If you’ve ever fought for chicken nuggets, you’ll recognize this scene — hands going everywhere in a torrent of frenetic energy the moment a paper takeout container filled with a pile of golden brown nugs arrives. That’s because there are never enough nuggets for the number of people, especially when the chicken bites are as good as the “cluckets” at this new Thai restaurant. Piping hot and dusted with a lemon-grassy chile spice mix, they didn’t even need dipping sauce.
It usually helps to order some French fries, but instead, we were staring down at mounds of white rice neatly wrapped in paper and set 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 khao man gai.
This new restaurant is all about chicken rice
Flying under the radar, this chicken centric Thai restaurant quietly opened this July in a small strip mall space on Thomas Road across the street from St. Joseph’s Hospital. It’s operated by Csairungsid and her aunt Sorada VanBlargan, who also owns a plant-based Thai spot Vegan House in downtown Phoenix.
Chick-A-Dee is the first restaurant I’ve seen in Phoenix that’s truly devoted to chicken rice, a centuries-old Chinese dish that became an international sensation by way of Singapore. VanBlargan said she was inspired to open the restaurant because she’d never seen anything like it in Arizona.
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Chicken rice is essentially boiled or poached chicken, chopped up into pieces and served plain with fragrant rice, fresh cucumbers and soy or chile dipping sauces. It doesn’t sound like much, but the light, clean chicken flavor is delicious.
The humble dish is essentially the same whether you find it piping hot at the Binh Duong Quan Vietnamese food stall inside Mekong Market or on the specials menu of a trendy Thai restaurant Glai Baan alongside a limey cocktail spiked with fish sauce. (Full disclosure, my brother Max is the bartender there, so I eat at Glai Baan quite a lot and the two of us have shared many a chicken rice at the now-closed Gourmet House of Hong Kong, where my stepmom became obsessed with the sides of ginger scallion sauce.)
There are many minor players, but the Tom Hanks of chicken rice is called Wenchang chicken from the Southern Chinese island of Hainan. 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 earned 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 list of the world’s 50 best foods, just above Canadian poutine at number 45.
In Thailand, the popular street food is found all over Bangkok by the name khao man gai, meaning “fatty rice chicken,” because the rice is steamed together with the oily chicken broth to create a savory synthesis of the two ingredients.
As noted on the wall-length explainer that graces the side of the dining room, Chick-A-Dee simmers its stock with herbs for 48-hours to create a supremely flavorful rice.
Go for the rice, stay for the Thai fried chicken
The khao man gai at Chick-A-Dee is quite fantastic. Fresh from its paper wrapper, the premium grade jasmine rice from Thailand was sumptuously moist, yet not overpowered by the chicken flavor. 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 perhaps a little lacking due to the fact that it had been chopped up into smaller slices and removed of all its fatty skin. Admittedly, my favorite part. This resulted in a leaner bite of chicken, whether you order it with just the 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 came not from the chicken itself, but from the array of sauces on offer, my favorite being the Thai traditional, which had the sweet funk of fermented soy bean, the Thai version of miso paste. A nice counterpoint was the sweet black sauce, a sugary soy sauce that you can pour directly over the whole plate.
As is customary, the chicken rice came paired with fresh cucumbers, cilantro and a delicate bowl of chicken broth for sipping between bites of chicken.
Overall it was a very different chicken rice than the skin-on, bonier varieties I’ve tasted around town. And it was also one of the best. But it was the fried delights that really wowed me. There were the aforementioned cluckets, but also piercing hot tom yum Thai Chick-A-Wings. You don’t need to get both. Either one will do, and they’re both excellent.
You could also skip the steamed chicken rice and get it fried instead. This is the pro-move. The chicken slices are laid out almost like pork katsu, but lighter and juicier, on a plate that still comes with the same rice, cucumbers and sauces.
Chicken isn’t the only thing that hits the fryer at Chick-A-Dee. The FBI is the last food item on the menu, and the best bite-for-bite. The fried banana is served with a plastic tub of housemade coconut ice cream. The fruit arrives with a thin crackly shell that gives way to a molten slice of banana. You’ll have to wait for the coconut ice cream to soften up a little, but it’s worth the wait.
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Where: 49 W. Thomas Road, Phoenix.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Price: Chicken and vegan chicken plates $12.50 to $16; sides and wings $5 to $8.
Details: 623-440-4750, chickadeeaz.com.
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