 500 additional licensing agreements.

Whether there’s currently a location open near you or inevitably soon will be, we here at Mashed have already done our due diligence and sampled the entire Dave’s Hot Chicken menu from slider to tender (yes, even the dreaded reaper!), not to mention all the various shakes and sides. Find out about our favorite items below and whether you should say "yes indeed" or "what’s next" to this red hot chicken chain.

No Spice

no spice Dave's Hot Chicken tender

While Dave’s Hot Chicken offers seven different tender options, the only difference is the seasoning — or in this case, lack thereof. Regardless of what spice level you choose, you can anticipate a strip that will be massive in size, at least compared to tender offerings from other fast food chains. They’re also pricier at nearly $4 per tender a la carte, but the good news is that during our extensive taste test, the chicken was consistently juicy, and the exterior brought the necessary crunch factor.

If you want to experience a Dave’s tender in all its natural glory, go ahead and order the no spice. Just because it skips the additional seasoning doesn’t mean it lacks flavor, providing a nice balance of salt and black pepper. It would certainly compare favorably to other fast food chicken tenders, though unless you’re a tender traditionalist or have an aversion to spice, there are better options on the Dave’s menu, which isn’t too surprising since this is a hot chicken joint after all.

Lite Mild

lite mild Dave's Hot Chicken tender

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the seasoned tenders, another thing to keep in mind when you’re ordering at Dave’s is that each a la carte order also comes with three pickle discs, a side of Dave’s Sauce, and the traditional slice of white bread. If you’re consuming the full package, a single order will do the trick for a "light" lunch. The bread, which is served beneath the chicken, will benefit from the spiced rubbed tenders as it sops all the extra seasoning.

As for the seasoned strips, lite mild may lack heat, but it is certainly aggressively spiced. Cumin dominates the palate, and while we’re a fan of the spice, we have our limits. There is also a pronounced sweetness (too much, in fact) with just a touch of heat at the very end. Overall, this one is simply lacking in balance. Unless you’re a cumin superfan, we suggest you keep climbing up the heat scale.

Mild

mild Dave's Hot Chicken tender

Flavorwise, this is where things start to click and the seasonings begin to coalesce. Just like Miller beer, there is definitely an improvement in taste over the "lite" alternative. With the standard mild, you get that noticeable sweetness from the lite mild but, in this case, it’s thankfully offset by a gentle smokiness. If you’re a fan of barbecue potato chips, which we happen to be, mild will certainly satisfy your sweet and savory tooth.

As for the heat, it’s just a tad more prominent compared to lite mild, but still very much on the manageable side. Unless you absolutely crave cumin, mild is the easy pick over lite mild on the minimally spicy spectrum.

Take note: Appearance-wise, mild and lite mild are as indistinguishable as Kenny and Keith Lucas. In fact, all of Dave’s Hot Chicken seasoned tenders are virtually identical — shellacked with a crimson-hued hodgepodge that, at least visually, screams, "I’m about to set your mouth on fire." Mercifully, a sticker is applied to each order to distinguish the different tenders and prevent you from being met with an unanticipated spicy surprise.

Medium

medium Dave's Hot Chicken tender

All right, now this is when the heat really starts to kick in and Dave’s begins to live up to its name. Right away, you can detect that the peppers in the mix are creeping up the Scoville scale with a slight tingle felt on the lips and tongue. In other words, if the medium spice level had a political affiliation it would likely be a democratic socialist because you’re definitely going to feel the burn.

Beyond the extra heat, medium is pretty much on par with the sweet and savory barbecue potato chip essence of the mild seasoning.

As this marks the halfway point through our tender tasting, it’s a good time to offer an important public service announcement. If you intend to order one of the seasoned strips (which you definitely should), things are bound to get messy. That spice coasting is laid on thick and even a few rounds of aggressive finger licking won’t get the job done. Do your best not to touch your clothes during your meal, grab plenty of napkins, and even consider bringing some wet napkins with you because, unfortunately, Dave’s doesn’t provide any.

Hot

hot Dave's Hot Chicken tender

This is the moment when the NBA Jam announcer would chime in with a "he’s heating up." While medium offers a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos spicy-but-still-tolerable level of spice, you’ll likely need to take a breather between bites of Dave’s hot offering. There isn’t much of a difference in flavor for hot compared to mild and medium (with the exception of a slight salt boost), but yeah, that pepper punch is getting more intense. For our money, this is the flavor and heat sweet spot.

