LOS ANGELES and VICINITY — Hainan chicken is pure comfort food to me. It’s nothing fancy. But there’s just something wonderfully satisfying about a plate of tender poached chicken served with rice infused with the resulting savory chicken broth.
With its European sounding name and bistro-type outdoor seating flanked by trees lit up with strings of blinking lights, it hardly resembles an Asian restaurant from the outside. Inside, the space is tiny, with just a few tables and some counter seating. It also has a rather head-scratching menu. Yes, there is the Hainan chicken. But there’s also escargot, sausage pasta, and conch pizza. Go figure.
We were there for the Hainan chicken, of course. For $6.95, you get an ample portion of chicken, served traditionally at room temperature, along with a mound of rice that has soaked up all that chicken-y flavor, and three dipping sauces: pounded ginger, chili with garlic and sweet dark soy. For $1 more, you can exchange a portion of the rice for a simple iceberg salad with tomatoes and a creamy Italian-esque dressing instead.
The white meat chicken was juicy, and the rice moist and slightly oily from all that chicken-y goodness. Smear some ginger sauce over it all and experience total contentment.
The place was packed on a Saturday night. There were plenty of folks picking up take-out, too. With chicken this good, who can blame them?
What I wouldn’t give for a Din Tai Fung in the Bay Area. But alas, this dumpling house out of Taiwan only has locations in the United States in Seattle and Los Angeles.
Whenever I’m in Los Angeles, I have to stop into the Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. Actually, there are two in Arcadia, practically right next to one another. There’s almost always a line to get in. But because they’re so efficient (think servers with headphones who roam the dining room while always in communication with the kitchen), the wait is never that long.
The lure? Soup dumplings also known as xiaolongbao that are quite possibly the best ones you’ll ever eat.
The dumplings are made in-house. In fact, you can peer into the kitchen to see a small army rolling out dough by hand.
Xiaolongbao are buns or dumplings with a filling of pork and aspic. As they are steamed, the aspic melts, creating a broth that is encased inside the dumplings.
Dip one in a sauce of vinegar and ginger, place it on a soup spoon, then carefully take a tiny bite to suck out the broth. Then, devour the rest of the dumpling with a big smile.
What makes these particular xiaolongbao so special is not only how juicy they are, but how gossamar the dumpling wrappers are. They are so delicate that you have to exercise care when picking them up with chopsticks or else you risk puncturing them and losing all that lovely broth.
Enjoy 10 of them steamed to order for $7.50.
Din Tai Fung also makes variations on the traditional pork xiaolongbao, including one filled with crab and pork, and another with shrimp and bits of winter melon that give a subtle sweetness akin to fresh spring peas.
Truly, madly, deeply, it’s dumpling nirvana.