Chinese rice porridge goes by a few names, depending on whether you’re saying it in Cantonese or Mandarin dialects, with monikers such as jook, zhou, congee or xi fan. In its purest form, congee is simply soft, watery rice served hot. But most people eat it fortified with meat (say, pork strips) and garnished with chopped spring onion as well as fried onions. Typically accompanying zhou are a myriad of small dishes, usually salty sides to liven up the blandness of the porridge. Fermented tofu and pickled mustard greens are favorite zhou enhancers.
Huo Zhou Wang is a specialty rice porridge restaurant located in the Hilton Plaza along a fashionable stretch of Valley Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley. You won’t spy a single ladle of plain zhou here. Huo Zhou Wang specializes in, let's say, fancy rice porridge and makes each pot to order. The least expensive and most pedestrian congee involves pork or vegetables and mushroom. But even these bowls are cooked to order, unlike some other restaurants that may have a stock pot of congee sitting on the stovetop all day waiting for customers. According to a Huo Zhou Wang server, one cook is assigned one pot of porridge at a time so it doesn’t overcook: It shouldn’t be too mealy or soft. This isn’t fast-casual congee; an order takes about 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, and the quality shows.
Seafood is the main attraction at Huo Zhou Wang, as the restaurant’s roots are in the Chaoshan region of Guangdong, a coastal area that faces the South China Sea. There are more than 100 locations of this congee purveyor around China, and the one on Valley is the first U.S. outpost.
Just about every type of seafood is offered as an ingredient to customize congee here. There are two kinds of crab, lobster, abalone and shrimp, all live from the tanks and brought to the table for your approval. Fish fillet, sea cucumber, dried scallops, clams, mussels and frog cover the rest of the watery world. The exotic and invigorating silkie chicken is your fowl option. Lamb is a good choice, too, for warming the body.
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Complimentary snacks of fried peanuts and two types of fermented cabbage show up before the congee does. Other appetizers, such as wok-fried pea sprouts and a leafy green known as a choy, marinated pig ears, grilled eel, scallion pancakes and, a congee must, the Chinese doughnut, are all available to pass the time and occupy your belly until the large clay pot of congee arrives to the table.
The sizable pot contains enough porridge to spoon out six or so servings, but each guest is to order his own. Congee isn’t a heavy food, therefore ingesting an entire pot isn’t entirely unheard of. Though you might have leftovers.
Lastly, there’s a little red crock on the table holding salty, pungent, fermented yellow beans. Use it as a condiment, as you would soy sauce. It’s magic and does something deliciously alchemical to the congee, transforming a humble bowl of watery rice into something truly special.
227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 872-1102.