In just six short years, the hot chicken joint Dave’s Hot Chicken went from being a four-man East LA parking lot pop-up to one of the fastest-growing restaurants in America, attracting early investment interest from Drake and later from Maria Shriver, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Strahan. The concept was dreamed up by Dave Kopushyan (the titular “Dave,” who trained in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry), Arman Oganesyan, and brothers Tommy and Gary Rubenyan, who took $900 dollars and flipped the money into a viral chicken sensation serving some of the most Instagrammable food ever found in a parking lot.
Today, Dave’s Hot Chicken currently has 700 franchise locations across the US, Middle East, and Canada, and 70 locations set to open up this year. That’s bananas growth — an average of one new location opening up every five days.
So does Dave’s live up to the hype? Is the food worth all this buzz?
There was only one way to find out: we had to eat the entire menu. Yes, the entire menu. Okay, granted, Dave’s Hot Chicken has one specialty — giant, baby-arm-sized chicken tenders and chicken sliders (which are made using the same tenders). But they also serve up milkshakes and a handful of sides. Plus there are 7 different spice levels (no spice, lite mild, mild, medium, hot, extra hot, and reaper) — and we tried them all!
Check out our full review below!
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The Tenders/Heat Levels
Did I need to eat 7 different spice levels to get an idea of whether or not Dave’s is any good? Truthfully, no. But it was quite the experience and now I feel intimately knowledgeable of every different level and what each brings to the table.
Each order of tenders is served atop a single slice of white bread with a side of pickles and a way-too-small dip cup of sauce (a mix of mayo, chipotle pepper, a hint of sugar, honey, and maybe mustard).
Let’s run through each of them.
I’m not entirely sure who this is for [kids!] but it just seems odd to roll up to Dave’s Hot Chicken and get the chicken with no spice. Odd as it is, I appreciate it for giving me a clear picture of the baseline Dave’s is working with.
The chicken tender is gigantic! The chicken is well fried and tender, the exterior isn’t Popeyes-style crunchy, but it’s flavorful, with a heavy dose of black pepper.
Lite mild is an understatement, I wasn’t getting any spicy notes here. I can certainly see the paprika and cayenne pepper, but this comes across as more sweet than spicy. The sauce brings a bit more heat to the table and makes the experience much more savory, but even if you like spice but you want to play it safe, this is playing it too safe.
This is where you go if you want to play it safe. You can taste some of the heat in the seasoning here, it’s a bit sweet and slightly smokey, with a heat that builds on the tongue as you make your way through the tender.
Medium heat is another great option for those playing it safe, but be warned, if you don’t have an adequate tolerance to spice, this is where you’ll start to feel the burn. In exchange for that mouthwatering burn that sits on the tongue and stains the fingers, you start to get a better sense of what makes Dave’s proprietary seasoning so good.
Both the sweetness and smokiness are more prominent here — I’m tasting cayenne pepper, and some sort of chili powder mingling with garlic and onion powder.
This is the baseline for spicy lovers. If your tolerance for spicy food is high this is probably the most enjoyable experience. As soon as you bite into this tender your salivary glands kick into overdrive, creating a mouthwatering experience that’ll have you slightly drooling and rushing through your meal to both tamp down the heat and satisfy your taste buds.
The sweet, spicy, and smokey notes are perfectly balanced here — it’s Dave’s Hot Chicken perfected!
Some people want their meal to be a battle and we respect that position, for those few Extra Hot is for you. The heat hits you faster and harder here, it’s the sort of hot that’ll make you constantly suck air in through your mouth between bites just to cool your burning palate down a bit.
Be careful though, if you inhale a bit too hard all of that spice is going to merge with your spit and burn your throat on the way down. It’s not a pretty picture to paint, but that’s the reality of this spice level. It’s the sort of heat that brings out a reaction in you, if you don’t want the people around you to notice the battle going on between your tastebuds and the spice, stick with hot, but if you want a little fun out of your food, Extra Hot won’t disappoint.
I love spicy food. I’m a Thai food obsessive, at every taqueria I frequent I always ask for the hottest salsa, I can eat chili peppers right off the bush, but I’m not the type of person who enjoys an uncomfortable eating experience. I like to enjoy my food, I’m not looking to prove something, I don’t like to eat on a dare, I will never take part in one of those One Chip challenges willfully. So I’m happy to report that Dave’s highest spice level, Reaper, is not that type of heat.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hot, really hot, but at this point, the tender is so caked in seasoning that the experience is overwhelming, not from a heat perspective, but a flavor perspective. Reaper comes across as strangely sweeter than both Hot and Extra Hot, not that it doesn’t bring the heat, it does, but that sweetness is a bit distracting and takes your mind off the intense levels of spice.
Maybe that’s by design, but the result is remarkably edible. Ordering Reaper doesn’t feel like you’re just throwing money away for laughs, if you have a ridiculously high spice tolerance and you just love food that’ll make you sweat, you can order this and still walk away having a delicious experience.
Dave’s asks that you sign a waiver to experience “Reaper,” and in my experience, that’s just a gimmick. I didn’t feel like my life was in danger or I was dealing with heat so hot I couldn’t handle it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t add a little spring to my step when I tried this one. I left my chair, paced around a bit, and then hit the soda fountain for a refill. That’s fun, not dangerous.
The Bottom Line:
If it’s your first time at Dave’s, go for the “Hot,” even if spicy food scares you a bit. This is Dave’s Hot Chicken, and it’s best enjoyed when you give in to that. If you love a challenge, “Extra Hot” will offer you the most enjoyable experience, but don’t fear the “Reaper.” It’s a fun experience if you can handle it.
