When it comes to making dishes -- like Hainan chicken rice -- in which flavor is key, the Trang family prefers buying Buddhist-style poultry. "It is pretty much the most organic, free-range chicken you can come by," Andy Trang, a UCLA senior said.
Trang and his family, San Gabriel Valley residents, have been buying these particular types of chicken from Cal Fresh Vikon for over two decades.
"It is really skinny compared to the normal super market variety due to its active lifestyle and more moderate and natural diet," Trang said. "When you buy it, they slaughter it and clean it for you to order and hand it to you still warm, with head, feet and all. There's a lot more of a chicken flavor to it as compared to what you find in say, a typical Foster Farms chicken at Costco. So for dishes like Hainan chicken rice, where the emphasis is all about the chicken flavor, you really do want this type of poultry."
Based in the San Gabriel Valley with a retail location in Rosemead, Cal Fresh is one of L.A. County's last slaughterhouses. They are also one of the two major Buddhist-style chicken producing plants in the area. The company sells Vikon chickens, a heritage, brown-feathered breed that falls under the United States Department of Agriculture categorization of "Buddhist-style" poultry.
The main difference? "Buddhist-style means the head and the feet are still attached," Dana Phu, owner of Cal Fresh said. The whole chicken represents familial unity.
Dana and her husband Quan Phu, Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, began their business in 1991 because they saw a lack of eviscerated chickens with the head and feet still attached in the market.
"Our parents would tell us to buy fresh chickens with the head and feet attached. We would have to drive all the way out to Los Angeles in Chinatown to get it," Dana said. "The chickens are used in Buddhist or Taoist religions to worship ancestors."
In 1991, the couple started up a hot bird plant (meaning it follows California slaughterhouse regulations) in Rosemead and in 1993, opened up a USDA-approved facility. "We ship as far as Chicago, Washington State, Texas and Kentucky," Dana said.
Their particular breed of chicken can be found in most Chinese grocery stores in the San Gabriel Valley and affluent Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood like New Capital, Ocean Star and NBC Seafood Restaurant are among the company's clients. But ancestral worship isn't the only appeal for their customer base. Compared to mainstream chicken, the poultry at Cal Fresh is a perfect fit for cooks. "I would describe the texture as firmer, almost more al dente but still really moist," Trang said. "It's great for braising or steaming."
Compared to supermarket poultry, Vikon chickens are much more leaner. They are bred in free-range farms with no extra hormones or antibiotics. The chicken are fed an all-vegetable diet and have approximately 5% less water in the meat compared to a white traditional chicken.
Because of its low water content, steaming is the ideal cooking method. "You can take the chicken and cook it in a platter of water for about 40 minutes," Dana explained. "Then drain it and use the broth for soup and add vegetables. As for the chicken, chop it into pieces and dip it into soy sauce or ginger sauce."
And unlike brand-name poultry that are raised on chemicals and refrigerated for long periods of time, Vikon poultry are freshly plucked at the company's facilities.
But the company's alternative methods have not been without challenge. They recently faced a lawsuit by the Rosemead Planning Commission in 2012 regarding facility odor, but filed against the city alleging various equal protection and due process violations, including discrimination based on religion and race.
The court ended up ruling in the Phu family's favor, concluding that "any perceived health or safety concerns relating to the continued operation of CAL Poultry are outweighed by the public's interest in upholding the Constitution."
Thankfully for the customers of Cal Fresh Vikon, the company remains an intact part of the community. Their Rosemead plant alone receives hundreds of walk-in customers each day. "The Asian community is always looking for Buddhist-style chickens," Dana said, "The head represents the head of the household. The feet represents the children."
"Plus the cool thing is you can buy roosters or hens," Trang added. "I got an amazing super old rooster once and made a very traditional coq au vin. The meat is tougher, but there's just so much more flavor."
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Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.