Raymond Kiang wakes up at 5 a.m. each day to boil his chickens. He picks out his favorites, then plunges them into a cauldron of simmering broth and spices. When they emerge an hour later, they’re pale and smell like ginger. It happens over and over until all 25 of his poached chickens for the day are ready. In a full commercial kitchen, Kiang could probably get more sleep. For now, he does this day after day from a small stall in a Manhattan food court.
Most New Yorkers don’t know him by name, but Kiang is poached chicken royalty. His father, Kiang Joon Toh, helped create one of Singapore’s most famous dishes: an order of Hainan chicken rice that costs $20. It’s considered one of the most expensive around.
Hainan chicken has a range of preparations. Singapore claims it as its national dish, but it’s popular in Malaysia, where the rice is rolled into balls and served on the side. The chicken is usually poached, but in Thailand, it’s sometimes steamed.
At Lou Yau Kee, a new stall in the Urbanspace food hall near Union Square, Kiang makes Hainan chicken the way his family taught him. He slices the meat into neat, boneless pieces and arranges them over a bed of rice that has been seasoned with chicken broth. A cup with more broth, for chicken dipping, comes on the side. No other sauce is needed.
Kiang moved to New York City from Singapore last year. He was hired as a consultant to train the chefs at Hainan Jones, a popular stall in the Urban Hawker food hall. They’re now making some of the best Hainan chicken in Manhattan.
When Kiang’s contract expired earlier this year, he opened Lou Yau Kee. How is the Hainan chicken different from uptown? It’s $2 cheaper, but otherwise, “it’s the same,” he says. The poached chicken is comparable, and both places plate “their version” with the same sides. I would know. I ate them side by side.
There’s one important difference at Lou Yau Kee, and it’s part of the reason the stall is worth its own visit. The restaurant sells fried chicken, a recipe from Kiang’s great uncle: strips of lemony breaded chicken thigh over rice with a side of sweet chile sauce. It’s probably the best thing on the menu.
Kiang has had a slower start than at Urban Hawker, a highly publicized food hall connected to Anthony Bourdain. Lou Yau Kee was empty for its first three months, he says: He watched from behind the counter as customers lined up for Baja burritos and chicken Caesar wraps.
Slowly, he’s finding a crowd. William Wong, a Queens resident, stumbled upon the food stall earlier this month and ordered the Hainan chicken. “It’s very easy to get wrong,” he says of the dish. Poach the chicken for too long, and the meat loses its flavor. Undercook it, and there might be blood.
Lou Yau Kee hit the sweet spot, he says: “It’s perfect.”