The last time I had a perfect plate of Hainan chicken rice, it was in Singapore at some random hawker center I probably couldn't locate now if you gave me a map. Other than Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra, the undisputed king of Hainan chicken rice in Southern California, I've found very few restaurants here that do it well. It's a hard dish to nail because it's also the simplest. Technique and timing trumps everything; there's nowhere to hide mediocrity.
To make it, a whole chicken is boiled, then plunged into an ice bath so the skin takes on the texture of jelly. The bird is then chopped into strips and served cold or at room temperature next to the rice, which is no ordinary mound. Prepared by first stir-frying the raw grains in melted chicken fat, then boiling them with chicken broth, the rice is often rich and scrumptious. The meal is served with at least three sauces: an oily mix of pulverized ginger and spring onions, a chile paste of some kind, and a sweet-sticky soy sauce to drizzle in between spoonfuls. Just about every country in Asia cooks its own version, but in Singapore, it took on a special resonance and became the country's national dish.
Capital Noodle Bar in Irvine is not a Singaporean joint. It's a casual spin-off from the Capital Seafood Group, arguably Irvine's pre-eminent Chinese-restaurant brand, with its dim sum houses in Diamond Jamboree and Irvine Spectrum. So when I ordered the dish there, our server was ready with a disclaimer.
“Our Hainan chicken rice comes only in white meat, and also, it's skinless, not like we have it in the picture,” he said apologetically, almost bracing himself for some kind of objection.
When I pressed him as to why it's skinless, he explained it's easier to prepare that way. I ordered it anyway, and what came out was exactly as he'd described–snow-white chicken in long, naked, skinless strips. Despite all that, it turned out to be one of the better Hainan chickens I've had in Orange County. The meat was slightly chilled, the texture springy and moist. If you chopped it up and mixed in mayo, you'd declare it the best chicken salad you've ever had.
But eaten this way, unobstructed, it's chicken breast as it should always taste but rarely does. I would alternate slathering the meat with the ginger-and-spring-onion paste, the thin garlicky chile sauce they've made specifically for the dish, and, finally, the tangy-salty soy sauce that's a slight departure from the sweet, syrupy stuff I'm used to. But ultimately, it's Capital Noodle Bar's well-executed rice that complemented the chicken with its own poultry soul.
The restaurant also offers a Hainan chicken noodle, in which the chicken is prepared the same way, then placed atop a noodle of your choice and drowned in hot broth, from which it promptly seizes up and becomes rubbery. Avoid this dish. If you want Hainan chicken, order as it should be eaten, married with its rice. Besides, if you're getting noodle soup, there are better ones to slurp here. Take the Capital bowl, which has just about every protein thrown into a broth ladled from tall, simmering stockpots visible from the bar seats in a room that reminds me of David Chang's Momofuku.
This soup–whether you choose the silky rice noodle or the crinkly, chewy egg noodles–animates every bowl here. Toppings vary from golf-ball-sized wontons pregnant with pork and shrimp to a so-called “Trio of Beef,” in which spring-loaded beef meatballs meet meltingly tender slices of filet mignon and a tomato-y beef stew complete with carrots, slow-cooked brisket, tripe and tendon. If the latter sounds akin to a Vietnamese bò kho, it's because it probably is.
There are more flashes of Vietnamese in the rice dishes. There are grilled pork chops marinated with lemongrass and shaken beef, both served alongside com do ca chua, Vietnamese tomato rice. The stir-fry section has a few Thai-inspired noodles, some of them using spaghetti of all things. But then there's the traditional Hong Kong-style chow mein, a crispy nest of egg noodles smothered with meat and veg in corn-starch-thickened gravy. Some side dishes are also excellent, including snappy green beans stir-fried with bits of dried shrimp, the crispy Chinese doughnuts, and the addictive fried prawns swaddled in wonton wrappers. They even have xiaolongbaos, but they're only decent if you forget Din Tai Fung exists. So save your xiaolongbao craving until then. At Capital Noodle Bar, focus on the Hainan chicken rice, even if it's skinless and white meat.
Capital Noodle Bar, 3850 Barranca Pkwy., Ste. E, Irvine, (949) 651-8088; www.noodle.capital-seafood.com. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-9:30 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.