Spicy ‘reaper’ tenders at Dave’s Hot Chicken fail to bring the heat

March 24, 2024 — by Leyna Chan, Natalie Chua, Victoria Hu and Sarah Zhou
Photo by Sarah Zhou
Natalie and Victoria’s tentative first bites.
Reporters sacrifice their gut health for journalism.

Recently, four brave reporters from The Falcon (that’s us!) set out on an adventure to answer the burning question: Is Dave’s Hot Chicken actually spicy?

This fast-food restaurant chain, based in southern California and backed by celebrity investors such as Drake, is best known for its Nashville-style hot chicken tenders and sliders. We decided to rate and review various levels of heat served on their menu — both an act of selfless journalistic courage as well as a great way to spice up our boring lives as second-semester seniors. (And yes, we told our parents that this outing was for school.)

The first step into our chaotic journey as amateur spice connoisseurs was the drive to the restaurant. 

After piling into Sarah’s car, we drove incredibly “safely and slowly” (Sarah’s words) down Saratoga Sunnyvale heading for Dave’s Hot Chicken, until we realized we forgot to get milk to help our tongues cope with the upcoming spice. While pulling into Target, Sarah and Natalie haggled over what type of milk had the best macros until finally deciding on 2% milk for the night’s festivities. 

Sarah entered the parking lot in the wrong direction and had to circle around — to save time, Leyna and Victoria were deployed to infiltrate Target. To everybody’s horror, they came back from their expedition with a gallon of ONE percent milk. That was where things started to go wrong! 

Photo by Sarah Zhou

For the next unsuspecting victim.

Once we reached the restaurant, we ordered the light mild, medium, hot and extra hot flavors in single tender portions, as a warmup for their infamous “reaper” flavor. Each was served with a piece of plain white bread and pickles. For the sake of equality, we split each of the tenders into quarters (even if Natalie complained about receiving more of the spicy breaded portion than the others).

To preface our ratings: Sarah and Leyna are certified fire-breathing dragons who can finish whole packs of spicy Buldak and Nongshim noodles without breaking a sweat. Victoria and Natalie, on the other hand, are spice kindergarteners who sometimes tear up after eating kimchi and extra hot Cheetos.

However, regardless of past spice experience, everyone agreed that the first four flavors were underwhelming.

The light mild chicken, as expected, tasted completely normal (Victoria swears her tongue tingled a little but she was probably hallucinating). The medium level offered some more punch, and the hot level was where we began to feel a burn in our throats. The extra hot chicken, which came slightly overcooked, tasted about the same as the hot level. 

Overall, we thought that the chicken tenders were juicy and crispy, but our food’s spice level was a letdown. Even for the “extra hot” flavor, Sarah’s and Leyna’s PhDs in spice tolerance weren’t needed. 

The other components of the meal were also a mixed bag: The bread was sprinkled with residual soggy spice, but the pickles were fire. Sarah ate every single pickle, which she thought tasted almost as good as ones from Super Duper.

Photo by Sarah Zhou

All bark and no bite.

Although we had chickened out of ordering the highest level of spice earlier, after finding the first four levels of spice to be nowhere near as spicy as expected, we — that is to say, Sarah — decided to take the plunge. As serious, professional journalists, how could we leave Dave’s Hot Chicken without even trying their infamous “reaper” tenders? 

For context, the Carolina reaper pepper-based chicken is advertised to be at 2 million on the Scoville spice scale, and ordering it required us to sign a waiver promising not to sue even if we ended up with injuries, emotional damage or death.

Exciting!

We thought that pitch sounded pretty appealing, but the “reaper” chicken must have been less popular with other customers because the cashier was extremely surprised when we ordered. The girl at the counter kept side-eyeing Victoria after she strode up to order (“Are you sure? Are you sure?”).

Victoria signs the waiver, sealing our fate.

After around 5 tense minutes of waiting and guzzling down milk to prepare ourselves, our food made its dramatic arrival. Unlike the other flavors, which came in humble takeout boxes, the “reaper” chicken was apparently special enough to be served in a glorious basket all by itself. 

It smelled like a nearby volcano had erupted. At least we got the opportunity to practice wafting skills we learned from chem labs to sniff the fumes coming off the chicken tender!

The red school lunch basket the chicken was served in made it look all the more menacing.

We went in expecting the chicken to taste like the 9th circle of hell (it sure smelled like it), but once again, it turned out to be surprisingly anticlimactic: Sarah thought it was a similar heat level to Chipotle’s tomatillo red salsa, while Victoria had flashbacks to a habanero pepper chicken challenge she did over the summer. To our immense disappointment, no one ended up shooting fire from their mouth, much less needing to be rushed to the emergency room. After eating the tender, we took small sips of milk like dignified British gentlemen while laughing at Dave’s Hot Chicken for its false marketing. 

That is, everyone except Natalie.

After finishing her portion of the “reaper,” Natalie downed around five glasses of milk before standing up to grab tissues, panting and jogging around mindlessly in order to relieve her inflamed tongue and watery eyes. At that point, most of the gallon we bought was in her stomach. 

With her tongue numb to the pain, she soon entered a meditative state. 

As the spice rages across her tongue, Natalie approaches nirvana.

Of course, the night wouldn’t be complete with just one gallon of milk, so we decided to get some more lactose-based food. What better way to cool down than to have frozen yogurt? We went to the nearest Pinkberry, which was conveniently located right next to Dave’s Hot Chicken (now that’s good marketing!)

We highly recommend the ube flavor, especially if you have spice-related indigestion.

After Natalie had finished eating enough frozen yogurt to come out of her spice coma and become coherent again, we debated the pros and cons of Dave’s Hot Chicken.

The final verdict? While our meal was tasty, Dave’s “reaper” chicken is overhyped. There’s a reason we wrote “reaper” in quotes throughout this story. 

If you’re a casual fried chicken fan looking for juicy chicken tenders that don’t have a real kick to it, you’d probably be happy eating at Dave’s Hot Chicken. But if you’re like us and need to consume pure fire to warm up your cold dead heart, you’re better off going to the nearest Sichuan restaurant.

Final spice ratings (in Falcons):

Sarah — Light mild: 0/10, Medium: 3/10, Hot: 3/10, Extra Hot: 5/10,  Reaper: 5/10

Victoria — Light mild: 1/10, Medium: 4/10, Hot: 5/10, Extra Hot: 5.5/10, Reaper: 6/10 

Leyna — Light mild: -1/10, Medium: 3.5/10, Hot: 3/10, Extra Hot: 4/10, Reaper: 6/10

Natalie — Light mild: 0/10, Medium: 3/10, Hot: 6/10, Extra Hot: 7/10, Reaper: 9/10

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