Green Zone, visitors to the San Gabriel Valley know, is a pan-Asian restaurant in the sweet spot of Valley Boulevard, known for its light, almost greaseless takes on what I suppose you could call fusion cooking, and an insistence, rare in that part of town, on organic ingredients. Even among people who tend to wind up elsewhere for Cantonese wonton soup or salady Vietnamese-style dishes, Green Zone is generally in the conversation when it came to Hainan chicken rice.
Other nearby kitchens also specialize in a neo-Singaporean version of the dish, including the perpetually crowded café Savoy, but Green Zone's chicken rice is definitely pretty good. Also, you can get things like matcha lattes and iced green tea at Green Zone, which are amenities that seem largely to have escaped the SGV, and the potstickers aren't bad.
It is like a misplaced bit of Sawtelle. And though I find it almost impossible to visit its awkward mini-mall without giving into the more immediate pleasures of Sichuan dan dan mian at Lucky Noodle King down at the other end, I have always been happy to know that the possibility of that chicken rice was there if I should need it.
Now there is a second Green Zone in Pasadena's Old Town, just down from the Donkey Kong machines at the Neon Retro arcade. The walls are matcha green, almost aggressively so, and the music seems to alternate between Janet Jackson and her brother Michael. People are nice. You can get all kinds of little triangles, a bit like samosas, made from spring roll wrappers folded around salmon or tofu; cigarette-size egg rolls stuffed with a few grams of shrimp; or cold tofu with ponzu sauce and minced scallions like you get at the homier izakaya.
You can also get what Green Zone calls Murasaki Fries, but you really shouldn't, because even though yama imo may have many worthwhile culinary purposes, being made into French fries isn't one of them.
There are giant salads that involve romaine lettuce, minced herbs, and either chicken, shrimp or salmon in a sweetish Vietnamese-tasting dressing, and bowls of clean-tasting wonton soup that are probably more compelling here than they are in the San Gabriel location, which is after all just a mall or two over from the really great wonton at Noodle Boy. But unless I have terribly misjudged, you like everyone else, is here for the Hainan chicken rice.
And in this context, the half-dome of broth-cooked chicken rice, zapped with garlic and lemongrass and almost chewy in a way that recalls the Vietnamese broken-rice dish com tam, is almost shockingly good. The mountain of poached organic dark-meat chicken that flanks the rice is both generous and slightly undercooked, as is proper, and the mandatory trio of sauces — sweet, thick soy; mild chile sauce; and a compote of minced ginger and scallions in oil — is correct. There is probably enough for lunch the next day.
Is it as good as the Hainan chicken rice at Savoy? Probably not, to be honest — in my opinion, Savoy's perhaps overgenerous application of chicken fat is only a plus. But there's craft beer here in Pasadena. And little bottles of unfiltered sake. And you can play a game of Ms. Pac Man afterward if that's your thing.
34 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 535-9700, greenzonerestaurant.com. Also at 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-9300.