When I was a kid, my favorite part of bacon was the half-inch to inch-long square of rubbery fat, partially browned and crisp around the edges, but mostly soft and gelatinous, and, if still hot, oozing with drippings. I’d eat the ends off the bacon and maybe some other striations of opaque fat on the strips, and sneak off, leaving the rest untouched, for someone else in my family to tend to. I also have always had a penchant for the succulent, fatty ends on a prime rib; spit-grilled chicken tails and broiled salmon and mackerel skins, which are all crispy, oily and a little rubbery.
I had no idea until I was older that I was an anomaly. Over countless meals with friends, I noticed that most people find these the least desirable parts. Often, they’ll just cast them off to the side of their plates, as if they were inedible, like bones or rinds of fruit.
I get it, it’s a textural thing. And maybe, in some cases, a fear of fat thing. And it’s probably cultural. I’ve found other people like me, many of whom grew up in non-American households, where glutinous, gelatinous and unctuous food textures are considered a delight rather than an abomination. So, as I ate the khao mun gai, the signature dish at the new Berkeley fast-casual restaurant, Chick’n Rice, I wondered, are people really going to get this dish?
Khao mun gai is a fairly simple dish: poached chicken served cold to the touch, or sometimes room temp, with a side of rice cooked in chicken broth, a few cucumber slices and a sprig of cilantro, a spicy ginger-garlic-soy dipping sauce and a small bowl of steaming hot, rich chicken broth. A beloved Thai street food, khao mun gai derives from another, perhaps better-known dish originating from southern China, the national dish of Singapore — Hainanese chicken and rice. In Thailand, khao mun gai has become a national treasure in its own right, but this specialty, so ubiquitous in that country, is pretty hard to find in Thai restaurants in the United States — even in the Berkeley, which boasts about 30 Thai restaurants within city limits. When James Syhabout’s original Oakland outpost of Hawker Fare was open, they served a version of the dish Nosh once called “to die for.”
But not everyone is dying to try it. On a recent Nosh article where we published a photo of the dish (seen above), one commenter wrote, “Looks like a six toed foot.” If one is to judge khao mun gai on appearance alone, its one-note pale hue could be off-putting. The chicken, with its wobbly poached skin still intact, the mound of plain-looking rice, and the bowl of yellowish, clear broth look like something you’d eat after recovering from the stomach flu, because a doctor told you to eat something bland. But those who love khao mun gai, and other deceptively simple dishes of this ilk, know there’s a ton of flavor in all parts of this dish — chicken, rice and broth and of course, the potent sauce.
Khao mun gai can be so good that it could mesmerize a man into creating a whole restaurant concept around it. In the case of Chick’n Rice, it’s its founder John Keh, who first joined the cult of khao mun gai while on vacation in Thailand. He found a chef-restaurateur in Bangkok, Chavayos Rattakul, to help him develop the recipe served at his restaurant.
Chick’n Rice calls its version KMG for short, and offers two versions: the original and fried (khao mun gai tod). Both are served with rice that’s been steamed with chicken broth. At a recent media preview for the restaurant, which is due to open on Sept.8, the server explained that the broth is fortified with the fat rendered from chicken skins. The rice had a good richness and a pleasant ginger flavor, but the batch we had with our KMG was maybe a tad too tender; the grains were broken and a little mushy. (Later in the evening, we had another serving, and this rice was better, with the grains still intact and with a little more chew.)
The OG KMG was poached so that the flesh was moist and flavorful in a way you’d not expect from white meat. It is served chilled, which might be a little shocking if you’re expecting a warm dish. The hot broth, meant to be sipped between bites, offers that heat, but I found it a little oily and not quite salty enough. The dipping sauce is where you’ll find the most obvious flavor — garlicky, gingery and bright; it’s fairly strong and a little goes a long way. While the KMG checked the required boxes for khao mun gai, it didn’t go above and beyond that. I was a bit disappointed by what is supposed to be the restaurant’s specialty.
The Fried KMG is the best option for those who are put off by the texture of poached chicken. It’s basically a fried boneless chicken cutlet, like a Japanese chicken katsu, but served with a sweet, thick chili sauce. It was tasty as all fried things usually are, and moist like the original KMG, but not memorable.
There are two other entrees available at Chick’n Rice — Braised pork (khao kha moo) and fried tofu (khao mun tao hoo). Both are served with a mound of Jasmine rice (not cooked in broth) and a couple stalks of steamed greens, what appeared to be gai lan (Chinese broccoli). The tender meaty pork dish is the real winner at Chick’n Rice. Prepared with a sweet anise-tinged soy glaze, it’s a flavor bomb and an obvious crowd pleaser. And it comes with half of a soft-boiled soy-marinated egg.
All four entrees cost $8.99 for a small and $10.99 for a standard serving. They are served in disposable wooden take-out containers with clear plastic tops; the soup coming in a separate disposable, lidded bowl. You can add another egg, more greens, meat, rice or another cup of chicken broth for an extra cost. And, there’s a sauce bar, where you’ll find more sauce, sliced chile peppers and minced ginger to add to your dishes, for an added boost of flavor. Each squeeze bottle of sauce is labeled with the dish it’s for, but there’s no one stopping you from trying all the sauces in whatever combination you please.
There’s one dessert at Chick’n Rice and it’s a good one: ice cream with mango sticky rice ($3.99). Served in a plastic cup, with the glutinous rice, condensed milk and chunks of mango on the bottom, it’s topped with a soft scoop of ice cream that slowly melts over it all. There are three flavors of ice cream to choose from — coconut, Thai iced tea and lychee.
Chick’n Rice will open its downtown Berkeley location on Friday, Sept. 8. Although this is its first (and only) location so far, the brand is already positioning itself to become a national chain.
So, is the country — or even just Berkeley — ready to embrace cold poached chicken? I’m not convinced yet, but in the meantime, I’ll gladly take that fatty skin off the side of your plate.