Thursday, May 08, 2008

Savoy Kitchen - Alhambra

Since I'm on the subject of Hainanese chicken rice, I guess I have to mention Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra. I know, I know. Everyone in the San Gabriel Valley swears they serve the best Hainanese chicken rice in town. There's lines out the door. Well, I think it's more because the restaurant is tiiiiny and the outdoor dining area isn't that big either. And every time I slam the Hainanese chicken rice here, I get negative licks on Biggest Menu.

Savoy Kitchen 1

But here's the deal, I have yet to hear any actual Hainanese extol the virtues of this place. So unless you're Hainanese or have eaten Hainanese chicken rice actually prepared by Hainanese, you don't know what you're missing. There's three components to a really good Hainanese chicken rice - the chicken, the rice, and the chili sauce. If you take shortcuts such as boiling the chicken or adding broth to cooked rice, it will not come out properly. Yes, I tend to be snooty about this but it's not simply a matter of authenticity, it's also a matter of taste. Sure you can steam or boil chicken until it's soft and tender, but Hainanese chicken should be firm, juicy, with a bit of pull. That's because Hainan island is poor, the chickens roam, and the method of cooking the chicken just short of boiling was a way to infuse juiciness into a tough bird. As for the rice, cooking raw rice in chicken broth infuses the rice with flavor. Adding broth to cooked rice won't yield the same results. Think of it this way, you wouldn't add wine and broth to cooked rice to make risotto. But it's not just me, two of my cousins have eaten Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore so they've got that as well as our families' version for comparison.

Anyway, the long spiel is because Hainanese chicken rice is what Savoy Kitchen is known for, but let's see what I think of some of their other offerings, shall we?

Some time last summer, Henry Chan's Food Videos asked if I wanted to have a late lunch at Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra. I agreed to meet him there, but since he caught me while I was already out, I didn't have my camera on me. I know! Shocking isn't it? Photos from this lunch are courtesy of Henry's camera.

All that hype, when Henry asked me what I was going to order, he should have known my answer. Hainanese chicken rice for $6.50 is described on the menu as, "Rice steamed in chicken broth. Poached chicken served with small portion of ginger and chili sauce." He was really amused by the horrified look on my face when the plate came out. The rice and chicken were both mushy. Remember what I said about how Hainanese chicken should be firm, yet tender? Taste-wise, the chicken and rice were just bland to me. The soy, ginger, and chili sauces were just OK. Nothing remarkable. I'd rather have Nuoc Mam Gung (Vietnamese Ginger Fish Sauce).

Savoy Kitchen 2

Henry ordered a cold chicken pasta salad for $6.75. This was standard, not bad, but again, not remarkable either.

Savoy Kitchen 3

Lest you think I'm just overly negative, I did enjoy the iced chrysanthemum tea for $2. Freshly brewed. Very refreshing on a hot day.

Savoy Kitchen 4

We also were served a small complimentary order of their pizza bread, which contained potato dough. It was incredibly bland and dry.

Savoy Kitchen 5

So overall, for my first visit, very unimpressed.

Fast-forward nine months later. The middle '87 had studied abroad in Singapore and her oldest brother had come back from a business trip there. They wanted to find a comparable Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice since it was slightly different from our family's version. So off to Savoy Kitchen we headed.

We ordered three iced chrysanthemum teas and an iced coffee.

Savoy Kitchen 6

Since it was a Friday, their special was oxtail stew with rice or pasta for $7.75. The oxtail were pretty tasty with a Chinese five-spice powder undertone. The meat wasn't fall-off-the-bone tender though so it took a bit of gnawing.

Savoy Kitchen 7

And of course, we ordered the Hainanese chicken rice. I'm sure my cousins can chime in in the comments, but they were both quite disappointed. My initial impression still stands. Mushy. Bland.

