View more photos in the "Dong Nguyen and Savoy: Hail the Conquering Chicken" slideshow.
I am willing to go toe to toe on the subject of what might properly go into a Los Angeles burrito, and I can hold my own when symposia on spaghetti carbonara are convened. Want to talk about bread? Bring it on — I can go 45 minutes on fermentation bubbles alone. When my standards for the Chicago hot dog were adopted by that city’s chamber of commerce a decade ago, I felt that I had at last fulfilled my purpose on this planet. (If you would like to hire me to discuss the relative importance of poppy seeds and celery salt, I am at your service.)
But there are culinary arguments I have learned to stay as far away from as possible, as life is short and dinner is long. If you grew up in Cincinnati, you have your own opinions on the allowable garnishes for what passes for chili in your hometown, and you may parse the differences between a four-way and a five-way without interference from me. There are Talmudic scholars who would find it difficult to follow the average discussion about the New England lobster roll, the mayonnaise, the lemon juice, the toasted or nontoasted, top-loading or side-loading bun, even if the food in question weren’t as trayf as a bowl of pig’s ears in Béarnaise sauce; the barbecue experts, especially the Texans, have labored for many, many years to suck all the pleasure out of something as delicious as a brisket slowly cooked with smoldering post oak.
The nature of my job sometimes renders it necessary to discuss pizza with people whose allegiances belong either to the Brooklyn pies they grew up on, or to the Famous Original Ray’s, but it is at times like those that I wish Attention Deficit Disorder was even more common in American households. And the pizza freaks are not the most extreme: A bar owner was so invested in the Platonic form of Phildelphia cheese steaks that he felt compelled to complain about an offending opinion, even as the offending opinion in question was in the act of calling his tavern’s cheese steaks the best in L.A. It made sense in a weird sort of way. He had honor, family and tradition to uphold. I was just eating lunch.
Still, I submit that nobody has stronger opinions than partisans of Hainan chicken rice, a dish so insanely popular in Southeast Asia that despite its Chinese origins, it could be considered the national dish of both Singapore and Malaysia. I once spent most of a reporting trip eating chicken rice in Singapore, tasting 25 or 30 examples over the course of a couple of weeks, and when I maintained that the best I’d had was not near an obscure Clementi housing project but in the coffee shop of a posh Orchard Road hotel, it took all the reserve of my acquaintances there not to demand a few strokes of the cane.
Hainan chicken rice is a simple dish, basically rice cooked in chicken stock and garnished with chicken. Classically, it is accompanied by tiny portions of three sauces: sweet dark soy; oily, pulverized ginger; and chile. The chicken, while it may be fried, is usually simmered in that special Chinese way that leaves it barely cooked but tender and filled with juice. I used to think that a scattering of dry-fried shallots was necessary to the dish, but some of my favorite versions come without it.
At best, it resembles a sort of loose, glossy Chinese risotto sizzled in a pan and simmered in chicken stock, glistening with chicken fat and fragrant with ginger, every grain plump and separate yet chewy and bursting with juice. This is close to the way you find it at The Noodle Island, the Hong Kong–style noodle shop in San Gabriel, where it has been my standard order for the last year. The poached chicken has so much flavor that you can scarcely believe it is the same bird used everywhere else, and maybe it’s not.
Is this the consensus? It is not. There are two places to go for chicken rice in the San Gabriel Valley, and neither is the Noodle Island. Have you ever been called an idiot? Have you ever been called an idiot by somebody with a mouthful of chicken rice?
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So then, we find ourselves at Dong Nguyen, a noted chicken-rice specialist by the 168 Supermarket in Alhambra, a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant with a fairly lengthy menu and precisely one dish that anyone ever eats, which appears at the table in seconds, plates dealt almost like cards. I am perverse about these things, so I try a crisply fried game hen served on a bed of macaroni noodles dyed scarlet with a purée of chiles and tomatoes, and I find it rather good. Marinated beef cubes, caramelized in that peculiar Vietnamese way, were chewy, bland, rather less interesting, and the rice underneath, which I suspect had been cooked in the same purée as the noodles, was dry and hard. The chicken rice? Better, of course, but not much, overcooked to the point of mushiness, lacking any degree of ginger punch but chickeny, definitely chickeny.
Down the street is Savoy, a Singaporean place whose menus are decorated with what looks like an old photograph of the Bay of Naples, and which serves gooey Italian pasta and its namesake Margherite of Savoy pizza to every spike-haired dude who’s ever screeched his BMW into your parking space at a dim sum restaurant. You could, if you wished, try a chicken curry that splits the difference between Malaysian curries and the packaged Japanese stuff you pick up at Mitsuwa, or a steak blanketed with an industrial concentration of black pepper. The Hainan chicken rice, which is on four tables out of five, is firm at least, marked with ginger, served with the requisite three sauces, the miscellaneous slivers of bone-on boiled chicken — you have to pay two dollars extra for all dark meat — slack and slightly undercooked. Not bad, really. Undoubtedly, a taste of home.
Dong Nguyen: 1433 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 300-8618. Open for lunch and dinner Fri.-Wed. Closed Thursdays. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Chicken rice, $6.50.
Savoy Kitchen: 138 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 308-9535. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Chicken rice, $6.75.