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3 newish spots for Hainanese chicken rice
Hainan Jones, Lou Yau Kee, and Hainan Chicken House
A commonplace trio of chicken, rice, and broth is lushly realized into a sinfully delicious trinity as Hainanese chicken rice. Silky slices of poached chicken are served at room-temperature, suffused with the ginger, garlic, pandan leaves. The skin is slippery and gelatinous, or caramelized and crisp if you opt for roast. Even better is the rice, which has been soused in poaching liquid and ennobled by schmaltz. It’s at once chickeny as hell and then not at all, just a distant, ethereal approximation. A bouillon cube in reverse.
As if that weren’t enough there are sauces—red chile, dark soy, zesty ginger—an enhancement not an afterthought, and soup that may have been fortified with bones, or tempered with water or daikons or cabbage. You could use the soup for dipping the meat, or save it for the end like I do and and drink it at once as a cleansing communion.
Hainanese chicken rice hails from its namesake island province in China and is now a staple in Southeast Asia, where each country makes it slightly differently. The Thai version at Nong’s Khao Mun Gai in Portland, Oregon, served as my introduction. Their sauce—chunky with Thai chiles and ginger-garlic bits—is rightfully famous, addictive, and sold by the bottle, an ideal accompaniment should you decide to make it at home.
The last decade saw a rise in Thai-style spots, like Mr Khao Man Gai and Eim Khao Mun Gai, which was once my go-to. I would stay away from mini-chain Gai Chicken and Rice, where the meat tends to be dry and overcooked, and thus deprives you of its crucial pleasure.
Best: Hainan Jones
Urban Hawker Market, Midtown West
$22 for a set, $25 with greens, $3 for a tea egg.
This Singaporean import is my preferred version and worth the visit to Midtown. The chicken was juicy, the skin crisped, and the rice soft overall but individually al dente. The foodhall had plenty of sets on a Sunday, though depending on where you sit you’ll be perfumed with oil.
Lou Yau Kee
Urbanspace Union Square, East Village
$14.80 for a set, plus greens
The proprietor helped set up Hainan Jones and opened his own stall a foodhall on 14th street near NYU—perhaps contributing to its reasonable pricing. A regular meal boasts an ample portion of rice and includes yuchoy as a side.
The skin on the roast chicken wasn’t quite crispy, the cabbage broth was weak, and you don’t get enough sauce. My memory is fuzzy on whether the tiny containers were smaller than usual or if the chicken was just less flavorful, prompting me to reach for more condiment. Still, I would eat here again.
Hainan Chicken House
8th Ave, Sunset Park
$13.00 for a set
At this Malaysian restaurant in Sunset Park the rice is scooped into a ball and the chicken lacerated by a cleaver—so beware of shards of femur and the like. The broth has the most concentrated poultry flavor. Overall, the chicken and rice overall a bit of a letdown given all the attention. I was more drawn to other specialties—char siew, smoky char kway teow noodles, and velvety chicken liver mousse spread with butter crackers—which I’d stop in for in the future.