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Review: Some of the best Hainan chicken in town is in an Arcadia mall

Restaurant Critic

If you wander by Side Chick at the right time of day, you can see an absurd number of whole chickens being prepped for that day’s service, both steaming pyramids of plump, pale birds fresh from their poaching liquid and burnished roast birds oozing a bit from the spot where they have been pierced by the spit. Flashing cleavers reduce the chickens to their constituent parts.

You could walk down the corridor to the other food spaces in this Asian corner of the Santa Anita mall, toward crabs or udon or even the dumplings at Din Tai Fung, but Side Chick, which specializes in Hainan chicken rice, exerts a powerful pull. There may be a thick pane of glass between you and the production kitchen, but you can imagine the cooking smells of a dozen grandmothers in that tiny room, all chicken, ginger and garlic; roasted skin and sweetly burnt soy. Johnny Lee, who is nothing if not a showman, surely had this affect in mind.

For the record:

9:32 a.m. Sept. 24, 2022An earlier version of this review said Johnny Zone left Papille for Howlin’ Ray’s. He left La Poubelle.

You have run into Lee, I’m almost sure of it. He came from working with John Sedlar at Rivera to be the cook at the Monterey Park bar Spirit House, where he stuffed 24-hour roast Chinese pork into tacos and made exquisitely crisp French fries that required a three-day process. His Thai-style chicken rice at Sticky Rice was the best reason to visit Grand Central Market in the early days of its gentrification. He worked with Alvin Cailan on Eggslut, Ramen Champ and any number of Hainan chicken rice pop-ups.

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What does Side Chick serve? Hainan chicken rice, and also roast chicken, chicken salad, cold sesame noodles with chicken and spicy fried chicken wings. The drinks are more or less limited to water, wintermelon tea and iced tea with lemon. If you’ve got to have vegetables, there are vegetables — well, one vegetable, something like bok choy, either stir-fried with garlic or steamed and served with oyster sauce.

I have been waiting years for Lee to open a proper restaurant where his imagination and his chops might meld into a fresh take on L.A.-school Asian cooking. I have since figured out that he may be playing a different kind of long game, less focused on glory than on what I’ve come to think of as Side Hustle Cuisine — the recipes that chefs make for their friends on Sunday afternoons, retooled for a wider public. Side Hustle Cuisine couldn’t be more of the times.

Chicken being prepared at Side Chick.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

I have been waiting years for Lee to open a proper restaurant where his imagination and his chops might meld into a fresh take on L.A.-school Asian cooking.

Forty years ago, the ideal for an American chef was probably somebody like Andre Soltner, who lived above his own restaurant and cooked exquisite French food for the rich and powerful. Later, chefs wanted to be ’80-era Wolfgang Puck, whose portfolio of restaurants was small enough to control but profitable enough to permit him to inhabit the same social circles as his customers. The next decade belonged to guys like Ducasse, Robuchon and Vongerichten, three-star chefs whose empires spanned three continents; after that, maybe the TV guys whose restaurants occasionally seemed more concerned with branding than they were with what appeared on the plate.

Now — if you are a young culinarian with considerable talents, it is hard not to think about the career arcs of Steve Ells, who went from being a line cook to founding Chipotle; David Chang, whose path began with a modest ramen parlor; or Danny Meyers, whose Union Square Café eventually begat Shake Shack. You are not unaware of the way Andrew Cherng rolled a Pasadena Chinese restaurant into Panda Express.

In Los Angeles, Ludo Lefebvre has fried chicken stands, Neal Fraser and Josiah Citrin sling hot dogs, and the partners behind New York’s 11 Madison Park, recently anointed the best restaurant in the world, operate a Los Angeles sandwich truck. Nobody thought it was a step down when Johnny Zone left La Poubelle to make hot chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s. And as any stall holder at Smorgasburg can tell you, the dream is never far away. If a chef makes one thing exceedingly well, it may be enough.

So does Lee make the best Hainan chicken rice in Los Angeles? He probably does, which is to say that it’s done well enough to make the question one of personal preference rather than of quality of ingredients or consistency in preparation.

The chicken (organic) is poached in that time-consuming Chinese way that leaves the flesh a bit slack, although cooked all the way through, well salted though not briny, and with a hint of unmelted fat still clinging to the underside of the skin. The sauces include dense, sweet soy; a very creditable ginger puree lightened with minced green onion; and a vinegared hot sauce that somehow tastes more American than Chinese.

The dome of rice — by far the most difficult, important aspect of the dish — is dense and garlicky, scattered with fried shallots for crunch, displaying but not dominated by the taste of the chicken broth in which it has been steamed. A lot of Hainan chicken rice seems as if each grain has been coated in chicken fat, keeping them loose, separate and a bit chewy, but Lee seems doing something else here, folding in a bit of schmaltz to give richness and fragrance as you might fold a quail-egg yolk into a serving of steak tartare.

Will there be 1,000 Side Chicks some day, giving this mall stand the resonance of the first El Pollo Loco on Alvarado or the original Pasadena Trader Joe’s? It’s hard to know. But while you might hate Lee’s aesthetic — and I still yearn for the chicken rice at the old Swee Kee in Singapore — Lee’s version is pretty first-rate.

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Side Chick

Where to find chef Johnny Lee’s Hainan chicken? Head to the mall

LOCATION

400 Baldwin Ave., Arcadia (in the Westfield Santa Anita mall), (626) 688-3879.

PRICES

Dishes $8-$13.50; side dishes $3-$5.

DETAILS

Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Mall lot parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Hainan chicken rice.

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jonathan.gold@latimes.com

@thejgold


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