Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cockfight!: Savoy Kitchen Vs. Dong Nguyen, Alhambra

(photo courtesy of

A long time ago in a Chinese province far, far away, someone created a dish that's almost ingenious in its simplicity. Someone took a fat hen, boiled the thing until the meat was plump and tender, and served it on some chicken stock-flavored rice. Someone did this and before you know it, this dish from the Chinese province of Hainan found its way into neighboring Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam and eventually into the stomachs of those of us who have fallen in love with the simple dish otherwise known as Hainan Chicken Rice.

If you've never had Hainan Chicken Rice before, I suggest you try it because simply put, it's fucking good. OK, OK, so maybe it's not orgasmic good like
sushi is or fancy, multi-dimensional good like say, a dinner at Providence, but like I said, it's simple good. It's tasty. It's comforting. It's unoffensive in every possible way except maybe to a vegetarian.

Fortunately for me and my Hainan Chicken Rice cravings as of late, there are two places in
my new 'hood that I know of where at least 65% of the diners at any given time are eating this dish. It would only be appropriate, then, that last week, I decided to stage a cockfight: Would Savoy Kitchen's Hainan Chicken Rice rip its opponent from down the street, Dong Nguyen, apart, or would Dong Nguyen show Savoy Kitchen who's boss?

In this corner...Savoy Kitchen!

And in this corner...Dong Nguyen!

*Ding, Ding!*

Round One: The Chicken Itself.

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's places that serve Cantonese-style boiled chicken, which has more of an al dente bite and where alot of the connective tissue remains, and try to pass it off as Hainan Chicken. Fortunately both Savoy and Dong Nguyen's chicken is boiled until the meat is plump, tender and falling off the bone, both chickens having the slight taste of chicken-y oil, which trust me, is a good thing. Savoy's chicken is cut into larger, cleaner chunks whereas Dong Nguyen's chicken was cut into smaller pieces and had bone shards that kept stabbing the roof of my mouth. The winner? Savoy Kitchen because I prefer bone shard-free eating.

Round Two: The Rice.

I am not kidding when I say that I could eat Hainan Chicken Rice-Rice by itself. If I could, I would substitute the chicken-fat-drizzled or cooked-in-chicken-stock jasmine rice for the white rice that I normally eat with my meals, problem being that I would end up as big as a house. This one was a tie for me. The rice both at Savoy and at Dong Nguyen, being fluffy and full of chicken-y goodness without being too oily, would definitely put me into big, fat house-hood. It was difficult to tell them apart, really. I guess if I had to be really specific then I'd say that Dong Nguyen's rice was a little more chicken-y; Savoy's had more of a twinge of oil and salt. But I liked them both just as much.

Round Three: The Sauces

Say what you will about how much you love the chicken or the rice on your Hainan Chicken Rice, but Hainan Chicken Rice just isn't Hainan Chicken Rice without the dipping sauce or sauces that come with. The Hainan Chicken Rice that I'm used to is typically served with a trio of dipping sauces: one--a sauce of minced ginger and oil, two--a spicy sambal of red chile and lime and three--a dark soy sauce. All three work in unison to add some salty, spicy and even sweet touches to the already delicious dish. Savoy Kitchen's version, which is more true to Singaporean form, comes with these exact three sauces which, because I love them so much, are usually refilled at least once before I'm done.

Savoy Kitchen's Dipping Sauces

But as with foods like pizza and barbeque, there are also regional differences in Hainan Chicken Rice, which is why I'm assuming that since Dong Nguyen is of Vietnamese/Chiu Chow influence, their Hainan Chicken Rice is served with a sweet, vinegary dipping sauce that's a teeny bit reminiscent of ngoc cham (the dipping sauce that normally pairs with cha gio a.k.a. fried Vietnamese spring rolls) only spiked with ginger and more on the sweet side. The winner? Savoy Kitchen. Savoy Kitchen's sauce trio are true team players that work so well in unison with the chicken and rice, hence the refills. As for Dong Nguyen's sauce, not so much. Although it was markedly different than Savoy's sauces, it just wasn't as nearly as complimentary to the big picture, which is why I hardly used it.

Bonus Round: Atmosphere

This one's a draw too because it just depends on what floats your boat. Savoy Kitchen has an outdoor seating area that's pretty nice on a warm Southern California evening. But it's small and gets really crowded with young San Gabriel Valley hipsters sporting the latest in cell-phone technology (including the very necessary Sanrio cell phone charm), so be prepared to wait for a table. Other menu items include Hong Kong Coffeeshop-style fare such as curries and baked rice dishes and even pizzas and pastas. Service is pretty quick, however, especially if ordering the Hainan Chicken Rice, which the place seems to crank out at factory speed.

Hipster hangout, or...

Dong Nguyen is surrounded by 168 Chinese supermarket, a bargain clothing store, and a CVS Pharmacy in an odd strip mall whose tenants have cowboy movie-inspired facades. The atmosphere is virtually zero (which is probably why their Hainan Chicken Rice is twenty-five cents less than Savoy's at six bucks vs. six-and-a-quarter) but the place is clean, and you won't have to wait amongst a crowd of cigarette smoking, D&G-clad twenty-somethings. Go here if you're not in the mood to accompany your Hainan Chicken Rice with pizza since typical Chiu Chow dishes such as hu tieu can be found here instead. Oh, and as opposed to Savoy's street parking situation, there is plenty of lot parking available.