Savoy Kitchen 8

I got confused and ordered a margherita pizza for $7.50 because I thought that was what my cousin wanted. But he was just amused and pointed out that it was listed as "Margherita of Savoy Pizza." That potato dough that was bland and dry as pizza bread, was bland and dry as a pizza. The mozzarella was too much and combined with the dough was just too heavy. I admit, after Bollini's Pizzeria Napolitana, I don't know what I was thinking by ordering a pizza anyway.

Savoy Kitchen 9

So sorry to all the Savoy Kitchen lovers, but I just can't jump on your bandwagon. I wanted to like this tiny restaurant that offers up Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and Italian cuisines, but I'm not willing to wait in line for bland and mushy Hainanese chicken rice. And their other offerings don't impress me much.

The next day, my cousins went to Dong Nguyen Restaurant - Alhambra, which has much better Hainanese chicken rice. While it wasn't quite like what they had in Singapore, being more like our family's Vietnamese-Chinese com ga in style, it was way tastier.

Other chicken rice restaurants:
Banh Cuon Hai Nam Saigon - Alhambra
Dong Nguyen Restaurant - Alhambra
Pho Ga Vietnam Kitchen - San Gabriel

Savoy Kitchen
138 E Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Closed Sundays

1 year ago today, Buckwheat Crepes: crepe memories from Paris, and a video demonstration on how to make and flip them.


  1. Hey WC,
    I completely agree about Savoy. All that hype for nothing. Here's the thing, I'm not nearly as academic as you are about how Hainanese chicken should be prepared. All I have is the memory of what my family's "com ga" tasted like and Savoy didn't do it for me. I didn't like their sauces, and both the chicken and the rice was just---meh. Now here's where many of you might think I'm blaspheming: but I really enjoy the Hainanese chicken at Noodle World! I usually order a side of steamed veggies for some greens, but their rice is flavorful, their chicken (you get a choice of white or dark, I always get dark) is tender, and their sauce is killer. It's not a divided ginger/garlic/soy sauce like savoy, but a single brown sauce with all of those flavors mixed in.

    I recommend at least THAT dish from Noodle World, and my wife and I have pretty much hated everything else we ordered there.

  2. Hmm, like everyone else I've heard that Savoy is THE place to go for hainan chicken...and of course I wanted to try it. But I started hating on the place b/c the two times we intended to eat there...we never did because 1)it was closed (who closes a restaurant on a SUNDAY?? that's when ppl eat out!) and 2)it was way too packed and we didn't think it was worth the wait. Now I don't feel like making a point to specifically go there to eat. Not every restaurant is worth all those revisits, haha.

  3. Dave,
    Bwahhaha. Another Savoy hater. :) I've never ordered the Hainanese chicken rice at Noodle World. I used to eat there quite often, but it's not as good as it used to be.

    If you happen to drive by and there's no line, then it might be worth stopping in to see what all the hype is about. But don't make any special effort for it.

  4. THREE THUMBS DOWN for Savoy.

  5. Tania,
    Three thumbs? Where'd you get the third thumb? ;)

  6. I wish I'd seen this review before I went to Savoy. Along with Auntie Em's, Savoy Kitchen was one of my two greatest disappointments of 2009. I nominate it for induction into the pantheon of LA teflons: Pinks, Canters, Titos, etc.

  7. Geoff,
    Haha! Yeah, I really don't get why so many people think Savoy is so great. It so was not!

  8. WC, I agrred with your comments. You mentioned soy sauce as one of the dipping sauce for the chicken. There should be three sauces: ginger, chili, and sweet black sauce (ketchup manis). There is no soy sauce for this dish. I know because I grew up in Singapore and have eaten this dish countless time, and restaurants.

    I have yet to find a Hainanese chicken rice dish outside of Asia that is good. My bad, at my mom's.

  9. LT,
    You know, honestly, I can't remember if it was soy sauce or kecap manis because I didn't cook with it back then and might not have been paying close attention. It's weird how even though there are Singaporean immigrants and restaurants here, neither of them make Hainanese chicken rice like in Singapore. Hopefully I can travel there one day and taste it for myself to see how it's different from the way my family makes it.


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