Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice: Revisiting a Legend (Or Something Like It)

Few things provoke more heated and lengthy conversations in Singapore than where to find the best chicken rice in the country.

Whenever the topic of where to eat one of the city-state’s national dishes comes up, everyone has a favorite. (Mine, for the record, remains a tiny stall hidden away on the fifth floor of downtown Far East Plaza — in the 20 years that I’ve been going there, it’s never failed me.)

Among the names that pop up, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is always up there. This stall, which has been operating for years in the popular Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, is terrific, to be sure. The chicken is juicy and tender, the rice is sufficiently oily and packed with pandan, chicken fat and other flavors, and the chili sauce, zingy and divine.

Even so, it had been many years since I’d had any Tian Tian because the lines for the stall’s rice are often simply too long. So when I found out that the stall opened an outlet near my home on Singapore’s East Coast, I had to check it out …

Tian Tian has apparently been on an expansion tear since 2009, opening several restaurants across the country, each of which far eclipse the original stall in size. As you can see, its East Coast location takes up the entire first floor of a shophouse.

The chain has also been on a branding tear — just look at this big endorsement from Anthony Bourdain plastered on its door.

Normally, this would be a deterrent to me — if any hawker needs to tout its wares that much, the food’s probably not worth the calories. But it’s Tian Tian, after all. How bad could it be?

So, we walked in …

… and inspected the white and roast chickens hanging behind the counter.

And then we ordered a half chicken (Sing $14), asking for a mix of steamed and roast chicken with rice ($0.80 a plate).

The chicken was fairly tender but not as soft and juicy as I’d remembered. And despite the fact that we had a half chicken, there were far too few sliced cucumbers under our chicken. Additionally, the sauce that came with it was oddly thick, making for a corn-starchy gravy as opposed to a silky-thin sesame oil-tinged sauce that’s perfect for drizzling over your rice.

The big failing, however, was the rice.

Everyone knows that the chicken is actually the least important part of Hainanese chicken rice — what’s far more important is the rice itself and the condiments. The rice — cooked in chicken fat with grassy pandan leaves, garlic and more — should be so flavorful it can be eaten on its own. It should be firm to the bite and so slick with chicken fat or oil that you can see each grain encased in a sheen.

This Tian Tian’s rice was as mushy and flavorless as canned English peas.

The very garlicky and spicy chili sauce and accompanying minced ginger were both wonderful, however. (And if you doused enough of it on the rice, it almost made up its failings.)

The oyster sauce vegetables ($6 for a small plate) were nothing special but perfectly decent.

But the housemade barley was far too sweet — not enough barley, too much sugar.

Would we go back? Probably not. There are far too many legitimately good things to eat in Singapore without having to revisit a poor copy of an old legend.

I did, however, just read about a new chicken rice stall in Maxwell Road Hawker Centre: Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice, a stall set up by a disgruntled Tian Tian employee who makes chicken rice that may just be better than the original.

Now that certainly seems worth getting in line for.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, 12 Jalan Pari Burong, Singapore; +65.6448.0120; http://www.tiantianchickenrice.com/

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