Let’s get one thing out of the way: I fear the Reaper.

That would be the spiciest heat level of chicken you can get at Dave’s Hot Chicken, a California-based chain that opened its first Maryland restaurant Friday. The dish is so hot that customers must sign a waiver to try it; risks, according to the document, include bodily injury “or even death.”

It’s so hot, said Owings Mills branch co-owner Anthony Hakan, that the Reaper-spiced chicken isn’t eaten for enjoyment. “No one goes home and watches Netflix” with this sandwich, he said. “They’re doing it to show off for their friends.” There are six other heat levels you can try in lieu of gastrointestinal distress: Dave’s also offers extra hot, hot, medium, mild, lite mild and, for the real chickens, no spice. Hakan advised a first-timer like me to stick with the medium.

Chicken sandwiches have climbed to the top of the fast food chain in recent years. Among them, few seem more in demand than hot chicken, a Tennessee staple that’s said to have been born in the 1930s when an unnamed home cook decided to teach her philandering boyfriend a lesson. She doused his favorite meal, chicken, in so many hot peppers he’d surely die of overspicing. The plan totally and wholly backfired. The womanizer not only loved the stuff but started making and selling it himself. Thornton Prince III would go on to start a hot chicken dynasty that continues to this day. In the years since, chains such as Hattie B’s Hot Chicken have helped take the dish national.

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Fast forward to the 2010s, when a group of four best friends started a chicken pop-up stand in a Los Angeles parking lot. One of the pals, Dave Kopushyan — a chef who had worked at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry — came up with the recipe. It was a hit. The concept attracted healthy lines and, later, celebrity investors including musician Drake and actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The spiciest tenders at Dave's Hot Chicken require diners to sign a lengthy waiver. (Christina Tkacik)
The California-based hot chicken chain makes its Maryland debut this week.
The California-based hot chicken chain makes its Maryland debut Friday. (Handout)

“It grew very rapidly,” said Julian Tolossa, a training specialist for the company from California. In the past two years, the chicken franchise has launched more than 100 restaurants across the nation; the Owings Mills location is one of four opening Friday, with others in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Scott Bocek, co-owner of Dave’s Baltimore County spot, said he met the chain’s founders and “was very impressed with the product, the food and the simplicity of the concept. It’s just chicken tenders.” He compared it to In-N-Out burger, another West Coast fast food chain with a cult following. “All they do is hamburgers.”

The Dave’s Hot Chicken at 9900 Reisterstown Rd. is just the beginning of the chain’s adventures in Maryland. Bocek and his partners plan to roll out 10 to 12 locations in the state, with spots in Glen Burnie and Columbia opening next.

The interior of Dave's Hot Chicken in Owings Mills features a mural with the company's mascot wearing a Ravens jersey. (Devon Rowland Photography)

Judging from the reception of diners at a Wednesday friends and family event, the chicken is on its way to fandom.

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“We’ve been waiting for a while for this place to open,” said Max Chong, 19, who ate with friend Anthony Zinevich, 18. The pals initially planned to head to a nearby gym after lunch.

Chong said he’d tried the dish before in Washington, D.C., but “I think this one was probably a little better.” But the gym, he said, probably wasn’t happening.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

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