Earlier we mentioned that the tenders come with a side of Dave’s Sauce, an addictive chipotle mayo that will be familiar to fans of Raising Cane’s much celebrated signature sauce. We encourage you to dip any flavor of tender in the cantaloupe-colored condiment, but especially so with the spicier strips. Not only does it taste delicious, but the slightly sweet creaminess provides welcome relief from the heat. As an alternative, the tenders also come with honey packets, and a dab of bee juice is a perfect pair with the prominent spice.

Extra Hot

extra hot  Dave's Hot Chicken tender

It’s official: We’ve now reached the three buckets in a row, "he’s on fire!" territory. Our experience taking down Dave’s extra hot tender was certainly a mix of pleasure and a tiny bit of pain. Before even taking a bite of the strip, your nostrils will get a whiff of that extra addition of spice. Once it hits your mouth, the burn will be immediate, so we recommend a double dip in that creamy Dave’s Sauce for extra oral protection. Half way through your tender, don’t be surprised if the waterworks begin to trickle.

Of course, we acknowledge that reactions may vary. If you’re not used to spicy food, extra hot will taste as advertised, and within the realm of fast food it is certainly among the hottest items out there. But if you’re accustomed to downing tongue searing Thai and Indian curries or fiery Mexican salsas that are leaps and bounds hotter than Taco Bell Diablo sauce, the spice level for extra hot may seem pretty basic.

Reaper

reaper Dave's Hot Chicken tender

Turns out Blue Öyster Cult was right: Don’t fear the reaper, or at least when it comes to Dave’s Hot Chicken tenders. Let’s be clear: Is this a scorcher? Absolutely. Reaper is so spicy that it’s hot to the touch, and we’re not referring to temperature.

With each bite, the burn comes on quick and strong, then lingers for a while — even with added reinforcements. (Beyond multiple dips of Dave’s Sauce, we wisely came prepared with a large strawberry milkshake to help extinguish the fire.)

And yet, perhaps because we’re gluttons for punishment, reaper left us thinking "we gotta have more spice!" Since the tender is named for the Carolina Reaper, which happens to be the former world’s hottest pepper (weighing in at a measure of 1.5 million on the Scoville scale), we had our hopes set on a commemorative-plaque-worthy extreme roller coaster ride of hot pepper euphoria awash in a river of tears and liquid boogies. But sadly, the reaper was more loopless Space Mountain than Kingda Ka with a level of heat that would likely end up being a mere early entrant in the "Hot Ones" lineup.

Beyond the spice letdown, the flavor takes things back to the lite mild start with the cumin amped all the way back up. Even for the novelty, the reaper should get the scythe.

Should you upgrade to a slider?

Dave's Hot Chicken slider

So now that you’re well versed in every last flavor of Dave’s Hot Chicken tenders, you’re ready to decide whether you want to call for a slider. For an extra buck and a half you’ll get the tender of your choosing topped with pickles, a mound of kale slaw, and a drizzle of Dave’s Sauce, wedged between an old school squishy hamburger bun. Essentially you’re swapping the slice of white bread with the bun, and adding slaw.

Is it worth it? Not in our humble estimation. The benefits are your fingers won’t get stained, plus the fact that the tender fills out the space between the buns (and then some) reinforces how large they are. But for us, that’s not worth the added price of admission. The slaw is of the creamy mayo variety and works well to counteract the spice of some of the hotter tenders, but it’s way too bland and doesn’t add much extra flavor — a vinegar tang would have been an especially welcome addition. As for the kale, it’s sadly chopped into tiny pieces and doesn’t offer much beyond bitterness. You can also add a slice of cheese, but unless you’re not a fan of mayo and are skipping the Dave’s Sauce, it’ll end up getting lost in the shuffle.

The rest of the menu

Dave's Hot Chicken sides

Overall, the menu at Dave’s is limited, and that’s a good thing — the focus should be directed primarily towards the chicken. Beyond the skippable slaw, there are a couple of other sides to choose from. It’s no surprise that fries, the consistent fast food staple, are one of the options. They’re of the crunchy crinkle cut variety and benefit from a light dusting of seasoning that’s reminiscent of the mild spice blend. You can add a topping of liquid cheese, but we prefer them au natural. Speaking of liquid queso, mac and cheese also made the side cut, but Dave’s boring, mushy version isn’t much better than the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese you can prepare on the cheap at home.

We mentioned the shakes (available in strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla), which Dave’s boasts are "made with real ice cream." They’re fine — not too thick, pleasantly creamy — and would fall somewhere in the middle of the fast food shake hierarchy. If you’re tackling the extra hot or reaper tenders, it’s a must order. Otherwise, unless you’re craving a sweet conclusion to your meal, don’t bother.

Our advice: Go with the Combo #1 (two tenders with fries), order it up hot, and you’ll understand why Drake decided to take the ride with Dave’s Hot Chicken.