Talk about false advertising: The aromatic chicken roll at CHICKEN BOWL EXPRESS in Orange is neither aromatic nor a roll. It's a burrito—a chicken one, yes—containing cabbage, onions and enough teriyaki sauce to eliminate your sugar needs forever. Perfect for a drunkard, but for the purposes of this esteemed column? Even better!
I only partially kid. While I enjoy that misnamed aromatic chicken roll, everything else is delish at this tiny, slightly slummy treasure stuck on a stretch of Tustin Street that hosts seemingly every bad chain restaurant (McDonald's, Islands, Sizzler, Marie Callender's) ever incorporated. The specialty, unsurprisingly, is chicken, and the vessel is—didn't see this coming!—a bowl. But unlike other teriyaki-bowl establishments, Chicken Bowl Express expands beyond the time-honored tradition of marinating meat with the sickly sauce. Take the curry bowls—steaming, with carrots and other vegetables to add a different texture. For such a small dive, Chicken Bowl Express offers a surprisingly regal curry, everything a great Japanese curry should be: sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a dash of spice at the end to keep you honest. Despite all the Japanese in Orange County, this dish is still a rarity—enjoy it, and savor the leftovers tomorrow.
Chicken Bowl Express offers other meats, but the chicken is about the best you'll find that's not connected to bone—skinless, fat-free, grilled to a healthy, crispy brown. After its grilling, the cooks—usually the Japanese owner and his swarthy Mexican worker—add your choice of flavor. Garlic? Until your skin reeks of it. Orange? Sugary, slightly citrus-y. Kung pao? I'm not even sure what constitutes kung pao anything, but the sauce here does its job. And the sizes themselves please: A small will be enough; a large, luscious overkill. Each bowl is about half steamed rice, half your meat choice, and none is complete unless you drown it in hot sauce—not the Sriracha on the counter, but the grittier, hotter stuff in a small bowl that the owner warily guards and allows you only to scoop a thimbleful.
As I've already hinted, there's a small concentration of Chinese cuisine sold at Chicken Bowl Express—the aforementioned kung pao and orange-flavored meats, along with fried rice and even some chow mein. The fried wontons are greasy, small but cheap—three bucks for eight—and you can only find dried noodles for snacking nowadays at Chinese joints stuck in the '70s. All of this is prole food, I understand. But take it from the carloads of guys who storm the restaurant every lunch and dinner: Sometimes, the best meal is one that fills you until you don't care about anything except the last, solitary grain of rice not inside your gut.
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CHICKEN BOWL EXPRESS, 554 N. TUSTIN ST., ORANGE, (714) 532-6858.