Porridge and its (dis)contents: Congee, jok, haleem and what Grandma ate
Last week, we visited Porridge + Puffs, chef Minh Phan’s monument to the warm, oozy bowls of happiness that obsess so many of us this time of year, when temperatures plunge into the 50s at night, backyard trees groan with citrus and the waves are a bit too chilly to surf. Winter in Los Angeles can be nippy — don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. It’s a good thing there are so many different kinds of porridge to sustain us in the mornings. Because Porridge + Puffs serves just three nights a week and Red Medicine’s porridge with egg yolk and uni is a thing of the past. Here’s a brief survey.
Diep Tran comes from local Vietnamese restaurant royalty: the family that owns the Pho 79 chain, which has been keeping Southern California in spring rolls and bun since the 1970s. Pho broth runs in her veins. But what her Good Girl Dinette serves is less pure Vietnamese cooking than diner food inflected with Vietnamese flavors, soothing dishes that would be at home in any small town main square – her famous specialty is chicken pot pie. The Good Girl dish called Grandma’s Porridge, a loose, comforting rice porridge laced with ginger, chicken and cilantro, may be vaguely Asian but always makes me think of needlepoint pillows, rocking chairs and well-worn wooden dining tables. 110 N. Avenue 56, Highland Park, (323) 257-8980, www.goodgirldinette.com.
Siam Sunset, a faded diner stuck to a budget motel, doesn’t look like much, even by East Hollywood standards. It looks like the kind of place that erupts into gunfire toward the end of a Coen brothers movie. But in many ways, it may be the most Thai place in Thai Town – it is always crowded with Bangkok expats, especially in the morning, when everybody comes for the jok. It’s pretty plain, this jok, a thick, bland porridge you can order with roast duck, soured pork meatballs or thin filets of fish that cook in the heat of the stock, although it becomes considerably more interesting when you swirl in slivered ginger, white pepper and pickled chiles. Jok is a blank surface on which flavors are incised. You also will want a mug of strong, milky tea and a fresh Chinese doughnut with condensed milk. 5265 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-8935.
Rice Porridge With Hazelnuts and Jam
Sqirl bestrides the Los Angeles jam scene like a colossus. Jessica Koslow is pretty masterful at capturing the specific nuances of fruit, sweetness and dust, what winemakers call terroir, and some of her best preserves sell out in an instant. So, really, all you need to know is that this porridge is made with freshly toasted hazelnuts and generous spoonfuls of That Particular Jam. Dry Farmed Blenheim Apricot? Maybe! 720 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 394-6526, sqirlla.com.
Taiwanese porridge is a thin rice gruel spiked with chunks of boiled sweet potato, served in vast quantities, bland and nourishing and as monotonous as you can imagine. Dinner at Lu’s Garden includes all the porridge you can eat. But supplemented with highly flavored dishes of sour bamboo shoots, pan-fried squid or the infamous Spicy With Spicy, the monotony becomes mysteriously compelling, and you may find yourself eating more of the porridge than you had ever thought possible. Lu’s can be a little intimidating the first time you walk in – you are expected to order the instant you reach the front of the line – so get your longings for pickled mustard greens, belt fish, and bitter melon with anchovy sorted out in advance. 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 280-5883, www.lusgardenusa.com. Also at 921 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia and 17829 Colima Road, City of Industry.
Bon Juk, the local outlet of a popular Seoul-based chain, is the fanciest porridge place in Koreatown. The walls are dominated by huge photographs of the various kinds of porridge on offer, along with descriptions of their nutritive virtues. I am fond of the porridge with smoked salmon, which comes off as a Korean version of the Scottish dish kedgeree, and I aspire to afford the occasional bowl of jeonbokjuk, flavored with chewy bits of abalone. But I usually end up with the pumpkin porridge with glutinous rice dumplings, which is sweet, gentle and utterly calming. If you are inclined to have business meetings over bowls of porridge, this is where you should be going. 3551 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (213) 380-2248.
The regulars at Al-Watan, a halal Pakistani restaurant not far from LAX, seem to observe a protocol that involves strolls into the kitchen and loud consultations with one or more of the cooks. Like any serious Pakistani restaurant, Al-Watan specializes in the complicated offal dishes at the heart of Muslim Pakistani soul food, but there are also some of the best charcoal-grilled meats in town, straight from the restaurants tandoor. But we are here for haleem, which is beef braised with ground lentils until it breaks down into a thick, meaty gravy with the flavor of well-browned roast-beef drippings. Haleem is exactly what you want to be eating with Al-Watan’s buttery whole-wheat chapati bread. 13619 Inglewood Ave., Hawthorne, (310) 644-6395, alwatanrestaurant.com.
How can you tell Harlam’s Kitchen from the similar stalls in the food court? It’s the one where the people behind the counter are screaming, the dude at the wok is just a few inches from the order window, and the line has as many people in it as the rest of the lines in the complex put together. You will invariably end up with the doughnut rolls rather than the doughnut rolls wrapped in rice noodles, and nobody will tell you about the chile condiment hidden on the right side of the counter, but the Hong Kong-style congee, rice porridge, is magnificent: smooth, brothy and just thick enough; pretty generously laden with fish and such if you get the Lai Wan version, which you probably should; and served perilously close to boiling. The bowls are Styrofoam; the spoons flimsy plastic; and if you are not Chinese, no amount of pleading will be sufficient to earn you chopsticks instead of the Fork of Shame. 8150 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 573-3929.
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