Skip to main content
Food & Drink

In search of Singapore’s beloved national dish in San Francisco

Chicken dish
Le Soleil’s Hainanese Chicken Rice platter is only served on Mondays and Fridays at this Inner Richmond restaurant. | Source: Eddie Sun/The Standard

The Standard's Eddie Sun answers a reader question for Ask The Standard: Where can you find the best Hainanese chicken in the city?

Just about every Asian country settled by Chinese immigrants has a version of this deceptively simple dish of poached chicken and seasoned rice, usually served with cucumber and chili garnishes. Adapted by chefs from the small tropical island of Hainan province, Hainanese chicken rice originally involved a particular breed of free-range chicken that was said to roam the island, feeding on coconuts.

Regional twists were added as it spread across South Asia, from Vietnam to Singapore—where it’s known as a national dish—to Malaysia to Thailand. But the basics remain the same: A whole chicken is poached in stock until tender, then sliced and served with rice flavored by fatty chicken stock and drippings and side sauce, usually with some combination of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, cooking wine, scallions and/or chili. The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once described the dish as “so beautiful, so austere and simple.”

Yet a recent Yelp search for “Hainanese chicken rice” in San Francisco turned up just six results. Undaunted, The Standard set out on a citywide Hainanese chicken rice taste test. As a starting point, we are suggesting three worthy establishments that serve contrasting versions of this iconic dish.

Logo for Ask The Standard

Le Soleil

People eat at tables in a restaurant
The Inner Richmond restaurant Le Soleil only serves its Hainanese Chicken Rice on Mondays and Fridays. | Source: Eddie Sun/The Standard

Hainanese chicken rice isn’t even on the menu at this Vietnamese restaurant in the Inner Richmond District, but at lunchtime on a recent Friday, almost every table seemed to be enjoying it. A hostess explained that regulars know Le Soleil serves chicken rice as a special Mondays and Fridays. In fact, the restaurant recommends calling days ahead to reserve your plate because it usually sells out by midday.

Le Soleil’s version is served cold, and it tastes fresh and savory, with an oily sheen from the fat rendered during cooking. The moist bird pairs well with the pleasantly chewy rice. The elements come together with a Chinese-inspired sauce of soy, vinegar and cooking wine, binding the richness of the chicken with the fragrance of the rice.

Gai Chicken Rice

Chicken dish
GAI's chicken rice comes with heaping portions, as well as a side soup and pickled cucumbers. It has locations in the Castro District and Downtown. | Source: Eddie Sun/The Standard

Gai caters to more of a midday lunch break on-the-go crowd. With two locations, at its cozy storefront in the Castro and Downtown on Market Street, it offers a simple menu that stars “classic, timeless and comforting Asian-poached chicken rice." The food comes fast, the portions are large and it’s all served in a takeout container, whether you’re actually getting it to-go or dining in, for a reasonable $13. 

The chicken is tender, and the rice is garlicky and flavorful, if a little overseasoned with chicken stock. An order comes with pickled cucumbers, which provide a burst of sweetness and acidity to the otherwise subdued flavors. 

Overall, Gai Chicken Rice is a convenient, tasty alternative to ordering a salad from Sweetgreen to eat back at your desk.

Dabao Singapore

Chicken dish
The takeout tray of chicken with bok choy and containers of rice and soup from Dabao Singapore are pictured. Dabao's virtual kitchen is only open from Thursdays to Saturdays for delivery and takeout. | Source: Eddie Sun/The Standard

Gather your friends if you’re ordering Hainanese chicken rice from Dabao Singapore.

This “Singapore hawker centre style virtual kitchen” offers delivery and takeout only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and its version of the dish comes family-size. For $80, you get a whole chicken, bok choy and a couple of large containers of rice, soup and side sauces. There’s some prep work involved––an instruction slip advises reheating the dish by popping the chicken in an oven and microwaving the rice. 

Singapore-born chef Emily Lim, who had worked as a cook in various San Francisco restaurants, started Dabao Singapore during the pandemic as an “homage to her female ancestors” who made a living peddling food back in Singapore, according to the kitchen’s website. She has continued the virtual preorder model to reduce food waste and lower overhead.

This kitchen’s DIY Hainanese chicken rice is a solid option, especially for events or parties, even if it doesn’t replace the experience of enjoying the finished dish fresh from the kitchen.

Of course, nothing in San Francisco is quite like ordering Hainanese chicken rice from a bustling hawker stall in Southeast Asia. But the soul of this dish—like a hamburger, or a bowl of ramen—is adaptation. You can dress it up or make it fast and simple. It’s always tasty.