Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Midtown for chicken and rice, at a new spot from the chef at NoHo's Fish Cheeks.
Long before these newfangled food courts and salad chains became the lunchtime default for Midtown office drones, one of the most reliable blocks for grabbing something quick and reasonably good was 45th between Lex and Third, crowded with a dozen or so take-out spots running the gamut of world cuisine (at least what passed as such in this part of town in the mid 1980s). The names have all changed since I was last seeking sustenance around here, but somewhat surprisingly the block's primary purpose remains similar. And, as of last week, it gained a genuinely exciting newcomer, Gai Chicken and Rice.
For such a tiny place, and with just around four things on the menu, Gai Chicken and Rice arrives with some impressive credentials. The chef is Chat Suansilphong, whose Thai restaurant Fish Cheeks, known for its fiery fare, is a NoHo favorite. And Suansilphong's partners in the venture are Ace Watanasuparp and Chatchai Huadwattana, of Oboa noodles and the great Spot Dessert Bar, respectively. It's a team that knows how to make people happy with good food in a convivial setting.
Gai's interior design and signage is cute and contemporary, but you likely won't be staying long. Six stools at two counters—one with a view onto 45th Street—provide the only seating options. You order at a kiosk, which goes quickly when the menu is this short, then stand around waiting for your take-out order. I dined in for both of my meals, however, and was perfectly comfortable for the 20 minutes or so it took me to wolf these birds down.
As the name asserts, Gai Chicken and Rice serves exactly that, but rest assured you will not be bored eating here. The headliner is the Hainanese-style Steamed Chicken (Khao Man Gai) which, if you've never had this dish, may look simple but packs a punch. You can get either dark or white meat and, as always, the former is the better choice, though even the breast here is acceptably juicy and full of flavor. Both really just taste like chicken, but in such a fresh way that it feels almost like a revelation.
You can also eat your Gai fried, either Crispy (Gai-Todd) or Spicy (Gaio-Zabb). Both options use thigh meat and are equally satisfying. In fact, the biggest difference between the two might be the accompanying dipping sauce: Crispy gets a nice little Sweet Chili number, while Spicy gets a lively Jaew, though Suansilphong could really amp up the heat here.
All four dishes come with perfectly-cooked Ginger Rice and an undressed salad that mostly just adds a bit of crunch to things. Best of all is the small portion of clear Daikon Radish Soup, which uses a broth made from the cooking liquids as its base and, when sipped straight from the cup, is shockingly rich and bold. Definitely eat the fat slice of soaked-through radish in there too.
If it were 1986 and I was working nearby, I'd probably eat lunch at Gai Chicken Rice at least once a week. Worth checking out if you're looking for something new to eat over on the wide steps of one of those Park Avenue building plazas (do people still do that?).
Gai Chicken and RIce is located at 158 East 45th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, and is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. (gainyc.com)