Everyone knows that when eating at In-N-Out Burger, the Double-Double Animal Style is the burger to get. It’s not on the official menu, but anyone with an Internet connection and a Google bookmark can learn that if they’re not eating a double cheeseburger smothered in grilled onions and special sauce, they’re not getting the true In-N-Out experience. Much of a restaurant’s popularity in this age of Yelp depends on fanatic Internet reviews and subsequent adoration of particular dishes just like the Animal Style burger. Sometimes these dishes actually reflect the essence of a restaurant’s identity, while other times they are simply too bold and nutty to ignore. In this column, we’ll be taking a look at many of the East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single sought-after dish. We’ll aim to learn if the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for.”
Hawker Fare’s 2011 opening press was brimming with eager anticipation — the chef behind the operation, James Syhabout, had already received Michelin-level praise for his ethereal take on Californian cuisineat Commis. With his casual second restaurant, he planned to explore Thai street food with an eye towards simplicity. Indeed, the menu at Hawker Fare lists little more than sides and rice dishes — far from the elevated cuisine for which Syhabout had previously been known. While some imagined his new restaurant would be an Oakland version of David Chang’s Momofuku, Syhabout (and his trusty head chef Justin Yu) has instead embraced relatively stripped down preparations of Thai dishes. Sure, pickles, bacon lardons, and dried shrimp abound across the short menu, but these each have their place; there is no bacon for bacon’s sake.
So far, the people of Oakland seem to like this style. The restaurant has received solid reviews and has been packed since its opening, with diners regularly enduring waits of up to an hour for what amounts to a decorated bowl of rice.
This is not to say that these decorated bowls of rice aren’t tasty. Indeed, Hawker Fare has become known for its take on Kao Mun Gai (itself a Thai take on Singaporean Hainese Chicken Rice). At its most basic, Kao Mun Gai is poached chicken served atop rice cooked in a mixture of chicken broth and fat. The traditional method of preparation entails simmering a whole capon in a large pot of water until barely cooked through, shocking the chicken in an ice bath before carving, and then cooking white rice in the resulting fat-slicked broth. At Hawker Fare, they throw in a few high-tech tools to streamline the process.
They cook bone-in chicken breasts in sous vide to ensure perfect poaching, delicate white meat, and quivering, silky smooth skin. The rice is steamed with a more-than-generous slick of chicken fat for unctuous, tender grains that taste of pure chicken essence. To serve, they plate the chicken and rice with a dusting of ground fried shallot, spicy cilantro leaves, and cooling cucumber. While many diners simply push the greenery to the side, the Kao Mun Gai is much better when eaten with the garnish — both add add texture, color, and bright herbaceousness to the dish.
The salted mung bean sauce served alongside, on the other hand, could be disregarded. Its salty soy pungency distracts from the delicate simplicity of the chicken; instead, a barely spicy bowl of chicken broth would make for a perfectly pleasant dipping sauce. Really, though, with chicken and rice this moist and flavorful, nothing extra is needed.
Speaking of added extras, the kitchen will throw on a fried egg to any rice bowl for an extra $1.50. Some dishes, like the Lemongrass Chicken, may benefit from the added richness of a saucy egg yolk, but the Kao Mun Gai is better served alone. Like the mung bean sauce, the egg detracts from the chicken’s purity.
Syhabout’s Kao Mun Gai is popular for a reason. Sure, it isn’t the same dish you’d see served in a hawker stand in Southeast Asia, and it costs quite a bit more than any street-side rice bowl. Yet each element has been prepared with such exacting technique and care that the price and wait are worth it.
Restaurant: Hawker Fare, 2300 Webster Street, Oakland, 510-832-8896.
Dish: Kao Mun Gai, a simple poached chicken and rice dish elevated to candlelit dinner status with sous vide preparation, salted mung bean sauce, pulverized fried shallot, and an optional fried egg.
Cost: $9.50 or $11 with fried egg. 30 minutes to 1 hour wait during prime lunch and dinner hours.
Other dishes of note: Green Papaya Salad, Blistered Green Beans, 24-Hour Pork Belly.
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.