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What Happens When A Hot New Restaurant Transforms An Established Old Neighborhood


in LA's Chinatown neighborhood, Howlin' Ray's is one of the hottest restaurants and not just because chef Johnny Ray Zone serves up super-spicy Nashville hot chicken. Day after day, Howlin' Ray's has a line that stretches around the block.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We heard it from someone in the front. It's going to be about a 90-minute wait.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Order said, like, an hour and a half.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Have I been to Chinatown before for anything else - probably not. I think I've only been here for Howlin' Ray's.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So good. This is a religious experience (laughter).

KELLY: Those were Eric Aguado (ph), Micah Smith (ph), Victor Aguado (ph) and Natalie Skegin (ph), some of the people waiting in line outside the restaurant on a recent weekday.


A lot of the hype around the restaurant comes from social media. Howlin' Ray's Instagram account has more than 150,000 followers. YouTubers post videos of themselves sweating and crying through boxes of Howlin' Ray's hottest chicken.

Frank Shyong is an LA Times columnist who wrote about how restaurants like Howlin' Ray's are reshaping Chinatown. It's part of a larger conversation about gentrification and what booming urban neighborhoods mean for the people who've lived there for decades. The headline of his recent column - "Many In Chinatown Have Never Tried Its Most Popular Restaurant, So I Brought The Food To Them."

FRANK SHYONG: Howlin' Ray's is located in Far East Plaza, which is this kind of double-decker interior type of strip mall. And that plaza has seen a lot of new restaurants in the last couple of years and become kind of this foodie destination that people all want to go to.

SHAPIRO: Does it feel like a part of Chinatown? Or does it feel like something superimposed on this place?

SHYONG: You know, it depends on what version of Chinatown you're talking about. You know, you have the art gallery Chinatown. You have the older, traditional Chinatown that consists of this senior population. And then you have this new Chinatown that is being marketed, right? And Holwin' Ray's and Far East Plaza are a part of this new Chinatown.

SHAPIRO: Safe to say the older residents of Chinatown are not the ones waiting in line for four hours for hot chicken at Howlin' Ray's.

SHYONG: No, no, but you might find their grandchildren in that line (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So for this column, you bought a bunch of chicken and went around to local folks, local businesses and literally just passed out the Howlin' Ray's. How did people react?

SHYONG: Yeah. Everyone I talked to has been, you know, intensely curious about how the chicken tastes. And everyone has seen the line kind of curling out of Broadway out of Far East Plaza sometimes. And everyone walks, so they see it every day. And so everyone was curious to try it. And there were some who thought it was really tasty. There were some who thought it was, you know, unhealthy (laughter), which I guess is a reaction I should've anticipated, you know, feeding it to health-conscious seniors.

SHAPIRO: I was interested in the reaction of the owner who seemed very sympathetic to the locals who may not be interested in or able to wait in line for his food.

SHYONG: Yeah. Johnny - when we got up to the counter, he gave us a big box of free chicken and wrote for the people on it and asked me to hand it out, you know? And I think in many ways he's heard a lot of the criticisms leveled at him. And in his own way, he tries to help. You know, he tries to give out free chicken and be a part of the community in any way. And I think, you know, participating in this story was important to him because, you know, he wanted - he wants to at least try to do that.

SHAPIRO: So do you think there is a way for well-intentioned people to bring investment and foot traffic to a neighborhood that has a long history without trampling on that history?

SHYONG: You know, that's a very difficult question, you know? Has any neighborhood really changed or gentrified and not lost something? And we have the type of economy that we do now where you can locate your restaurant in a neighborhood but not really have to interact with any of the residents of that neighborhood because your method of getting customers is through the Internet or various different forms of marketing. And people will commute into your neighborhood who don't live there. And so you can have that type of situation now. And so it's more likely that we'll be able to change the way we interact with each other in these neighborhoods than change our entire economy.

SHAPIRO: Frank Shyong writes for the LA Times. Thank you for joining us today.

SHYONG: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And for people in Southern California who want some Howlin' Ray's chicken without waiting in an hours-long line, stand by. Owners Amanda and Johnny Ray Zone have announced a second location in a larger space in Pasadena coming in 2020. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.