(photo courtesy of http://www.gotouring.com/)
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!
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.
138 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Closed Sundays. Cash Only.
1433 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Closed Thursdays. Cash Only.