Friday, January 14, 2011

Legendary Hainan Chicken: Not So Legendary at Savoy Kitchen

I had heard about Savoy Kitchen for a very long time. I had passed by Savoy Kitchen many times. My hairstylist place was only two stores over. But I had yet to step foot inside this tiny little corner cafe in the middle of busy Alhambra until two Sundays ago with my friend Kenneth. Yes I'm still catching up with my blog, the San Francisco and Napa trip took a while to finish writing. Kenneth had actually been there before and he enjoyed it the last few times he was there. The place was known for its Hainan Chicken, so I already knew what I was going to order before even stepping foot inside the door.

(Savoy Kitchen - Hainan Chicken)
There was a little sign-in sheet at the door. Their indoor seating accommodated only fifteen or so people. They also had a few tables and chairs on the outside next to the cafe that sat an additional fifteen to twenty people. It was a small but cozy joint bustling with a hipper and younger crowd. We waited for about ten minutes before a table was ready for us.

We sat at the counter of the restaurant ready to order some food. I took a quick glance over the menu in case if I wanted to change my mind. I didn't; I still ended up ordering their Hainan Chicken. I was generally a fan of this dish if it's done well, but sadly only a few places did this well. Fortunately Savoy Kitchen did it pretty well; unfortunately it wasn't as good as the hype around it made it seemed. I honestly preferred the chicken at Cafe Spot down the street over Savoy's, but I did like Savoy's rice over any other place I had before.

Hainan Chicken is basically a steamed chicken that's chopped up and served. The juices from the chicken is then added to the rice during the steaming process so that the rice is chicken flavored, and not with MSG either. It also comes with a ginger and chive oil dipping sauce on the side for the chicken. Savoy took this one step further and served the dish with an additional spicy version of the ginger sauce as well as a dark soy sauce. It's always nice to have a choice; I tried all three. The soy sauce was too strong and distracted me from the actual taste of the chicken, which really shouldn't need a distraction; more on this later. Both of the ginger sauces were well made and were true to what they were supposed to be. The taste of the ginger and chives were not masked with an overt amount of salt which some restaurants end up doing.

The rice to the Hainan Chicken at Savoy was extremely well made. They were one of the few restaurants around that actually used the fresh juices from the Chicken and steamed the rice with them. The rice were extremely flavorful unlike other places that simply either poured on the juices afterwards or didn't even bother doing that, but serve you an MSG based chicken soup instead; that always drove me nuts. What I sort of missed and was looking for were a little bit of preserved vegetables somewhere on the plate. It was a pretty meaty, carby and oily dish. It would be nice to even have a hint of fiber somewhere just to make me feel a little better. I suppose it was not always absolutely necessary to add that to a Hainan Chicken dish.

If I judged this dish by everything surrounding the chicken, it was definitely hands down one of the best Hainan Chicken around LA, minus my Dad making it at home. But I can't possibly judge the Hainan Chicken without putting a lot of weight on the Chicken itself. The Chicken was only good, no where near as good as how everyone else made it sound like. With steamed chicken, most restaurants overcook them and they become dry. The few descent restaurants manage to get the dark meat to stay juicy while the white meat is generally dry. The good restaurants get the dark meat right and it's a hit or miss with the white meat. The greatest ones get it all perfect. The one I had from Savoy landed in the good restaurant zone. Most of the slices were juicy and tender, but the thicker white meats from certain parts of the chicken were a bit on the drier side. In fact, even the upper wing of the chicken was ever so slightly overcooked for a Hainan chicken.

I suppose without the hype, I would have thought this to be a pretty good Hainan chicken, but I was definitely expecting more. I wanted perfection or near that and Savoy didn't come close enough. It was only good. Perhaps the one I got was below their usual quality, but that's their problem. I had high demands for my chicken and I hated dry chicken. If I wanted a dry piece of chicken, I would go to El Pollo Loco. This is Savoy, and they were supposed to have the best Hainan Chicken around. I think they understood how to make good Hainan Chicken, I just didn't think they have it down cold to the point that every chicken would turn out perfect. To their defense, cooking chicken perfectly is way harder to do than cooking beef or pork. In the end, I much prefer the chicken at Cafe Spot only because I have yet to eat an overcooked chicken there. But I did enjoy tremendously the rice at Savoy, and would enjoy their chicken more because it's slightly lighter in flavor than Cafe Spot if it wasn't overcooked. I just can't have it all.

(Savoy Kitchen - Lemon Iced Tea)
I also ordered my usual drink, lemon iced tea sans sugar. Savoy served them in medium sized plastic cups. The environmental side of me was screaming "waste," while the consumer side of me was screaming "I can take it to go afterwards." They do free refills which is standard now for both lemon iced tea and milk tea in the San Gabriel Valley for most Cantonese style cafes. There's a history behind this and how this came about mostly during the 1990's which I actually lived through here in the valley. Basically because of the highly competitive nature of the Cantonese cafes of that time, in order to draw more customers, a few of the more established Cantonese cafes began serving free refills on lemon iced tea and milk tea, which were and still are the two most popular drinks at all the cafes. It made sense since even if a customer drank three or four refills, it would only have amounted to a few pennies to a dime or so in extra cost. But the customers were happier and more willing to return as a result. When this first started, we the customers had to ask every time we ordered whether they had free refills. But eventually every restaurant picked it up or at least noted it in their menu which drinks had free refills and which didn't. For American restaurants this may seem trivial, but if you visit Cantonese cafes in Hong Kong or even in New York, they may not necessarily have free refills.

The tea brew at Savoy was good and had some descent tea flavors. I was annoyed that I didn't get a spoon to crunch up the lemon. I had to use my straw to draw out the lemon flavors. It was your average drinkable lemon iced tea. Not too shabby but not memorable either. It's hard to make a cup of lemon iced tea memorable. However when it comes to milk tea, that's a different story and warrants a different post.

(Savoy Kitchen - Curry Chicken With Rice)

My friend Kenneth decided to order the curry chicken with rice. I took the liberty to take a picture and had a little taste of the dish. The curry was mildly spicy which was pretty standard at Cantonese Cafes. Once in a while I would run across a really spicy plate of curry rice, but most restaurants knew not to scare off their customers like that. The curry was also very flavorful and the chicken was just shy of being overcooked. They were mostly cut in long shreds rather than in chunks. It's much easier to overcook shreds than chunks when it comes to curry, but Savoy did a good job with this.

It's nice to finally say I know what Savoy's Hainan chicken tasted like and to know that it wasn't as good as everyone said. But I will probably give it a second try in the future before completely writing it off, but it will be way down the line in the future when some other friend of mine insist that we go again. Personally I don't care for the restaurant mainly because I didn't like the ambience. I wasn't comfortable; I felt like I had absolutely no personal space and all I was doing was being jammed inside a tiny room to pick at some food. At least it only took a few minutes for my food to come out; I suppose that is to be expected for Hainan Chicken. I can't expect them to steam the chicken on the order. I would starve before I get any food in me.


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