Does anybody hate fried rice? If they do, we assume that some sort of repressed, emotional event is responsible. Did dad have a few too many mai tais at your Benihana birthday party, and crash face-first onto a steaming hot teppan? Or maybe you just ate too much of it as a kid. But for the rest of us, fried rice is pure, unadulterated comfort food. Steamed rice, fried on a hot surface, along with pretty much any ingredients you want. For today's food fight, we're ignoring the more well-known Chinese restaurants, and going for something a little different. We're pitting the fried rice at Honey Pig -- made from leftover Korean BBQ scraps -- against the Peruvian version at the ever-popular Mario's. Who will win? Let's find out.
We began at Honey Pig, the spacious Koreatown restaurant, known to those who don't read Korean as, "the place with the pig on its sign." (And across the street from the place with the cow on its sign.) So before we could get to the fried rice, we sat down to the smoking, dome-shaped grill, which was already cooking up our panchan of kimchi and bean sprouts. Then we ate "pork black belly," beef slice, quite a few mushrooms, and some short ribs, all washed down with a bit of beer. Finally, our server arrived with some rice -- stained red from "Korean hot sauce" he told us -- and a variety of leafy greens. They were tossed onto our grill, where they intermingled with all of the remaining meat and vegetable scraps. Then we were told to wait a few minutes, as our rice developed a crispy bottom crust.
So we waited. This, we assumed, would be excellent. All of that fat, the kimchi bits, and the spicy rice would make for a perfect conclusion. Those lovely starch grains would soak up all of the Korean BBQ flavors which usually drip away into obscurity. But then we ate, and disappointment set in. While the few crispy parts were great, the taste was lacking. Much of the rice was mushy, with little flavor coming through other than a mild, flat, heat. It would have been a very sad end to the meal, had they not brought us each a parting gift, in the form of small, pink, pig-shaped lighters. Two small flames shoot out of holes in its snout.
Our next stop was Mario's Peruvian. There was, of course, a wait. But eventually, we ordered their version of a shrimp fried rice, arroz chaufa de camarones, which came to Peru thanks to an influx of Chinese immigrants. At first sight, we knew something good was going on. The rice was light, fluffy, and well-seasoned, flecked with bits of chopped scallion and tiny egg morsels. Then there was the shrimp. It was, without the use of hyperbole, cooked perfectly. They were delicate, tender, and seemed to almost pop between the pressure of our teeth. Hot, salty rice with beautifully cooked shrimp? We have a winner. And that's before we even bothered to spike it with their sharp, spicy, aji chile sauce. We will be back. Oh yes.