If Kedai Makan makes good on its hints, Seattle's longstanding Hainanese chicken drought may soon be over.
Hainan chicken rice is as ubiquitous in Singapore and Malaysia as hot dogs in the U.S., but is frustratingly hard to find locally. For me, the frustration usually peaks the day after I've reviewed an overwrought dinner with clashing flavors and gratuitous sauces. Hainanese chicken sits at the other end of the sophistication spectrum. While there are enough variances between renditions to make "best Hainanese chicken" debates as heated as barbecue fights over here, the basic format's always the same: It's rice cooked in chicken stock, with a cut-up, bone-in poached chicken plopped on top. Soy, chile and ginger sauces are served on the side.
Half a dozen Seattle restaurants serve Hainanese chicken, but the online consensus is that nearly all of them are miserable. The dish is on the menu at A & B Cafe ("average," according to Yelp), Vietnam House ("the most awful Hainan chicken rice ever"), Cafe Ori ("DO NOT order") and LA Cafe ("an odd rendition.") Since "odd rendition" is high praise in this category, I nearly made the trip to the restaurant, but was discouraged by a Yelper's photo of a cockroach in the rice and Jay Friedman's recent Voracious write-up, which cited LA Cafe for "the worst pot stickers I've ever had."
When Hugo Kugiya in 2010 sized up the local Hainanese chicken situation for Crosscut, he sampled the versions served at Indo Cafe and Malay Satay Hut, ruling the latter the better of the two. But he wasn't overly impressed. He attributed the mediocrity to lack of practice, explaining "While a restaurant in Malaysia or Singapore can go through 40 or 50 chickens a day, the Satay Hut goes through five or six at the most."
Many Hainanese chicken fans in Seattle get their fix from khao man gai, Thailand's take on the dish Singapore borrowed from southern China. It's served on Saturdays at Thai Curry Simple, and Kedai Makan's Kevin Burzell has caught it at Little Uncle. "(It) was damn good," he reports.
Still, eaters anxious for the real thing continue to pester Burzell and Alysson Wilson about serving the dish at their Capitol Hill take-out counter.
"A few of our Singapore regulars ask for it a lot," Burzell says. "We always thought it would be hard at a market, but checking out Nong's in Portland (a Thai cart specializing in khao man gai) made us reconsider. They have expanded so much just from that one dish, it's amazing. So it's a dish with great potential."
During a kitchen residency at Skelly and The Bean, which briefly operated as an incubator kitchen, Kedai Makan served a Malaccan-style Hainanese chicken that Burzell says "turned out great."
"I know the Mad Hatcher chickens are the perfect size for it," he says. "It's a dish that would work in our space, so perhaps sooner than later."