The best meal I had in Singapore was a dish called Hainan chicken rice. And as with all great food found in Singapore, I had it inside an unbearably hot-and-humid hawker center from a stand that made nothing but its chosen specialty.
One of the men who worked there took a plastic bowl to scoop up rice from a repurposed 10-gallon cooler and plopped it onto a waiting plate while his co-worker got to work on the chicken. I couldn’t see him chopping, but I heard the thunk-thunk-thunk of his Chinese cleaver from where I was standing.
The small plate of Hainan chicken rice assembled for me was glorious. The rice was scrumptious, inexplicably warm despite where it was stored, as well as rich. As the late Anthony Bourdain said when he visited, the rice was worthy of a meal on its own. And the chicken, which is served cold, was moist, juicy, with its skin jellied—the best and most unadulterated piece of fowl I’ve ever had. This was the pinnacle of poultry purity.
Even though I was dripping sweat from every pore as I ate it, I still daydream about that meal. There’s no other dish on Earth that utilizes poultry the way it does. The chicken is at the center of everything. And since there are so few ingredients, technique counts for a lot. It takes years to know precisely how long to poach the bird, then when to plunge it into an ice bath that preserves the texture of the collagen underneath the skin.
The poaching liquid becomes the soup that’s served on the side. Meanwhile, the raw rice grains are fried with schmaltz, garlic and ginger before they’re boiled with more chicken broth. What results is a mound of slightly sticky rice so luminous and umami-packed it’s as integral to the dish as the chicken itself.
As hummus is to the Middle East, Hainan chicken rice has gone beyond its place of origin in China and proliferated to every corner of Southeast Asia.
A Thai family owns the new restaurant in Santa Ana called the Chicken Rice. The menu has four Thai curries and tom yum, but there’s no mistaking this shop as anything other than a Hainan chicken rice specialist—currently the only one of its kind in Orange County.
As at that Singaporean hawker stand, whole chickens hung on hooks. On closer inspection, I realized the hanging birds were decorative and made of plastic. But when I ordered the signature dish, I heard the familiar, reassuring thunk-thunk-thunk of the cleaver.
What was served brought me back to that steamy plate. The rice is perfect. Perfumed with ginger and as shiny as polished ivory, it was flavored so deeply with chicken it could be eaten plain.
The poached chicken it flanked was stripped off the bone and tasted, like, well, chicken. Though not as life changing as the one I ate in Singapore, I didn’t expect it to be. Still, I’d argue it’s one of the best Hainan chickens in Southern California. It’s certainly the most authentic in OC; unlike Capital Noodle Bar, the Chicken Rice has the balls to serve the bird as it’s intended to be served—with the skin fully intact and as dark meat pieces.
The restaurant did, however, hedge its bets by also offering a fried version, with the chicken cocooned in golden-brown batter that replaces the jellied texture of the boiled skin with a noisy crunch. Both versions of the bird get even better when doused with the three sauces supplied, including a sweet-sticky soy sauce and a sweet-and-spicy chile syrup that you normally find accompanying wontons at Thai restaurants. The best sauce is the one made of pulverized ginger and spring onions. It jolts awake everything it touches.
If you deviate from the main attraction, you’ll find teriyaki- and orange-chicken bowls in your path. But you’d do better with the well-made Thai yellow curry, which bursts with fresh vegetables and white-meat chicken strips.
I would skip the fried-chicken dumplings, though, which are indistinguishable from any other Chinese fast-food gyoza. I’m still, however, undecided on the Hat Yai chicken wings, which originate from Southern Thailand. They’re stained dark with a soy marinade and fried until the skin is crisp, but they’re showered with fried shallots that just end up at the bottom of the plate, doing nothing.
Whatever you opt for, know that the Chicken Rice is practically a hawker stall. Though it occupies its own storefront, when there are more than two parties ahead who decide to eat in, you will end up consuming your chicken rice while standing. But, hey, at least there’s air conditioning.
The Chicken Rice, 318 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 852-3467; www.thechickenrice.us. Open Mon.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Meals, $7-$13.95. 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.