Northern Virginia’s local scene felt the spark of the nationwide chicken sandwich hype.
Had Colonel Sanders shown some moxie, 2019 could have been the year he made brigadier general.
Instead, that slacker huckster missed out on the perfect storm of administration-led trade wars, commercial farming crises (African swine fever is no joke), and culinary one-upmanship that filled restaurant menus—and countless salivating maws—with a panoply of piquant chicken sandwiches.
Unlike previous incursions by Nashville’s signature nosh, this attempt at total domination didn’t just spark interest in the iconic bird here and there. The passion for the cayenne-dusted poultry—“Depending on the restaurant, the range goes from not-very-spicy to melt-the-bottom-half-of-your-face-off-and-use-gloves,” wrote Los Angeles Times food writer Jenn Harris–raged like wildfire across the nation.
While the hellish line-standing and relentless franchise-stalking wouldn’t reach critical mass until the dog days of summer (more on that in a sec), local diners got a whiff of the gastromania early on. Within weeks of one another not one, not two, but three hot chicken shops sprung to life in NoVA.
Wooboi Chicken in Herndon arrived first, showcasing fowl enrobed in fire starters from around the globe. Hot Lola’s (pictured) landed in Ballston’s Quarter Market food hall shortly thereafter.
What started out as a side hustle for rock star chef Kevin Tien (Emilie’s in DC), blossomed into a go-to for fans of boldly spiced chicken. In addition to honoring his past by melding the South (cayenne, chili oil) with Southeast Asia (Sichuan peppercorns, Korean chili flakes), Hot Lola’s allowed the Louisiana-bred chef with Vietnamese roots to experiment in other ways. Such as adopting a built-in 4% “fair wage and wellness” charge to cover health benefits for full-time staff—the recipe Tien employed to “marry fast food with a livable wage.”
Mama Mei’s rounded out the local boom, albeit briefly. It popped up at Annandale’s The Block for a hot second before inexplicably flaming out of existence. In late October, The Block’s Balo Kitchen rolled out two chicken sandwiches, a Southern-style version and a self-styled interpretation freshened with papaya slaw.
Nationwide chain Popeyes led the charge in early August by unveiling a fried chicken sandwich at the same California restaurant that had been eviscerated for appropriating the signature bird a few years back. The marketing stunt worked too well, sending devotees in search of what one Food Network scribe hailed as the “perfect intersection of tender and crunchy, salt and heat, with a hint of sweet (the brioche) and a tang of sour (the pickle).”
The self-styled Louisiana kitchens couldn’t keep up with demand, burning through sandwiches so coveted that resellers demanded thousands of dollars for them online. Conservative darling Chick-fil-A waded into the conversation, only to be pummeled by public opinion. McDonald’s tried, and failed, to hijack the bandwagon with a barbecue-sauced entry.
By the time KFC rolled out its doughnut-wrapped monstrosity, it was too late.
Because no gimmicky mashup can hold a candle to 2019’s flaming hot chicken. Now and forever.
This post originally appeared in our December 2019 issue. To catch our reviews, recommendations and local foodie news, subscribe to our print issues here, or sign up to receive our weekly Food newsletter.