Dave’s slider is the brand’s most Instagrammable food, it features a single tender (at any spice level) drenched in Dave’s sauce over a bed of kale slaw and pickles between a thin hamburger bun. With the slider, you have two options: with cheese, or without cheese.
For this tasting, I ordered the slider, “Hot,” with cheese. This wasn’t my first Dave’s slider, I’ve also had Extra Hot, Reaper, and Lite Mild in the past. As I said with the tenders, you don’t need to try every spice level to get a handle on what this sandwich offers, it’s pretty bare bones and delicious in its directness.
The bun-to-tender ratio is absurd, there isn’t a single Dave’s tender that would fit in this tiny bun, which means your first few bites will probably be just chicken (or you can start with the bun and whatever chicken is left over you could eat with your hands, your choice).
Altogether the flavors complement each other really well, the chicken starts off blazing hot, moves into slightly sweet territory, and ends smokey which is all elevated by the sauce which deepens the savory components while the kale slaw adds a lot of texture and tamps down the heat a bit with a fresh burst of greens.
At first, I was disappointed in Dave’s cheese choice here, my favorite spicy fast food sandwich, Chick-fil-A’s Spicy Deluxe, uses pepper jack cheese and it really adds a nutty and complex component to the overall flavor. Dave’s cheese is some sort of weirdly melted extra salty American cheese. I thought that I wanted extra complexity of flavor but actually, it’s not needed, I think the sandwich works better without the cheese.
The cheese is a distraction, between the variety of spices on the chicken and Dave’s sauce, the earthy briney pickles, and the cool nutty kale is more than enough to excite the tastebuds. The cheese just makes the sandwich seem overly decadent.
What I really love about this sandwich is the way all of the flavors soak into the bun with each bite, which helps to ensure your last bite is better than your first, giving you a strong close and an overall great experience.
The Bottom Line:
The chicken slider is the reason you come to Dave’s. It combines all of the best elements of this simple but well-crafted menu and shoves them into a single sandwich that grows in flavor (and heat) with each bite. This is quite possibly the greatest spicy chicken sandwich in all of fast food.
French Fries/Cheese Fries:
Dave’s fries are easily the most polarizing thing on the menu. This is going to come down to whether or not you like crinkle-cut fries, and for crinkle-cut fries, I think they’re pretty good. They’re crispy, and a bit buttery on the inside. The fries are dusted with a mix of paprika and salt, which gives them a slightly sweet and smokey flavor that pairs well with the chicken.
I’m less of a fan of the cheese fries. Like the cheese on the sandwich, I just find it to be too much. The cheese adds a lot of salty notes to a dish that is already well-salted. A better pair-up for these fries is Dave’s sauce, also I think the fries serve best as a palate cleanser to the more intense flavor notes in the chicken and sandwich.
In this case, bare is better.
I’m not a big fan of coleslaw in general, as part of the sandwich I think it’s a necessary component, but on its own, it’s just not my thing. For a slaw, Dave’s is pretty good, there is prominent use of kale with some purple cabbage mixed in offering a highly textural slaw that is part savory and enjoyably vegetal.
Mac & Cheese:
Mac and cheese is a staple of hot chicken joints and Dave’s is pretty good. It’s gooey and salty with a hint of smokiness and spice mixed in for good measure. The closest fast food comparison I can make to it is KFC’s Mac and cheese, it focuses on that gooey experience albeit with a much more interesting flavor.
The Bottom Line:
The best side order at Dave’s is easily the fries, but none are so essential that you need to order them. Will you enjoy a side of fries more than an additional slider? Depends on how much bread you want to take down.
I approached the milkshakes with some pretty high expectations because the day before my tasting my editor called me and said “Dude, Dave’s — best f*cking fast food milkshake.” I disagree. Now, to be fair to my editor, he doesn’t eat fast food that often, and his idea of a good milkshake is the Wendy’s Frosty. If you also love the Frosty, well, Dave’s milkshakes absolutely dunk on that, but if you’re a milkshake connoisseur, it remains to be seen if this is the “best f*cking fast food milkshake.”
We’ll put them to the blind taste test soon to settle the debate. From a consistency standpoint, Dave’s milkshake is great, it’s thick while still being totally drinkable. You don’t have to suck too hard to get the milkshake up the straw, and that’s always appreciated, and best of all it doesn’t come across as too runny, thin, or watery.
I can sort of see where my editor is coming from when it comes to the vanilla shake. It is easily one of the best fast food vanilla milkshakes I’ve had in recent memory. Vanilla tends to be the base other ingredients are built on, which results in a flavor that comes across as drinkable soft-serve ice cream.
Dave’s is different, the vanilla component actually comes across like a legitimate flavor, not just a base. It has that floral delicate flavor that real vanilla has.
Rich and velvety, Dave’s chocolate milkshake is malty and slightly toasty with a sweet finish that intensifies in flavor as it melts into the palate.
Bright and refreshing, Dave’s strawberry milkshake has a flavor that starts fruity and ends with a cotton candy-like finish.
The Bottom Line:
Grab the vanilla. It may seem like a boring choice but it has a lot of depth and is a true testament to vanilla as a flavor rather than a descriptor of something that lacks any. Plus, it’s what most of the staff seems to recommend.
The Big Takeaway
It makes sense why Dave’s is one of America’s fastest-growing food chains. In our opinion, it lives up to all the hype.
It has a bare-bones menu that it executes excellently. Add to that dishes that appease our obsession with sharing things via social media, and an environment that constantly references music (the napkins remix famous rap and pop hooks and a fro-donning chicken at some restaurants looks too suspiciously like Napolean Dynamite to be a coincidence). Miraculously, Dave’s manages to do what so many restaurants wish they could — seem young and fresh without trying too hard.
If this is the future of the fast food landscape, we’re in good hands. Er… wings. Or whatever.