First, a definition: Kao mun gai is a Thai chicken and rice dish made with gently poached chicken and schmaltz-slicked, broth infused-rice. The humble plate of poultry and starch is of Chinese origin, but it is likely best known in Singapore, where it is called Hainese Chicken Rice and is referred to as the tiny country's national dish. Regardless of where it is served, kao mun gai falls into the category of healing comfort food; at its best it is a pure expression of chicken itself.
Kao mun gai barely made appearances on U.S. Thai menus until recently, but now the dish pops up on the menus of newer, foodie-focused Thai spots. (Portland's food-cart-turned-restaurant, Nong's Kao Mun Gai, might take some credit for this menu shift.) While traditionally made with a whole chicken, the plates of kao mun gai served in the U.S. are typically made with single, boneless chicken breasts. As long as they're poached gently and served skin-on, chicken breasts are a surprisingly good choice; the rise of sous vide cooking has made it possible to serve the cut without drying it out.
Kin Khao (55 Cyril Magnin, 362-7456, kinkhao.com) and Hawker Fare (2300 Webster, Oakland, (510) 832-8896, hawkerfare.com) two of the newest Thai and Southeast Asian restaurants in the Bay Area, both have a version of kao mun gai on their menus. Does one shine above the other?
Kao Mun Gai (chicken fat rice, ginger-poached chicken, Pim's secret sauce, served with intense chicken consommé); $15
Kin Khao opened earlier this spring to much food media fanfare. The restaurant's owner, Pim Techamuanvivit, is a local favorite in her own right. Her blog, Chez Pim, was an early standout, and her jam recipes delighted the judges at the 2012 Good Food Awards. A few weeks back, Kin Khao was a finalist in Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant awards, and the crowds have responded accordingly.
The Union Square restaurant's menu celebrates the intensity of authentic Thai cuisine, serving unabashedly funky dishes to an appreciative crowd. Its kao mun gai is buried in the rice section of the menu, past the tempting curries, noodles, and meat dishes, but it is definitely worth attention. The chicken breast is perfectly cooked, still tender, silky, and just on the other side of pink. Its skin could have been more substantial, but the texture of the meat more than makes up for the lack of extra fat.
Alongside the chicken comes the generous scoop of chicken fat rice. After the chicken, the rice itself is a bit of a disappointment. It has chicken fat aplenty, but little in the way of seasoning. A drizzle of Pim's secret sauce (likely a combination of chiles, ginger, and soybean paste) and a spoonful of the chicken consommé, however, changes the game. The consommé is outstanding, tasting of chicken, ginseng, and a wallop of salty, umami-rich fish sauce all at once. It is intended to be sipped after finishing the chicken, but I'll urge you to ignore the instructions and add it to each and every bite.
Kao Mun Gai (poached chicken served with chicken broth rice, salted mung bean sauce, fresh cucumber, and cilantro); $12
James Syhabout originally opened Hawker Fare as a rice bowl-focused restaurant. Over time, he has transformed it to a lively celebration of Southeast Asian street food, dishing out a dizzying array of pork- and shrimp-paste filled small plates. His kao mun gai was a highlight of the original menu, and he's (thankfully) kept it there.
Hawker Fare's version is more austere than Kin Khao's. There's no consommé, and the soy bean sauce is little more than an extra dose of salt. (I usually skip it.) Still, the chicken is poached with precision and is served underneath a blanket of tender, fat-slicked skin. And the rice? It is great enough to eat as its own meal, sans sauce or any other accoutrement. The grains walk the line between sticky and fluffy, and taste gloriously of salt and chicken broth. Some customers order a fried egg to top the dish, but it is ultimately unnecessary. The copious cucumber slices and cilantro sprigs are a far better match for the chicken.
Rice: Hawker Fare
Sauce: Kin Khao
Extras: Kin Khao
Value: Hawker Fare
The winner? San Francisco takes it this time: The extra bowl of chicken consommé elevates Kin Khao's dish to great heights.