In October, when the team behind Koreatown sandwich shop Open Market posted its daily special on Instagram — a Hainan chicken salad sando — it didn’t anticipate the enormous response. “I didn’t prepare that much for this one because I just had no idea anybody wanted it, but we sold 25 of them — that’s all I had — in less than an hour,” says chef Andrew Marco.
Open Market is just one of a number of Los Angeles restaurants that have been serving up a new twist on the beloved Hainan chicken rice, from a modern fish iteration at Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra to a chile crisp-topped version in sandwich form at Jeff’s Table in Highland Park.
This Hainan 2.0 wave is rooted in the Hainan province in Southern China, but evolved from a comfort dish popular in Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand — each with its own slight variations. One of the most traditional Hainan chicken rice versions is poached chicken on a bed of chicken stock-punctuated rice and served alongside cucumber slices, and sauces like ginger-scallion, sweet soy, and chile. It often comes along with a bowl of chicken broth for sipping. While institutions like Alhambra’s Savoy Kitchen have long been the standard for Hainan chicken rice, chefs at newer restaurants like Chinatown’s Pearl River Deli and Majordomo have put modern touches to the dish.
However, chef-owner Chris Yang of his namesake Yang’s Kitchen is making something completely different with his Hainan fish rice, a dish he’s serving tonight as part of a new dinner service on Fridays to Sundays. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, he would often eat Hainan chicken rice at Savoy, and as a result, the dish has always been on his mind. “Ever since I opened Yang’s Kitchen three years ago, I’d wanted to serve it in some form,” says Yang.
For Yang’s iteration, he starts with a dry-aged barramundi that he sources from the Joint fish market in Sherman Oaks. “The fish comes out so moist, and [when you fry it] the skin gets so nice and crispy that it kind of eats like chicken in a way,” he says. “It’s really meaty, flaky, and flavorful.”
The fish is served over a schmaltzy chicken fat rice that’s cooked with chicken stock and aromatics. The dish is kicked up with an emulsified chile butter made with fermented hot sauce and garlic, a riff on Savoy’s orange sauce, but a little more rich and decadent. It also has a traditional ginger-scallion sauce drizzled over the fish and a side of pickled cucumbers.
Yang suggests pairing the Hainan fish rice with his restaurant’s sake, or an orange or white wine, something with a bit of acidity to cut through the fat and butter in his dish. In some ways, the chef is trying to push the boundaries of Hainan chicken rice beyond changing its main protein. “You don’t go to a Hainan chicken rice shop and have a glass of wine,” he says. “This is another thing that we want to marry and promote, to push the conversation forward.”
At Open Market, Marco’s take is a riff on chicken salad and Japanese sandos. It’s a recipe that has been percolating in his phone’s Notes app since 2020 — something that he recently went back to perfect. (He, too, was inspired by Savoy.) Marco folds a ginger-scallion sauce into poached and shredded Jidori chicken, along with mayonnaise, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. The chicken, sandwiched between two slices of soft Clark Street Bread with a milk bread texture, gets topped with sliced fresh cucumbers. “When you close your eyes, it literally tastes exactly like a Hainan chicken salad,” he says.
Marco feels the meal wouldn’t be complete without a side of chicken broth, and his version is a labor of love. He roasts the bones and then makes a stock out of it by simmering it for eight hours. That same liquid is used to poach the chicken. Due to its popularity, Marco says his team is considering adding the dish permanently to the menu next year, with a few more appearances as a special until then.
Perhaps the earliest rendition of a Hainan chicken salad sandwich in LA came from chef-owner Jeff Strauss and his sandwich shop Jeff’s Table. He added it to his menu when he opened three years ago. Strauss fell in love with Hainan chicken rice while traveling through Hong Kong and Shanghai nearly a decade ago, and while frequenting local restaurants like Savoy and Northridge’s Maxwell Chicken Rice. “I thought the whole parade of that gorgeous meal — the gentle flavors and textures of the poached chicken and the other components — would make a great foreground for a sandwich,” says Strauss.
In Strauss’ version, he takes poached Mary’s chicken breast (previously he used turkey before a recent nationwide shortage led him to switch out the poultry) that’s simmered with ginger and scallions. His sandwich includes a garlic aioli that’s made with house-made smoky chile crisp, Persian cucumber slices, crispy shallots, and wild arugula.
“I think one of my sandwich philosophies is to take these dishes that I think are life-changing and put them into a sandwich,” says Strauss. He has a point: Hainan chicken rice is one of those dishes that people never forget, in whatever form it comes in.