Some call it porridge. A more medieval term for it is gruel. In Chinatown it is known as congee; white rice boiled with water, lots of water, until it becomes a thick, hot cereal or soup, depending on what you do with it.
For many who live in Chinatown here in New York it is a breakfast staple. In the last few years, congee's popularity has burgeoned beyond Chinatown and now people like me travel to the congested, cramped, sometimes ripe streets of lower Manhattan to get their congee fix.
Congee lovers are often blindly loyal to their favorite places. Me, I keep an open mind. I have, however, narrowed down the crowded Chinatown field to four serious contenders to the congee crown and here, in two parts, using my vast background and experience in the art of overcooked rice, I will ultimately reveal the best congee in Chinatown.
For this first round, I was accompanied by one of my offspring; the 13-year-old, Luigi. Though he is a mere novice when it comes to the glories of congee, despite his youth, Luigi is a very accomplished eater. What he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in exuberance. I had complete confidence that he would remain unbiased and not be swayed by perks such as complimentary hot tea or a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie. I was sure he would take his task seriously. Our first destination was the appropriately-named Congee.
Located on the Bowery, Congee, I knew was worthy of its name. When we arrived, just before the lunch time bustle, there was only a Chinese family with very young children at one of the other tables. The baby was making a racket in the otherwise quiet restaurant and I noticed, doing its best to decorate its pink, fat cheeks with spoonfuls of gruel.
I told Luigi we had to have the congee. If he wanted something else to offset it, he could, but to be careful and pace himself; we had another congee place to judge.
There were a number of interesting congee offerings including snail and pig's liver, abalone and frog, and dried scallop and gingko nut, but I wanted to keep it relatively simple. I needed to judge the congee on its own merits without too many exotic ingredients, so I went with the sliced pork and preserved egg variation.
Luigi scoffed at my suggestion of the "healthy vegetarian" congee, instead choosing the beef. Along with it, we had an order of "fried dough," the usual, bland but deep fried, accompaniment to the porridge.
The congee came out steaming in pots with wooden handles. We stirred, trying to cool it down not wanting to scald our tongues and the roofs of our mouths thus immediately nullifying either of us as legitimate judges.
The inside of my mouth, however, after years of impatiently ingesting hot pizza, soup, and other blistering foods, has developed a tough, asbestos-like coating. That hard shell made it easier for me to begin the congee tasting sooner than Luigi. What I tasted I liked. The congee was not overly heavy; the balance of liquid to rice tipping slightly to the liquid. But the pork with preserved egg added a nice hearty supplement.
Luigi struggled at first with the big pieces of beef; trying to cut through them with spoon and chopstick but to no avail. Using his sharpened incisors, he was able to gnaw the beef apart and enjoy, so he said, the rest of his congee, dipping the somewhat stale pieces of fried dough into the porridge and scooping it into his mouth.
I wouldn't have had any difficulty finishing off the bowl of congee, but we had another place to visit. Using about all the self control I could muster, I signaled for the waiter to bag up our leftovers, and we made our way to our next destination.
Big Wong King
67 Mott Street
I admit to being partial to Big Wong. It's been one of my "go to" spots in Chinatown for a very long time. And whenever I go, it's hard to resist the congee.
I noticed immediately that Big Wong, located in the heart of the tourist mecca of Chinatown on Mott Street, had higher prices for their congee. At Congee, the standard bowls we ordered were $3.95. At Big Wong, most were a dollar, maybe two higher. I knew I couldn't let price influence my evaluation. The congee had to stand alone regardless of what it cost.
I ordered the roast pork while Luigi went with the chopped beef. Like at Congee, we also ordered the "fried dough."
"I'm worried that Chinatown will change soon," Luigi professed to me.
"Why is that?" I asked him.
"There are a lot of old people here," he said.
I nodded. There were. In fact, we were sharing a round table with three seniors.
"But there are young people too," I said, gesturing to many who were also dining at Big Wong.
"I hope it doesn't die," he said. "I like Chinatown."
Our bowls arrived. The steam was flowing from them. These were even hotter than what we got at Congee. My asbestos mouth would be no match for the boiling cauldron in front of me.
The fried dough, a long, fresh cruller, kept us busy until the congee cooled down somewhat. When I could brave it, I took a spoonful. Mine was rich with roasted pork, the red barbecue glaze on the pork tinting the white of the soup turning it a bronze-like color. Luigi's had crumbled ground beef. Both were sprinkled with cilantro adding a pleasant garnish to them.
I liked the congee at Big Wong better than what I experienced at Congee. It was heartier; more rice to water and stuffed with meat. Luigi disagreed. "Congee is better," he said definitively.
"I don't know, I like Big Wong's even though it is a few more dollars."
We were at a standstill. He favored one, while I the other. How would we resolve this?
"Well, the fried dough is better here, isn't it?" I said.
He agreed, but we weren't on this mission to judge fried dough.
They say a tie is like kissing your sister? I never had a sister, so I wouldn't know. Maybe Part Two of the Chinatown Congee Wars will help clear up the muddled picture I've created.
Until then, feel free to chime in with your own opinions though I will not be swayed in mine.