It’s been more than six years since Howlin’ Ray’s became a Nashville-style hot chicken sensation in Southern California, and in that time Los Angeles has gone spicy chicken mad. Numerous copycats have turned the revered Tennessee tradition into a near-cliche, with street stands galore; strip mall spots serving tenders, sliders, and oversauced sides; and a whole lot of hot chicken that is Nashville in name only. There are well-connected legends like the Prince family’s own Kim Prince doing Hotville Chicken in Crenshaw, and there are also newly minted hot chicken millionaires like the Dave’s Hot Chicken crew — with 45 locations across the United States and Canada in just a few short years. That is to say: Southern California loves fried chicken.
Such was the state of the current fried chicken scene when Paul Phan and wife Trina Diep opened World Fried Chicken in Ontario, California — and all against the backdrop of a global pandemic, too. “We wanted to do something other than Nashville,” explains Phan, who opened his restaurant in a strip mall space at 2527 S. Euclid Avenue in November 2021. “We thought, how can we build from there?”
To combat the region’s specific saturation towards hot Southern chicken, Phan and Diep have built a choose your own adventure model for their menu instead. Theirs is a broad take, pulling in flavor profiles, spices, and cooking techniques from multiple countries and regions. It’s ambitious, but Phan says that so far he’s having fun with the challenge.
Phan, 50, jokingly says that he now gets to visit new countries every day thanks to World Fried Chicken’s menu. The restaurant isn’t much for big design and decor details, but the spare space does offer something that no other Inland Empire restaurant can match: Flavors, sauces, and seasonings from five global regions and 22 different countries, available in a variety of dishes and as sauces, rubs, or hot oil finishes.
The varied options, ingredients, and combination possibilities can initially seem as overwhelming as a TSA security line at LAX during the holidays, but Phan urges customers to go with their gut when deciding on what flavors to order. “Trust your palate,” Phan says. “If you know what a certain flavor should taste like, start there and build your way out.”
The Taiwanese nod, for example, is a salted yolk sauce that can be added to various fried chicken meals, tenders, sides, wing boxes, and sandwiches; a Mozambican peri peri is served as a rub, just like the harissa option. The Filipino adobo version is a sauce, while the chocolate-flecked hot mole is offered as a hot oil finishing sauce. (Yes, there will be a quiz on all of this later.)
Look past the fried chicken in its endless iterations and find even a few grilled poultry options on the menu, thanks to Diep. “I try to stay away from fried foods as much as possible,” she says, laughing. “I don’t eat it at home.” Diep comes from a family of chefs and cooks, and grew up learning from her grandmother in the kitchen. In fact, the spicy Cambodian coconut curry that’s on the menu comes from a recipe that used to be in her grandma’s restaurant in Vietnam. It’s a small but important nod, as is the use of mostly freshly ground spices instead of only relying on the store-bought variety.
“The lemon for the lemon pepper uses a fresh lemon zest,” explains Diep. “The garlic butter sauce for the French garlic parmesan uses a housemade garlic butter that’s popular in France,” and is also an homage to Diep’s French, Cambodian, and Vietnamese roots. “We use fresh mango for our mango habanero.”
“We wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” adds Phan, who acknowledges that appropriately representing dozens of regions and countries, each with their own deep and deserving culinary legacy, is an impossible task that even in its attempt demands time, attention, and humility. “It took us about a year to get the recipes where we wanted it to be,” he says.
It’s been a mostly quiet first few months since World Fried Chicken opened, as word is still slow to fully trickle through the vast Inland Empire. Most days the dining room, which at capacity can feed 40 to 50 diners at a clip, is sparsely attended, though the wings and tenders have become increasingly popular as takeout for in-the-know Ontario locals. People are slowly finding out, like the Filipino family from Beaumont who happened upon the shop while in town. “They said that their son didn’t like his mom’s adobo,” Phan says when recounting their order. “He liked our adobo though.”
World Fried Chicken is now open at 2527 S. Euclid Avenue in Ontario, California, keeping lunch through dinner hours.