With my trusty congee taster, Luigi, away on a fresh air fund break, I needed an aide to help me finalize the war I started a couple of weeks ago. I knew no other worthy accomplice than Zio. And he was more than ready for the task.
On an overcast morning, I found him loitering next to Great N.Y. Noodletown on the Bowery in Chinatown. One of the elderly women that Luigi had observed were so prevalent in Chinatown ( see The Chinatown Congee Wars: Part One) was sitting next to where Zio was standing, selling umbrellas, a handkerchief covering her mouth. Was she ahead of the whooping cough curve, or was the precaution a leftover from the bird flu epidemic? Zio didn't seem to mind the close proximity and as soon as I arrived, we went into the restaurant.
Neither Zio nor I were strangers to Great N.Y. Noodletown though when I visited it was not usually for congee. I do recall ordering the comforting porridge at least once, but my memory of it is dim. It must have made enough of an impression, however, for me to include it in this very serious challenge.
Using all our resolve, Zio and I tried not to peek at the salt baked shrimp, the roast pig on rice, the squid with flowering chives, the triple delight noodles and all the other of Noodletown's greatest hits found on the menu. Instead we focused on congee only.
Knowing how good the shrimp usually is at Noodletown, I ordered a bowl of shrimp congee. Zio, also sticking to seafood, went with the sliced fish.
"What the...?" Zio gasped when a cruller appeared on our table. I had ordered them thinking I should compare Noodletown's cruller with those at Congee and Big Wong.
"It goes with the congee," I explained.
But he was skeptical. He broke off a piece and ate it. "It's like a grease sponge," he said, demonstrating by squeezing the cruller and showing me the oil slick on his finger.
"Yeah, that's why it's a perfect accompaniment to congee. The grease works as a foil to the starch of the congee," was the justification I offered, though not with much conviction.
Our bowls arrived. The steam from them formed a cumulus-like cloud around Zio's rotund face. "You can't eat this for about ten minutes," he said. "You'll fry the inside of your mouth."
"That's what the cruller is for," I said. "Dip it in, like a doughnut."
Zio scoffed at the idea.
Less than ten minutes later we were sipping the brutally hot gruel. The thin, rice porridge was infused with the flavor of the shrimp. And the pieces of shrimp--I counted six in my bowl--were bigger than golf balls.
Zio soon had his head buried in his congee. Using his spoon like a skilled surgeon, he methodically brought the hot soup and pieces of sliced fish to his open mouth, taking it in masterfully.
I watched his performance for a moment and then said, "You might not want to finish it."
He picked his head up. "Huh?"
"We've got another place to try after this," I reminded him. "Save room. If you eat too much here, you won't be able to give the other contestant a fair shake."
He thought for a moment. "You're right," he said and put down his spoon.
Reluctantly, we had the bowls wrapped up; our waiter sliding on plastic gloves in front of us, and then pouring each bowl into a take out container.Though the congee at Noodletown was light, I could feel the density of the two enormous shrimps I ate while walking up the Bowery to our next destination. I hoped the exercise would offer relief and lessen the load there. There was still more work to do.
For sticklers, Congee Village might not be considered a Chinatown restaurant. Located a few blocks north of Delancey Street, you could say the restaurant was technically in the Lower East Side. But Chinese-run restaurant supply and lighting stores populated the street northward, along with an abundance of signage in Chinese; enough to figure Congee Village within Chinatown's expanding sprawl.
A full bar and a trickling waterfall greeted us as we entered the very ornate Congee Village. This was a complete departure from the grungy, yet refreshingly familiar confines just experienced at Noodletown. We were given a table in the dark, burnished wood laden dining room complete with large, family-sized booths and a flat screen television tuned, at this hour, to NY1 news. There were tablecloths and wine glasses on the tables yet the napkins were of the thin, paper variety.
"What a tourist trap," Zio muttered.
I looked around. The few tables that were occupied were with groups of Chinese couples and families, and unless they were out of town Chinese, I had to disagree.
"Looks like a local favorite to me," I said.
The menu, tourist trap or not, was impressive. Despite the name of the restaurant, we had to flip through a number of colorful pages to find the congee. When we did, the prices, waterfall and full bar notwithstanding, were actually lower than Noodletown's.
Sticking to the seafood theme of the day, I ordered the "crab porridge," while Zio this time choose squid. If there were crullers, I just did not have the courage to order them.
The bowls arrived and looked like what Luigi and I had at Congee; pots with long handles. Smaller bowls were given out making it easier to share.
A whole, blue crab was in my bowl, chopped into a few pieces. Like the shrimp infused the congee at Noodletown, the crab definitely added flavor to the bowl here at Congee Village. The melding of the shellfish broth with the rice congee combined perfectly. To eat the crab, however, I had to fish out the pieces and pick the shells apart with my fingers. It was messy work and the thin napkins weren't helping. But the congee was so good, even Zio's crude, distasteful remark about what my fingers looked like coated in crab shells and overcooked rice gruel didn't deter from my enjoyment of it.
Zio fished a piece of squid out of his congee. It was scored with numerous criss-cross patterns. He examined it. "Why do they get fancy with the squid," he complained.
"Does it taste good?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's fantastic," Zio said.
"Then stop whining."
I sampled a piece and though it was tougher than I like, it too worked amazingly with the bland congee.
There would be no leftovers here. We could finish the congee and not worry about having to sample another. The crab remains were scattered across my small plate.
"So what do you think?" I asked Zio.
"We really gotta pick a winner?"
I thought for a moment. I didn't want to either. Each of the four congee joints had their merits. At Congee, I would stick with the pork and preserved egg while at Big Wong, how could I resist the roast pork congee? There was no denying that Noodletown's shrimp congee was a one of a kind. And here, at Congee Village, I'll forever swear by their crab porridge.
Yes, I know I've copped out. I couldn't crown a champion. I'm just no good at these things -- these numbered lists where you have to rank your favorites, whatever they may be. Congee preference is subjective. No matter how expert my opinion, I really can't change someone else's taste inclination. And in this case, one man's congee just might be another man's gruel.