There has been a flurry of buzz recently about Xiao Ye, a sliver of a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that would be easy to miss — except that you could just look for the gaggle of twenty-something Asians clogging up the narrow sidewalk, waiting for tables.
The prognosis of this Too-Cool-For-You Taiwanese comfort food restaurant that plasters the word “Dericious” above its kitchen and has christened its dishes with cutesy names that are also light jabs at Asians hasn’t always been good. Although chef Eddie Huang’s “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken” has gotten some raves in online reviews, the insatiable Gael Greene pronounced it too dry, “like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.” Last week, there was a final straw — Eddie (first known for Baohaus, the popular Taiwanese sandwich shop) announced on his blog, Fresh Off The Boat, that he was overhauling his menu after reading a lukewarm review on a New York food blog that expressed disappointment in Xiao Ye’s “normal” and generically flavored food.” As an experiment, Eddie, who calls his dishes “bootie call food” designed for late-night eating, has added items like Cheeto fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese to the menu.
I don’t disagree with the criticism — when Gael and I hiked over to the LES for a catchup dinner a few weeks ago, the place had both misses and hits. Midway through dinner, we even decided to order a few more dishes after wondering if perhaps we had just made some wrong choices.
I will say this, though — the restaurant has one shining spot that made this Singaporean transplant very happy: its Hainanese chicken rice (listed on the menu as “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken” for $15) is a delight.
In the 16 years that I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve searched eateries all over for acceptable versions of the incredible dishes of my home country. I’ve managed to find decent versions of chicken curry, satay, tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu that’s filled with julienned vegetables and drowned in spicy peanut sauce) and even oyster omelette, Teochew style.
Good Hainanese chicken rice, however, was more elusive. This dish basically consists of chicken (steamed, boiled or roasted) and paired with a fragrant oily rice that’s been steeped in a broth with chicken fat and vanilla-like pandan leaves and a phalanx of condiments — minced ginger, garlicky chili sauce and “dark sauce,” a Southeast Asian soy sauce that’s sweet and as thick as molasses. It may sound easy, but the combination is harder to pull off than you’d think.
In the years that I’ve eaten my way through America, I had never sampled a passable version of chicken rice. Xiao Ye’s isn’t a dead ringer for the versions you’ll find in Singaporean hawker centers, of course.
But it’s not bad. And trust me, that’s high praise from this finicky Singaporean.