If you’ve ever fought over chicken nuggets, you’ll recognize this scene – hands going everywhere in a torrent of frantic energy as a paper take-out container filled with a pile of golden nuggets arrives. It’s that there are never enough nuggets for the number of people, especially when the chicken bites are as good as the “cluckets” of this new Thai restaurant. Piping hot and sprinkled with a lemon-grass chili spice blend, they didn’t even need dipping.
It’s usually helpful to order fries, but instead, we looked at mounds of white rice neatly wrapped in paper and placed on silver trays. That’s because the tom yum seasoned chicken nuggets were just a heavenly diversion, recommended by Bangkok native Watoo Csairungsid. We were at Chick-A-Dee for the cheerful khao man.
This new restaurant is all about chicken rice
Flying under the radar, this chicken-centric Thai restaurant quietly opened in July in a small strip mall on Thomas Road, across from St. Joseph’s Hospital. It’s operated by Csairungsid and his aunt Sorada VanBlargan, who also owns a Vegan House herbal Thai spot in downtown Phoenix.
Chick-A-Dee is the first restaurant I saw in Phoenix which is really about chicken rice, a centuries-old Chinese dish that has become an international sensation thanks to Singapore. VanBlargan said she was inspired to open the restaurant because she had never seen anything like it in Arizona.
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Chicken rice is basically boiled or poached chicken, cut into pieces and served plain with fragrant rice, fresh cucumbers and soy or chili sauces. It doesn’t sound like much, but the light, clean flavor of the chicken is delicious.
The humble dish is essentially the same whether you find it piping hot at the Vietnamese food stall Binh Duong Quan inside the Mekong Market or on the special menu at a trendy Thai restaurant Glai Baan alongside a cocktail. with lime enriched with fish sauce. (Full disclosure my brother Max is the bartender there so I eat a lot at Glai Baan and we both shared a lot of chicken rice at the now closed Hong Kong Gourmet House where my mother-in-law is become obsessed with the sides of scallion and ginger sauce.)
There are many minor players, but the Tom Hanks of Chicken Rice is called Wenchang Chicken from Hainan Island in southern China. Immigrants brought it to Malaysia and Singapore in the late 19th century, and in no time “Hainanese Chicken Rice” became Singapore’s national dish.
It shot to global fame in 2016 when the Michelin Guide awarded a Singaporean food stand now named Hawker Chan one of its coveted stars, making it the cheapest Michelin-starred meal on the planet. The dish is currently on CNN Travel’s World’s 50 Best Foods list, just above Canadian poutine at number 45.
In Thailand, popular street food can be found all over Bangkok as khao man gai, which means “oily rice chicken”, as the rice is steamed with the oily chicken broth to create a flavorful synthesis of the two ingredients.
As noted on the length of the wall explainer that adorns the side of the dining room, Chick-A-Dee simmers its broth with herbs for 48 hours to create extremely flavorful rice.
Go for the rice, stay for the Thai fried chicken
The khao man gai at Chick-A-Dee is pretty fantastic. Fresh out of its paper wrapper, Thailand’s premium jasmine rice was sumptuously moist, but not overpowered by the flavor of the chicken. It was savory, but still light with just a touch of ginger and garlic.
I actually liked the rice even more than the chicken itself, which was also very good but maybe a little underwhelming because it had been cut into smaller slices and removed all of the oily skin. Certainly my favorite part. This made for a leaner bite of chicken whether you ordered it with just white meat, with dark meat, or half and half.
The temperature was perfect – not cold, not hot. The texture was juicy, but much of the flavor didn’t come from the chicken itself, but from the range of sauces on offer, my favorite being the traditional Thai, which had the sweet funk of fermented soybeans, the Thai version of miso paste. A good counterpoint was the sweet black sauce, a sweet soy sauce that you can pour right over the whole plate.
As usual, the chicken rice came with fresh cucumbers, cilantro and a delicate bowl of chicken broth to sip between bites of chicken.
Overall, this was a very different chicken rice from the skinned and bonier varieties I’ve tasted around town. And it was also one of the best. But it was the fried delicacies that really won me over. There were the aforementioned chuckles, but also Thai Chick-A-Wings piercing hot tom yums. You don’t need to get both. Either will do, and they’re both excellent.
You could also skip the steamed chicken rice and fry it instead. This is the pro movement. The chicken slices are arranged almost like pork katsu, but lighter and juicier, on a plate that always comes with the same rice, cucumbers and sauces.
Chicken isn’t the only thing that hits the air fryer at Chick-A-Dee. The FBI is the last food on the menu and the best bite for bite. The fried banana is served with a plastic tub of homemade coconut ice cream. The fruit arrives with a thin crunchy shell that gives way to a slice of melted banana. You’ll have to wait for the coconut ice cream to soften a bit, but it’s worth the wait.
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Where: 49 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Monday to Saturday; close on Sunday.
Price: Chicken and vegan chicken platters $12.50 to $16; sides and wings $5-$8.
Details: 623-440-4750, chickadeeaz.com.
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