Popular chicken rice in Los Angeles has Singapore-inspired chilli sauce

Johnny Lee's chicken rice (above), which is sold from a pop-up stall in Los Angeles' Chinatown area.
Johnny Lee's chicken rice (above), which is sold from a pop-up stall in Los Angeles' Chinatown area.ST PHOTO: ALISON DE SOUZA
Johnny Lee.
Johnny Lee.ST PHOTO: ALISON DE SOUZA

A Chinese chef selling chicken rice in Chinatown using his mother's techniques sells 200 plates in a few hours

If you are in Los Angeles and hanker for Hainanese chicken rice, be warned: It is harder to find the dish here compared with cities such as London or Sydney, where big communities of Singaporean expatriates ensure a ubiquitous supply.

But as the city's dining scene and foodie culture blossoms, this humble dish is finally ready for its close-up, thanks to a chef named Johnny Lee.

He has a monthly pop-up stall in the city's Chinatown, which he launched a few months ago to test the waters before setting up a restaurant later in the year.

Snaking queues wait patiently for an hour or so for one of his US$7 (S$9.65) boxes of chicken rice. The crowd is mostly Asian American with a smattering of non-Asian friends in tow, plus a few passing hipsters wondering what the fuss is about.

Lee's chicken rice reflects his Chinese-American heritage and Los Angeles' melting pot, which the Lees have been a part of since moving here from Guangdong province when he was one.

The 29-year-old has borrowed techniques learnt from his Cantonese mother and the Thai and Vietnamese interpretations of the dish, as well as a Japanese trick - dashi-infused soya sauce - for one of the condiments.

For the all-important chilli sauce, he turned to Singapore, even though he has never set foot on the island.

He tells The Straits Times at his stall: "The recipe for the sauce was given to me by Justin Baey, who is a Singaporean chef working in Los Angeles. I'm still refining it, but right now, the ingredients are red chillies, a little bit of chicken stock, lime juice and sugar."

Lee, who had worked at LA eateries such as Eggslut and Sticky Rice, also did online research on how Singapore institutions such as Chatterbox make the dish. "I saw that they bake the rice, but that wasn't the method I wanted to go with.

"I kind of cherry-picked what I liked about each version to make something uniquely mine. This represents me - I'm an Asian- American man who grew up eating Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food."

But he adds: "I'm hoping to go to Singapore eventually because I appreciate that I could learn some things by eating it there."

As for the chicken, he cooks it pretty much like his mother does whenever she makes a simple poached chicken at home.

"I've tried everything, including modern techniques such as sous vide, but I find them to be a bit unsatisfying. When you sous-vide the chicken, it just... and I hate to use non-quantitative terms here, but it feels like there's no soul to it.

"I believe the poaching process, in which you start with a high heat and bring it low, you can't achieve that with sous vide, where the temperature is the same throughout. Whereas with a variation in temperatures, you can get the proper texture in the chicken.

"So I do it over a stove, start with a high boil and then turn it down and cover the pot. It's basically a more technical, advanced version of how my mother showed me to do it," says Lee who, for "a more complex broth", uses whole chickens, including the head, giblets, wingtips and feet, and adds kombu to the stock.

The glistening chicken and rice come with the optional addition of an egg fried in chicken fat (US$2) and a bowl of chicken soup (US$2).

Diners can specify if they want dark or white meat, which are both fully cooked but still slightly pink - Lee's defiant response to the tendency of many Asian restaurants in the United States to overcook chicken for fear that Americans - and health inspectors - will freak out if they see a little pink.

Whatever his secret, his chicken rice certainly goes down well at his pop-up, where he sells about 200 plates in a few hours.

Right now, he lists his main job as working to set up that brick- and-mortar restaurant.

This reporter digs in and finds his chicken rice to be as satisfying as anything you might find in Singapore and speaks to customers who have returned despite having waited almost two hours the previous month.

One of them is Ms Lena Lieu, a 32-year-old Chinese-American graphic designer, who has come with a large posse of friends, many of whom order extra boxes to go. "It's very good," she says. "I can taste all the hard work and love he put into it. That's why I'm back."

Ms Minh Phan, a 42-year-old Vietnamese-American chef and a friend of Lee's, says his chicken-rice mission is "so Johnny".

"He's so obsessive, but it's good. I think that's what chefs do - they find something they really want to perfect."

She also has an explanation for the one element of Lee's chicken rice that might bemuse Singaporeans: the fried egg.

"It's a California thing," she says. "We put eggs on everything."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Chicken rice pops up in LA'. Print Edition | Subscribe