Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a restaurant came to fruition as a result of two obsessed diners following each other on Instagram. Well, of course that’s only part of the story, but it’s how Jason Wang connected with Chavayos (Bob) Rattakul, a Thai partner, to bring Chick’n Rice to downtown Berkeley.
Opening tomorrow, the fast-casual concept is built around one particular dish, Khao Mun Gai, in which a piece of poached chicken is offered with rice cooked in chicken broth and other aromatics, with a punchy sauce of soy, garlic, ginger and chilies. The dish also comes with a bowl of chicken soup.
A popular street food in Thailand, the dish has slowly been gaining popularity in the U.S., and thanks to the guys behind the Umai Hospitality Group, it will be introduced to many more people in the coming years.
“We’re planning a rapid expansion, maybe opening five more of these in the next three years,” John Keh told Bay Area Bites. “We’re already looking at a location in the South Bay.”
Along with Wang, Keh is part of the Umai Hospitality Group; they along with two others, are all Cal graduates who founded and then sold the food delivery app Caviar.
“We think this food is really accessible to the American palate as it’s interesting, different and healthy. And since the chicken is poached, it’s not too fatty,” said Keh.
The Berkeley location is on a restaurant row of sorts right near the Cal campus, at 2136 Center Street. Keh said the landlord was excited to get a Thai offering in the mix, since the street offers a wide range of international options already.
While one could think that it doesn’t take a lot to get such a simple dish right, she’d be wrong. Keh spent several months in Thailand with Rattakul, going from place to place, seeking out who did the most flavorful sauces; who made the most delicious rice. Rattakul then sought out their favorite recipes from these chefs, and in some cases, tasted their creations and guessed how to make them himself.
And because they knew they couldn’t build an entire restaurant – small as it may be – on one dish alone, they came up with three others to round out the menu.
In addition to the Khao Mun Gai (known as KMG on their menu) there is Fried KMG, Braised Pork, which comes with a soy-marinated egg and Asian greens, and Fried Tofu, which also comes with Asian greens. All dishes come with rice, (the two non-chicken dishes come with plain Jasmine rice rather than the chicken rice) and soup.
All ingredients for the sauces are imported from Thailand, and all the meat comes from Marin Sun Farms. Vegetables are local as well.
A small portion of each dish is $8.99, a regular is $10.99, making this a great bargain, especially for high-quality meat (we found the small large enough to satisfy one person, and the servings of rice are perhaps even a bit over generous).
We found all the proteins with the exception of the poached chicken to be well-seasoned even without the sauces, but to not use the sauces would be a crime. The fried items were not the least bit greasy and the pork was especially flavorful even pre-sauced.
We couldn’t help but wonder though, how many people except for the die-hard health nuts would order the KMG given the more attractive options of fried chicken or pork. But fear not, healthy people. Just a drizzle of this brown sauce elevates it to such a degree, that one need not fear. The only thing we didn’t like post-sauce was the skin; Keh confirmed that in Asia they eat every part of the chicken, but after poaching, the skin becomes limp and rubbery, everything you do not want chicken skin to be.
The fried chicken came with sweet chili sauce; the tofu nuggets came with a different kind of soy based-sauce and the pork had a green sauce that was spicy and acidic and fragrant in the best possible way; it looked like a tomatillo salsa but of course it wasn’t; while we were told it had Thai green chilies, cilantro and vinegar in it, we tried without avail to guess what gave it its funk. It wasn’t fish sauce, and while Keh told us in a moment of weakness, he asked us to keep it a secret (and I will say that this writer, who knows a thing or two about food, had never heard of it).
We found the soup less interesting, but it too could be easily doctored up with the addition of more ginger and chilies, which they have on hand. We added some of the poached chicken to the soup, and with a bit of additional ginger and chilies, it was transformed into something an Asian grandmother might make.
Leaving Chick’n Rice without dessert would be a shame.
Keh called their dessert options an accident, in that they knew they wanted to offer a dessert, but had no idea what to do.
It was hot out in Thailand, as it often is, and they wandered into a market to see what they could get that would be cool and refreshing. They found the traditional sticky rice and mango, but with a scoop of coconut ice cream. That same dessert is on offer, with a base of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with a scoop of coconut, lychee or Thai iced tea ice cream on top. The ice cream comes from Polly Ann Ice Cream in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, and next to that green sauce for the pork was our favorite dish of the night. One wouldn’t go wrong by ordering any of the three flavors, but we definitely preferred the coconut or Thai iced tea over the lychee.