...faux western stripmall?

So the winner of this cockfight, not by death or knockout, but by unanimous decision, is...(drumroll please)...Savoy Kitchen! In the end, I just think that Savoy Kitchen delivers a much tighter package with its Hainan Chicken Rice. But that's not to say that Dong Nguyen doesn't put up a good fight. I mean, hey, if I'm jonesin' for some Hainan Chicken Rice and the wait at Savoy is too long, I'm heading down the street and Dong Nguyen wins.

Savoy Kitchen
138 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 308-9535

Closed Sundays. Cash Only.

Dong Nguyen
1433 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 300-8618

Closed Thursdays. Cash Only.


elmomonster said...

Oh I LOVE LOVE SAVOY. Haven't been there in ages. Weird that a lot of people are mentioning it again (your post being the latest and greatest).

I gotta go back. Hey, do they still have escargot?

KirkK said...

He-he-he, you are too funny. Which HCR will reign supreme??? I can still hear the Howard Cosell voice going off in my head; "down goes Dong, down goes Dong!" Sorry, I couldn't help myself......

Daily Gluttony said...

Hi Elmo,

Yes, they do have the escargot still. We tried it a couple of weeks ago, and thought it was OK. Some of the wine on a couple of the snails hadn't completely burned off, so those pieces tasted like they were soaked in alcohol.


LOL! I would pay top dollar if I could heard Howard Cossell say "Down goes Dong!"

Captain Jack said...

This post was most amusing. That aside, I have never had Hainan chicken rice. I feel like I have been missing out. I will have to ask Kirk if there is anywhere in SD that is decent.


Jeni said...

Thanks for the write up DG. But I'll be going to Dong Nguyen...not for the chicken rice, but for the fashion next door. 2 for 15!!!

JF said...

The real question is: does anyone remember the old Savoy? The one that used to inhabit the northeast corner of Valley/Chapel (across the street from Taco Bell?) Same owners actually.

Great review(s)!

CookieEater said...

Lived around the corner from Savoy all my life, but haven't been there since it was that pizza place. The Italian mixed with Chinese thing always freaked me out. Perhaps I should finally make the trip.

Passionate Eater said...

Thank you so much for your kind words regarding my move! I will miss California so much, but am excited about new beginnings in New Orleans! Thankfully, I know that your site and humor will transport me back to CA faster than a plane ride.

Chubbypanda said...

Hates the bone shards. Hates them we does, precious.

cheesywee said...

hmm I've been around ALhambra a couple times and haven't seen this place. I have to remind myself to eat there next time!

Charlie Fu said...

Off of Main next to the Edwards there is a Malaysian restaurant that makes a pretty mean Hainan Chicken. Their sauce is very whatevers and they do put those instant noodle like scallions on the chicken but the chicken and the rice are very tasty!.

I thought better than Savoy at least. Give it a shot! (and if you have already and you don't like it, don't blame me haha)

Gift Baskets said...

That is quite a different pallet of food than I am used to seeing. Some of those are pushing the limits of what I would choose to eat based on appearance. I wholly imagine that some things taste better than they appear. The Savoy Kitchen certainly looks un appealing to me, but I bet it didn't taste all that bad.

Zhoos said...

Personally, as a true-blue Singaporean foodie who's favorite dish is Hainanese Chicken Rice, I would rather prefer Dong Nguyen's.

I've heard alot of people rave about Savoy, but my trip there I was utterly disappointed. The true measure of Hainanese Chicken Rice is the rice itself, and I'm sad to say that during my visit, the rice just didn't cut it. It was disappointing to the very grain.

Maybe things have changed. Maybe three years ago they didn't have as good a chef as they have today. But nothing beats Hainanese Chicken rice from Boon Tong Kee back home in Singapore.

And yes - History has it that it was the Hainanese people in Singapore that actually invented the dish.

Anonymous said...

Of course it's such a treat to eat out but HCR can be quite easily made at home too. Get the Kee's HCR mix in a jar, throw contents in with 4-5 cups of rice in a rice cooker, and voila, kitchen smells like heaven. There is another brand called "Uncle Sun", also from S'pore and it's just as good. Both are easily avail here in Canada, so should be sold in Calif too. The chicken is tricky to prepare but I make do with steamed chicken at the asian BBQ takeout. The hot sauce I make in the fall when fresh hot peppers are plenty and cheap. Blend with chunks of ginger and cloves of garlic with white vinegar(palm vinegar from the Phil. is actually better), sugar and salt to taste. I make a couple of litres and freeze them in jars. I eat it with everything, incl. steak!!

jackt said...

try siam sunset in thaitown! my fave chicken rice. o man i just looked this is a really old post. will try savoy tho hope it's still good!

Jan said...

Funny, I came across your blog post after reading Jonathan Gold's review of both places for LA Weekly today:

Looks like he should've taken his cue from you since you already had this cockfight back in 07.

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