A Country-By-Country Tour Of SoCal's Porridge Scene
Hearty and infinitely variable, rice porridge is a popular dish throughout Asia, where it goes by many names and has many preparations. Commonly made with water or chicken stock, it can be zhuzhed up with meats, seasonings and vegetables but at its most basic, the dish is made by simmering rice until it thickens. The consistency varies from version to version. Some porridges are as thin as a soup. Others are thick enough to stand a spoon in.
With Southern California's weather cooling down — maybe only by a few degrees but it's what passes for autumn around here so we'll take it — this is the perfect season for rice porridge. Simple and nourishing, it's a recuperative aide often prescribed to sickies. It's also a comfort food, a common breakfast dish, a solid lunch and a late-night snack that's perfect for soaking up booze.
While chefs such as Minh Phan at Porridge + Puffs and Mei Lin at Nightshade are getting creative with fancy iterations of the dish, we're focusing on homestyle versions that can be found all around Los Angeles and Orange County.
Home to Cambodia Town, Long Beach is the place to go for Cambodian porridge, known as bobar. Opened in 1985, Phnom Penh Noodle Shack is best known for its noodle dishes, as its name suggests. However, it also serves seven rice porridges, including a meat-free version. All are topped with cilantro, garlic and green onions. Mo's Special features ground pork, beef meatballs and shredded chicken while the House Special includes pork offal and blood cubes. Need more carbs? Order a bread stick (cha quai) to go with your bowl. Be prepared to wait at the popular spot.
- Phnom Penh Noodle Shack: 1644 Cherry Ave., Long Beach. 562-433-0032.
The San Gabriel Valley is swimming in congee. You'll find it everywhere from hole-in-wall joints to dim sum palaces. For years, Delicious Food Corner, which now has four locations under two different operators (it's complicated), has been the spot for Cantonese/Hong Kong-style congee. Waits of up to 30 minutes aren't uncommon at breakfast, when people flock here for the special — a bowl of congee, a side of fried noodles or steamed rice noodle rolls and a cup of hot coffee or tea. You can choose from 17 types of congee tinged with ginger and white pepper. Alice's Kitchen, recently opened by Alice Chu and her husband, the founders of Delicious Food Corner, is a new challenger to the throne. Their breakfast special includes a Chinese donut (you tiao) and your pick of 16 different congees. At both restaurants, you'll find the classic combo of pork with preserved egg. For a more refined — and more expensive — congee, head to Huo Zhou Wang in San Gabriel's Hilton Plaza. The restaurant focuses on live seafood such as lobster, crab and abalone, plucked fresh from on-site tanks.
- Delicious Food Corner: locations in Hacienda Heights, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel.
- Alice's Kitchen: 560 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park. 626-898-1828.
- Huo Zhou Wang: 227 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 148B, San Gabriel. 626-872-1102.
Bubur ayam, is Indonesia's version of chicken porridge. At Monrovia's Noodle Stars, run by the former operators of West Covina's popular Janty Noodle, you'll find a thick porridge with steamed, skin-on, light and dark chicken meat. It's topped with crisp wonton strips, yellow chicken broth, green onions and fried garlic. For those on the Westside, we hear Simpang Asia in Palms will add the dish in February as part of a seasonal menu, so check with them.
- Noodle Stars : 344 W. Huntington Dr., Monrovia. 626-408-5102.
Known as juk, Korean porridge is a generally dense and risotto-esque. Bon Juk, a popular porridge chain started in Korea, serves a particularly thick version. Choose from 16 types of porridge on a menu that's divided into two sections. One of the most unique options on the "nutritional" side of the roster is the #8, with smoked salmon, finely chopped carrots, cucumbers and scallions. You should also consider the samgae (chicken with ginseng and herbs), the tuna with vegetables and the octopus with kimchi. On the "traditional healthy" half of the menu, the featured dish is abalone porridge, considered good for the liver i.e. it's an ideal hangover helper. If you're a diehard abalone porridge fan, make a beeline for nearby Mountain Cafe, a 24-hour joint where it's not just the specialty, it's the only porridge on the menu. Served with a raw egg cracked on top, the abalone porridge here is slightly on the runny side. At both restaurants, you'll get your fill of banchan to go with your juk.
- Bon Juk: 3551 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown. 213-380-2248.
- Mountain Cafe: 3470 W. 6th St., Koreatown. 213-487-7615.
Similar to Cantonese congee but typically studded with chunks of bright orange sweet potato, Taiwanese congee is extremely mellow. Lu's Garden has been serving Taiwanese congee since 1989, making it one of the oldest restaurants in the SGV. Even after 30 years, the San Gabriel location (there's another outpost in City of Industry) is still a bustling spot for lunch and late-night dining. Step up to the counter with its dozens of trays and pick three sides from — marinated chicken, braised pork, Taiwanese sausage, assorted offal, belt fish, mackerel, pike, anchovies, bitter melon, soy sauced eggplant, braised or sour bamboo shoots, various egg and tofu preparations — then wait for your porridge to be brought tableside. Don't look for the usual condiment caddy of soy sauce, pepper, chili oil, etc. The porridge here is unadorned, just as grandma might have insisted.
- Lu's Garden: 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. 626-280-5883.
- Lu's Garden: 17829 Colima Rd., City of Industry. 626-964-5709.
Long-time breakfast spot Siam Sunset opens at 6 a.m. and serves five different kinds of Thai porridge, known as chok: chicken, pork, duck, shrimp and catfish. Thai chok has a similar texture to porridges served in neighboring countries. Shredded ginger, chopped scallions and pepper top the mix and, if you want, you can get an egg cracked into your piping hot bowl.
- Siam Sunset: 5265 Sunset Blvd., East Hollywood. 323-467-8935.
While many of the San Gabriel Valley's Vietnamese restaurants serve chao, if you want a porridge specialist, head to Orange County. Chao Dem is a busy, humble and homey spot with tables covered in wax paper pulled off a roll. Of the 21 selections, one of the most unique is Singapore frog porridge with nuggets of frog meat swimming in a chicken stock-infused bowl of porridge. Topped with cilantro and green onion, the rice has been cooked until it has almost completely broken down and blossomed.
- Chao Dem: 9754 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove. 714-363-8897.