Dim sum can be grand. Northern breakfast breads are delicious. But congee – porridge – may be as close as there is to a universal Chinese breakfast dish, rice boiled with large amounts of broth until it becomes a nutritious, loosely textured gruel, spiked with a handful of boiled peanuts perhaps, sprinkled with chopped scallions, enriched with a few black, gelatinous slivers of preserved egg. There are almost endless variations on congee, as long as you are willing to believe that congee is a variable concept at all, and almost every Chinese restaurant, noodle shop and barbecue parlor serves at least a couple kinds of the stuff.
The major school of Southland congee specialists used to be Taiwanese porridge houses, where the goods, eked out with boiled sweet potatoes, served as a nostalgic reminder of the meager rations in WWII-era Taiwan, though most of the Taiwan-style porridge joints have closed.
Now there is a champion of the lusher, Hong Kong style of congee, the splendidly named Congee King, a mini-mall storefront behind the superb Chiu Chow restaurant 888 and next door to a Vietnamese cafe, Pho 54, that has inscribed a bilingual poem to its noodles in its front window. It's the right neighborhood for royalty: Seafood King and Beef Noodle King are just a mile south, and Shabu Shabu King is just a couple of doors down.
The restaurant is a little swankier than you might expect from what is probably the Chinese equivalent of Denny's, with a certain acreage of marble, plush booths, and tasteful Chinese prints on the walls. At breakfast time, you will probably have to listen to more piped-in Celine Dion than is strictly beneficial to the digestion.
Congee King is home to a marvelous foodstuff known as X.O. Sauce Fried Rice Noodle Roll: rice batter steamed on a muslin sheet, tightly rolled into long cylinders, cut crossways into thumb-size chunks and fried in a super-hot pan with X.O. sauce, a pricy Hong Kong condiment made from soy sauce, chiles and dried shellfish. The rolls are crisp at the edges, heavily garlicked and pungently spicy, although the soft, bland, molten interior seems closer to hot custard than to anything you might ordinarily consider pasta.
The braised e-fu with “special soy sauce,” squishy, slippery noodles with the heft of linguine, may be the essence of everything wonderful about Chinese food, extravagantly smoky, super-salty and sluiced with mysterious marine essences.
There are many kinds of congee at Congee King – congee with meatballs and congee with crunchy slivers of bamboo fungus, congee garnished with bouncy cubes of congealed chicken blood and congee garnished with a whole salmon's head. You can get your congee with a small plate of sliced raw fish, which you poach yourself in the heat of the porridge. You can get a huge, complicated Big Bowl congee, plumped out with a bit of just about everything, enough congee to float a porridge-faring canoe.
The menu lists several varieties of Chiu Chow-style congee, which probably refers to a specific, delicate cooking style, but the cuttlefish-intensive Chiu Chow seafood congee, at least, was notable only for its blandness.
As in many Chinese restaurants, the food at Congee King becomes better as it becomes cheaper, as it becomes less a conduit for luxury ingredients than a close replica of superior street food, and some of the best food in the house may be found in the $2.95 breakfast specials, which pair a bowl of the simpler congees with a plate of wonderful noodles or crullers. It ends up being twice as much food as you can eat at a third of the price you expect to pay.
On the breakfast menu, you'll find sampan-style seafood congee, aswim with half the creatures of the sea, sharply gingered, grounded in seafood sweetness, garnished with tiny, freshly fried Chinese peanuts and a few won-ton-skin crispies. Here too are the smooth congee thickened with minced fish and the intensely flavored congee with minced pork and bits of preserved egg. With the congee comes a big, smoky plate of noodles sauteed in a hot wok with sliced beef or with X.O. sauce, unless you opt for the house-made chow fun, thick rice noodles rolled around shrimp or bits of barbecued pork – or around a fried cruller, which seems fairly silly, but is just about perfect with the congee. Dollar for dollar, Congee King at breakfast time may be the greatest restaurant in town.
8450 Valley Blvd., No. 108, Rosemead; (626) 573-0800. Open daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. $2.95 breakfast specials. Lunch for two, food only, $7.50-$14. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: minced-fish porridge; X.O. Sauce Fried Rice Noodle Rolls; e-fu noodles with special soy sauce.