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Fried chicken fans are flocking to Hacienda Heights. Is this new viral shop worth the hype?

Fried chicken fillet from J&G Fried Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
The original fried chicken fillet from J&G Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)
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The first time I visited the J&G Fried Chicken restaurant in Hacienda Heights, I left without any chicken. It was around 2 p.m. on a Saturday and the line of customers spilled out the door and onto the walkway outside. I estimated about 50 people waiting, not counting the people inside.

The restaurant is the first U.S. location of the popular Taiwanese fried chicken chain, opened in partnership with 85 Degrees Bakery Cafe. It started on Jiguang Street in Taichung in 1973 and has grown to include more than 400 stores worldwide. The April opening sparked a frenzy with nearly constant lines for the restaurant’s signature popcorn chicken, chicken sandwiches and chicken fillets.

But when I saw the crowd from my car, I aborted the mission.

Yet the lure of a flattened fried chicken thigh the size of a pancake is persistent and strong. I returned around 1 p.m. on a Tuesday determined to get my chicken.

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My hopes surged when I found only six people in line. How those six people managed to take about 5 minutes each to order from a menu that boasts just five varieties of fried chicken is beyond me. Well after I stepped through the door, I was finally clutching my bag of chicken.

Chicken cartilage from J&G Fried Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
Chicken cartilage from J&G Fried Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

I went for the fillet first ($7.99), tucked away in a paper sleeve. The two women at the table next to me were each halfway through their fillets, the paper protecting their fingers as they ate and chatted. It wasn’t as enormous as the ones you’ll find at the 626 Night Market or the actual night markets in Taiwan. I’m still lamenting the loss of the Hot Star vendor at Smorgasburg, whose specialty was the XXL chicken cutlet.

The J&G version is an adequate substitute with its vast jagged terrain sheathed in teeny golden spheres of shattery coating. The chicken thigh is pounded thin, like a colossal piece of popcorn chicken that went splat on the kitchen counter. The crunch factor is high, but it’s still juicy enough to drip when you rip off a corner. Though I ordered the fillet spicy, there was only a whisper of heat from what tasted like white pepper rather than chile.

The popcorn chicken ($5.99) is encased in a delicate batter that brought to mind McDonald’s chicken nuggets and the funnel cake at the state fair. Each piece is a tad sweet and erupts in a mixture of juice and hot grease.

Original chicken sandwich from J&G Fried Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
Original chicken sandwich from J&G Fried Chicken in Hacienda Heights.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times )

The original chicken sandwich ($5.99) is on par with your favorite fast food fried chicken sandwich: Soft bun, sizable chicken fillet, dill pickle chips and mayo-based sauce. If you were paying attention to the fast food fried chicken wars and need to know, the chicken in the Popeyes sandwich is crunchier.

There’s a yuzu variety ($7.49) I plan to try next time, and a smoked salmon chicken sandwich ($8.99) that I wasn’t able to order on a Tuesday. If slices of smoked salmon draped over a fried chicken fillet with a slice of pineapple, a heap of cabbage slaw, some red onions and honey mustard sauce sounds appealing, visit on a weekend, which is when it’s available.

The cartilage ($6.99) is the chicken I’d be willing to wait the longest for. You get the satisfaction of popcorn chicken with the extra gentle crunch of cartilage.

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If you want to avoid the crowds, carve out some time during the week for your visit. Unless you want that smoked salmon and pineapple chicken sandwich. For that, you’ll need to wait in line.

Where to get your XXL Taiwanese chicken cutlets

J&G Fried Chicken, 1631 S. Azusa Ave., Hacienda Heights, (626) 363-4467, www.jgfriedchickenusa.com

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