Hawthorne, a tiny city southeast of LAX, is probably best known for producing the Beach Boys, and more recently, Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX. When it comes to food, the South Bay hamlet has been short on innovation, apart from a small Pakistani community. But since February, Hawthorne has housed Chubby Rice, a modern Chinese-American restaurant that skips gloppy sauces and heavy batters in favor of flavorful cooking.
The plate that best exemplifies their approach is their rendition of General Tso’s chicken. The famous dish, synonymous with Chinese-American cooking, actually has roots in Taipei and was the subject of a documentary called "The Search for General Tso." Chubby Rice’s version may be L.A.’s best, featuring dark meat tossed with onions, scallions, garlic, white button mushrooms, and a savory soy-rich sauce that gets smoky from the wok.
Each plate comes with a choice of two sides. Clearly a restaurant called Chubby Rice calls for a mountain of fried rice stir-fried with egg and dime cuts of lap cheong sausage. You also have the opportunity to snag an egg roll here, which just might be the pinnacle of Chinese-American egg rolls in Los Angeles. Blistered wrappers cradle crumbled pork and vegetables in a ratio you won’t find many other places. A larger version listed under the "Bite Me" section as Chubby egg roll on the menu is the size of a small burrito.
Chubby Rice took over a Korean restaurant called Pojang and shares a strip mall near Hawthorne High School with a nail salon, insurance office, and Mexican restaurant. The glass-fronted space features white and orange walls and wood tables dressed with small succulents.
Jason Lau and wife Helen originally hail from Hong Kong. They ran a restaurant called Golden Crown for 30 years in Mountain Home, Idaho, an Air Force town outside of Boise with 120 seats and 150 menu items. They retired a couple years back and got bored, so they relocated to Los Angeles and resurfaced with their greatest hit dishes. Daughters Linda and Alice, and Alice’s wife Joe Fang, now run the show.
Fang said of the Laus, "They cook for guests like they cook for their own family." That means less oil, no MSG, and a mix of soybean and vegetable oils. For instance, Chubby wings are fried chicken drumettes, with meat scraped down the bone to resemble meaty lollipops, but they sport especially thin, crispy sheathes.
The family makes dumplings in-house, filling thin skins to produce spicy pork and shrimp wontons submerged in chile oil and showered with scallions. Pan-fried dumplings feature rosy cores crafted with pork, cabbage, and bok choy. Dip in the aforementioned chile oil or a tangy blend of soy sauce and vinegar.
To start, it’s also worth considering the crab rangoon — bat-shaped wontons filled with oozing cream cheese, crab, and minced vegetables. Dip the golden results in house-made amber-hued sweet and sour sauce.
Fang is particularly proud of his family’s pork chop sandwich, which features a crispy boneless Taiwanese-style chop piled with tangy vinegar-based slaw and rich chile aioli on a massive roll that’s buried in an avalanche of French fries.
Unlike at many Chinese-American restaurants, you won’t have to play hide and seek with the meat when ordering Mongolian beef. This version projects transparency, with thin strips of juicy beef sporting noticeable sears and judicious saucing. Orange chicken features a touch of citrus, but isn’t drowned in viscous sauce and peels.
Salt and pepper is another preparation does Chubby Rice’s protein section justice. Scored tubes of calamari come lightly battered, sporting crisp coats, soft cores, and a shower of chopped chilies, garlic, and scallions.
You won’t have to play hide and seek with the meat
Another stop forward with Chubby Rice’s approach is their packaging. Every entree comes in a three-compartment container, but instead of Styrofoam or plastic, Chubby Rice opts for compostable cardboard, an eco-friendly update on tradition.
Is Chubby Rice changing the direction of Chinese food in Los Angeles? No, but the family has applied 30 years of lessons learned to bring a fresh, thoughtful take to fast casual cooking. The food might not be space age, but based on the crowd at a recent lunch, they’ve clearly already captured the imagination of aerospace engineers and rocket scientists.
Chubby Rice, 12836 Inglewood Ave., Hawthorne, 424.456.4341