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The multi-colored exterior facade of Dave’s Hot chicken is shown with pedestrians walking by

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Dave’s Hot Chicken Is Here, Whether New York Needs It or Not

The Nashville-style hot chicken chain is just another fast food joint on a rapid expansion tear

Dave’s Hot Chicken on Eighth Avenue.

On a stretch of Midtown West so densely packed with fast food outlets it could almost make Terminal 4 at JFK feel like an artisanal greenmarket, a couple of guys from Los Angeles have given us yet another fast food outlet. Dave’s Hot Chicken, born as a pop-up in East Hollywood in 2017, boasts 700 franchise locations under development, an investor named Drake, and now, a debut New York location with a 30-minute queue. The reason for that wait, aside from the brand’s half-million Instagram plus followers, is the fact that Dave’s makes a tasty and halal hot chicken tender. It looks like a slab of rusty, corrugated metal — a bird forged from the pit of Mordor — and tastes of salt, sugar, and fire.

Whether this stretch of Eighth Avenue needs another fast food spot, or whether New York needs 19 more of these outlets, which is how many are scheduled to open, is a different question, however. That’s all the more true since New York has a wonderful cadre of hot chicken spots and halal fried chicken joints, all restaurants doing their best to serve their communities without the benefit of Times Square billboards the size of apartment buildings.

Nashville-style hot chicken, crispy and affordable birds transformed into edible supernovas thanks to the alchemy of chile and oil, has long been a staple of Black neighborhoods in Tennessee thanks to mainstays like Prince’s and Bolton’s. But the wild nationwide surge in hot chicken has happened somewhat independently of that community, occasionally fueling claims of appropriation. KFC notably gave the style a go for a while. Nashville’s hip (and acclaimed) Hattie B’s boasts 10 locations across the South. And the Los Angeles-based Dave’s, which promotes itself as run by a chef trained at The French Laundry — that $1,000 wine country palace — and whose co-founder likes to Instagram himself in private jets and sports cars, has 77 locations so far.

I dropped in twice during the opening week of service to check out the famously concise menu. Dave’s effectively offers just two savory mains: tenders and sandwiches — or actually, just one since the sandwich is just a tender on a roll. There is no bone-in chicken, no flavorful or fatty dark meat chicken, just lean tenderloins. There are no meaningful meat-free options; if you’re vegetarian, your options are fries, kale slaw, or mushy mac and cheese.

My verdict: Chef-founder David Kopushyan, who started Dave’s with three of his Armenian American friends, seems to have a solid franchise operation, with a local team that can turn out reliably crunchy poultry. The breading is particularly compelling, almost as if the chefs battered everything in crushed-up Kit Kat wafers. The “hot” level of seasoning — the third spiciest — exhibits the classic smoke and bitterness one might expect from Nashville-style chicken, with a whisper of sweetness and a pain level that’s not too much different from a standard order of Buffalo wings. Order the tender as a sandwich on a Martin’s potato roll with pickles and slaw, and you have yourself a juicy, balanced sandwich that won’t wreak havoc on your insides. “Extra hot” kicks up the pungency and heat, but not to a degree uncommon in a Sichuan noodle dish. I did not try the “Reaper” spice level at first because the last time a colleague tried the hottest Nashville chicken sandwich out West at a competing venue she barfed just a little bit. Rest assured, it is only slightly face-melting, with a pleasant, lingering burn.

A container of Dave’s Hot Chicken, with darkly-hued fried tenders, cheese-slathered meat on a bun, and fries
A chicken tender and a sandwich from Dave’s Hot Chicken.

So yes, this is a good hot chicken sandwich, but if you believe that a good restaurant is more than a good dish or two, the story doesn’t end here. While Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown West boast one of the city’s most diverse restaurant communities, with a striking collection of independently owned Latin American and Thai restaurants, this slice of Eighth Avenue has a different feel to it. A McDonald’s sits on one side of Dave’s, while a Wendy’s lies a few doors down, and a Popeye’s is right there as well. Across the street is an outpost of the Wingstop chain, and one block down is a cavernous Chick-fil-A.

Dave’s Hot Chicken, from this point of view, can feel a bit like a Duane Reade opening across the street from a CVS and a Rite Aid. Even if you prefer one more than the others — and yes, I’ll choose Dave’s for a spicy tender — there’s an absurd capitalist arrogance behind the notion that the right solution to five fast food spots serving fried chicken is a sixth fast food spot serving fried chicken. Then again, there’s also something sad about larger chains for failing to offer halal fare locally, versus abroad, so for observant Muslim diners, Dave’s is likely the top option — on this particular block, that is.

New York doesn’t quite boast the same deep bench of hot chicken spots as Nashville or Los Angeles, but beyond that narrow framework, the five boroughs have no shortage of excellent spicy poultry offering. Chick Chick on the Upper West Side does a wonderful mashup of Korean and Nashville styles. Rowdy Rooster’s halal thigh meat packs oodles of flavor and dry heat. And the 375 Chicken n’ Fries — about a 10 minute walk from Dave’s — is a fine spot for halal Buffalo chicken waffles and shakes. None of these venues are prohibitively expensive, and all of them offer much more interesting and complex fare, with broader vegetarian options too.

I’m also inclined to say the city doesn’t probably need 20 outposts of any single new restaurant, especially when the first one feels more like a challenge to other fast food chains than a true act of hospitality.

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