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.
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.
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.
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.