Jackpot Chicken Rice for the soul

Patois chef Craig Wong devotes his latest restaurant to Hainanese comfort dish

First, for the Patois fans: No, Craig Wong is not abandoning Dundas West’s favourite Caribbean-Asian snack shack.

Wong’s vibrant inaugural restaurant – home of the Jamaican patty Double Down, Chinese pineapple bun burgers and some of the best fried chicken in town – has been a quiet, graffiti-coated shell since June, when a fire next door, later ruled arson, prompted the building’s closure.

“It was a really disappointing time for us,” Wong says. “Nobody on our team did anything wrong. It was just taken from us. That was the part that was kind of hard to get over.”

Where other restaurateurs would just find a new space, and likely as not let their staff twiddle their thumbs in the meantime, Wong immediately pledged to rebuild. 

“I’m never giving up that location – I love it. It feels weird to put a Patois sign somewhere else.”

In the days after the fire, Wong hastily slapped together a summer outlet at the Union Station Summer Market, which kept his staff shored up while he started thinking about what his next move might be. After all that stress and upheaval, Wong says, his mind eventually turned to simple, classic comfort food – specifically, Hainanese chicken rice, a beloved dish from his youth.

Which brings us to 318 Spadina, formerly Lucky Red, now the home of Jackpot Chicken Rice. 

Wong quietly bought the storefront off Lucky Red’s David Chau shortly after its closure and turned it around in just five and a half weeks, managing to get his employees back in action right after the market closed.

He also managed not to lose a single staff member. Huzzah!

The restaurant’s titular dish – traditionally, a dead-simple combination of poached chicken on a bed of rice seasoned with chicken stock – is at the heart of the place, but Wong’s uncanny sense for fusion pairing means there’s a lot more to the food here.

“You have one dish that comes from a tropical island at the southern point of China, and it’s made famous in places like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong,” he explains breathlessly. “All of these places have their own version of Hainanese chicken rice. We’re bringing in French influence as well – Danai (Hongwanishkul, Patois’s chef de cuisine) has experience in fine-dining French cuisine, as do I.”

Wong’s version of straight-up chicken rice begins with antibiotic- and hormone-free Ontario chickens, which he simmers in a thermal bath held at precisely the same temperature to keep them from getting tough, and rice that gets stir-fried in schmaltz (chicken fat) before steaming for a pearly-smooth, pilau-like texture. The meat is super-soft and boneless, the perfect vehicle for an accompanying ginger-scallion sauce the rice is stupendously addictive.

“It sounds so simple, but it has massive flavour, and when you start adding all the different sauces, it’s really a satisfying thing,” Wong says.

Even more chickeny goodness comes in the form of a little bowl of that richly flavoured stock, topped off with fried shallots and a few cubes of winter melon. If you wish, you can get your bird roasted in a Chinese BBQ oven and topped with a sticky, sweet-and-spicy Thai-style glaze, or add a big wafer of crispy chicken skin sprinkled with dehydrated Sriracha – or even foie gras, if you’re fancy.

Herbivores should avoid getting scared off by the “chicken” in the name, lest they miss out on a killer vegan dish: seaweed-broth-infused rice that, with an unearthly and inexplicable buttery flavour, rivals its carnivorous counterpart. That comes with melt-in-your-mouth braised soft tofu, a huge hunk of crispy yuba skin and a little dish of vegan XO sauce – Hongwanishkul’s own creation – that’s absolute magic on top of that rice.

Rounding things out: a bowl of marvellous little whitebait coated in fluffy batter, sprinkled with homemade furikake seasoning (crushed nori and sesame seeds) and accompanied with Kewpie mayo dip, or shrimp and coconut-black sesame chips with a satay-style peanut dip.

In short, it’s flavourful, rib-sticking food – the perfect thing to get us through the winter, or at least until whenever Patois reopens its doors again.

318 Spadina, at Dundas, 416-792-8628, jackpotchickenrice.com

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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