Hainanese chicken rice, in all of its variations across Southeast Asia, never looks like much when it hits the table. The meat is poached and pale, the skin unseasoned, the accompanying white rice and bowl of broth only adding to the whole 1950s hospital-plate vibe.
Don't be dissuaded! When it's done well, as it is at, for example, Hainan Jones in Midtown's Urban Hawker food hall, or at Eat Gai in the Essex Market, or at Three Roosters in Hell's Kitchen, or at the brand new Hainan Chicken House in Sunset Park, the dish is a revelation, rich in flavor and comfort-food textures.
As you would expect from the name, Hainan Chicken House puts the dish front and center, and it's a solid entry into the city's chicken rice canon, with juicy meat, chewy rice, and a broth that almost startles with its lushness. Gnaw the bird off the bone, drink deeply of the soup, stuff your face with sticky rice. This is a good time.
It's also plated differently here than most versions around town. "We serve the chicken rice in balls, which traditionally you'd find in Malaysia, and serve all our rice plates on butcher paper," Chris Low, one of the owners of this family-run business told Hell Gate. "That's how we remember takeout growing up in Malaysia, everything wrapped in a sheet of plastic and newspaper. We wanted to recreate some of that feeling here. It's nostalgic for us. When we see it like that, it hits us a certain way."
You can get your chicken roasted instead of poached if you want, though that seems to defeat the purpose of the place. If you want to mix things up, though, get the roast pork belly, which is glistening with fat and crisp around on the edges with charred barbecue sauce. The Taiwanese chicken thighs with ground pork gravy and mustard greens sounds interesting as well.
Hainan Chicken House also offers huge bowls of what they call popular Malaysian soup, like the lively curry laksa mee we slurped down, laden with shrimp, shredded chicken, tofu puffs, and thick egg noodles. Next time we're getting the one with crispy fried fish head and rice noodles.
Three vegetable sides round out the offerings here, all of which nicely complement the chicken rice and still keep you under our twenty buck limit. There's garlicky and slightly sweet asparagus in sesame sauce, bok choy with oyster dressing, and a pile of tart pickled mustard greens.
Hainan Chicken House is a counter service restaurant, so order up front near the entrance and grab a seat at one of the utilitarian wooden tables. Someone will bring your food, but please bus after yourself when you're done. Low's father, a seasoned restaurateur, was in charge of the decor, which consists mostly of tiles depicting different breeds of chickens.
"Thai food is the king of Southeast Asian food in New York City," said Low. "But I think Malaysian cuisine, and Indonesian food, are just as special, and deserve to be as popular. I think you're starting to see some broader recognition of that these days, and hopefully we can help it continue."
Hainan Chicken House is located at 4807 Eighth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets, in Brooklyn, and is currently open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. If you're coming by subway, and are less familiar Sunset's Park's Chinatown than the more storied ones in Manhattan and Flushing, the move is to take the N train to the 8th Avenue stop and walk north to the restaurant, about 13 blocks, to check out the neighborhood's incredibly vibrant scene along the way. (347-365-3864)