Photo by Amy TheligChopped into gulp-sized chunks, battered with sweet rice flour, marinated for 24 hours, then tossed into the fryer until each piece transforms into a bouncy, almost tissue-like mass, the mochiko chicken at Kokona Hut in Placentia is the apex of North County fried food. The frying process captures the chicken's succulence within a gnarled, dun-colored skin. Meanwhile, the batter's multiple seasonings (are those hints of sesame and cumin traipsing across your palate?) remain bold and distinctive even after wading in the boiling cooking oil, a little miracle considering fried food's notorious reputation for zapping flavor from everything. The mochiko chicken arrives with an orange-based sweet-and-sour sauce, but, really, no condiments are necessary for these intensely flavored poppers—okay, maybe just a dunk. The orange glaze is pretty damn yummers.
Curiously, mochiko chicken is not on the main menu at Kokona—for some reason, the owners banish it to a neon-colored, star-shaped piece of cardboard taped alongside shills for Spam musubi and a piquant chicken curry bowl. And if you take eating hints from the lunch-time mob, you'll probably order one of the mini-bowls, deep caverns of rice and soy-drenched chicken, beef or pork that they grill better at the next-door King's Teriyaki. But if you're going to stray from the mochiko, at least stay with chicken—in this case, rotisserie.
Like Lebanese and Mexicans, Hawaiians pride themselves on rotating plucked hens over an open fire for hours while basting the bird with a secret sauce. The sauce at Kokona's isn't that secret—it's soy—but its salty, slightly bitter tang seeps into the chicken's flesh and causes the skin to contract until it's as taut as Joan Rivers' face. The rotisserie chicken is golden and gushes juices when knife meets meat—your own edible gusher.
The rotisserie and mochiko chicken plates are the Kauai of Kokona Hut, but you'll smile through the rest of the mainland Hawaiian grub choices as well: a crispy chicken katsu that crumbles the second you stab a fork into it, a stringy slab of Kahlua pork, or a tender slice of spicy pork, the pig charred and hosting the slightest of fires. And, Hawaii being the West Coast Ellis Island, there's also a side business in fine-for-Placentia sushi rolls and kim chi (strangely called bean sprouts). But again: order the mochiko chicken during one of your visits. Piping hot and plentiful, they validate the concept of chicken nuggets forever—and if you remember the terrors of junior high lunch, that's not an easy task.