The first things you encounter as you walk into Chicken Hero in Anaheim are the vacuum-packed pouches with labels that have a winking anthropomorphic chicken giving a thumbs-up. Underneath the cartoon, there are exactly seven words: Chicken Hero, Kho Ga and Made in U.S.A. Unfortunately, none of it adequately describes the brand, gives you any clue on what the product is, or tells you that the manufacturing facility is actually a few feet away, behind the swinging doors of the restaurant’s kitchen.
Literally translated, kho ga means “dried chicken,” but even calling it “chicken jerky” doesn’t quite do it justice. Rather than trying to explain what it is, it’s probably easier to recount how one YouTube tutorial goes about making it. In the video, chicken breast is boiled, then torn to shreds. The strands are seasoned with sugar, fish sauce and other aromatics as they’re tossed in a wok. This last step isn’t meant to fry the chicken or cook it further, but to have it absorb all the flavors like a janitor’s mop. Mostly, it’s done to desiccate the stringy protein and turn it to mummified strands.
The family behind Chicken Hero makes kho ga in a larger scale, so they don’t use a wok; they now use a commercial-sized oven. When I had a chat with the cashier—a young gent who’s also the restaurant’s server—he told me that before his clan found this space, they made the kho ga in their house. But then the demand outpaced the capacity of their home kitchen, so they moved here to increase production.
Before deciding whether all that effort is worth committing $12 to buying a pouch, you can ask for a sample, as one customer did on the afternoon of my visit. The cashier handed her a tiny handful on a small plate, and when she ate it, her eyes grew as wide as saucers. She loved it and immediately picked up two bags after handing over a wad of cash.
“I’m going to eat this with rice!” she said, giggling.
“Yes, that’s what we do at home, too,” the cashier replied with a satisfied smile.
Kho ga does indeed go great with rice, but its versatility makes for limitless applications. It’s a perfect accompaniment to beer. But it should be immediately obvious it’s a perfect trail mix substitute for campers and backpackers. And if NASA ever sent a few to the International Space Station, it would stave off astronaut homesickness for as long as the pouches last.
In talking with the cashier, I learned that kho ga is a relatively new product not only in the U.S., but also in Vietnam. I believe him. Kho ga is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted or seen before. It’s intensely sweet, sour, spicy and savory with whiffs of lemongrass, whole kaffir lime leaves and dried chile peppers. It’s as if tom yum kha soup from a Thai restaurant was distilled into a packaged snack food.
As with the soup, it isn’t for those averse to spicy food. There’s no escaping the spice of those chiles. Even if you avoid eating them outright, the burn is embedded in every strand of chicken. And since the kho ga is as addictive as potato chips, the heat compounds exponentially. After my third mouthful, my brow was soaked in sweat.
If you aren’t keen to a capsaicin sensation that lingers on your lips for hours, Chicken Hero also makes cha bong ga. Sweet rather than spicy and with the same consistency as the stuffing inside a teddy bear, this cottony substance is the chicken version of rousong or pork floss.
With these two core products taking center stage, it’s easy to forget that Chicken Hero is also a restaurant that took the space of Chew Noodle Bar in a barren parking lot. The dishes served at the restaurant seem to be the byproducts of the kho ga and cha bong ga. And it’s the vertical integration of the leftover chicken meat and carcass that produces a pho with a rich, glorious stock. Plenty of cleaver-hacked pieces of the bone-in thigh and shreds of the breast are found in every bowl of the pho dac biet. Meanwhile, the wings get deep-fried, soaked in fish sauce and offered up with wilted onions. The drumsticks are chopped into sections and fried, then served with an explicably dry fried rice.
And if you dine in to try any of it, you’re automatically served a sample of the kho ga and cha bong ga as a free appetizer, which is designed to convince you to take a bag home—even if you don’t intend to camp or spend months floating in space.
Chicken Hero Kho Ga, 918 S. Magnolia Ave., Ste. B, Anaheim, (949) 212-3745; www.chickenhero-kho-ga.com. Open Wed.-Mon., 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Kho ga, $12; cha bong ga, $10; entrées, $6.99-$7.99. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.