At Nature Pagoda, the crucial moment of your meal is when the super-heated clay pot hits your table, a small bowl of dark sauce balanced on its dome-shaped lid. A server hands you the sauce. A server removes the lid. You dribble the liquid down the sides of the pot, where it thickens and seethes and flavors the rice.
You will pretend to be surprised when you later discover a tawny, crunchy crust at the bottom of the pot, but you know you will have earned it. If you pause to snap photos, there will be no crust. If you spoon chile oil over the top first, there will be no crust. If you stir bits of ham, braised choy sum or catfish into the pot before you remember to pour in the sauce, there will probably be no crust. Nature's Pagoda, a modest Hong Kong clay pot rice specialist plopped down among San Gabriel's marble-encrusted Chinese malls, repays the quick and the patient both.
I have been thinking a lot about the crunchy crust that forms on the bottom of rice pots lately, and how the ubiquity of fancy electronic rice cookers has nudged them toward oblivion.
There is perhaps a lack of complexity in rice-machine rice: a subtle drop-off in the flavor of the grain and fewer of the nuances of texture that can be coaxed out of rice when it is cooked over an open flame. But if somebody asked you why making rice in a traditional manner might be better than slapping it into a steamer, I am guessing your first thought might involve the scorched, crisp, delicious part left at the bottom of the pot. It is that crust that helps rice to become more than rice.
Korean cooks know that the tastiest part of bibimbap is the caramelized skin that forms where the saucy rice hits the super-heated stone of a dolsot, and any Spaniard can tell you that the socarrat, the crunchy layer at the bottom of the paella pan, is more important than any quantity of lobster. A good Iranian meal often includes stew heaped onto the thick, crisped rice crusts called tahdig that form at the bottom of well-made polo. The crisp masses of rice at the base of Sichuan sizzling rice soup probably count. The crunchy, golden chunks in the Thai rice salad nam khao tod. Puerto Rican pegao? Scorched rice has multitudes.
Not least among these diabolical crusts are the ones that form at the bottom of Cantonese clay pot rice, a simple dish that at its core may consist of little more than grain and a little meat, but can explode into loveliness when prepared the right way. Friends sometimes praise Hong Kong clay pot rice parlors in the same tone of voice they tend to use when they talk about their cats. I took it as such an affront when my favorite clay pot rice place in Monterey Park vanished that I am still reluctant to visit the perfectly nice Taiwanese noodle shop that replaced it.
Nature Pagoda may not seem at first much like a place for clay pot rice epiphany. It is basic in a way that seems to be disappearing in the San Gabriel Valley. The beverages are pretty much limited to tea or complex herbal tea; somebody may forget to tell you about the lunch specials; and the dessert list includes frog ovaries, bird's nest and turtle-shell jelly with coconut milk. The restaurant is devoted to Chinese herbs, but nobody is going to tell you which of the soups is designed to ease menopause and which is effective against coughs.
Still, those herbal soups tend to be wonderful: clear, fragrant and more crisp than savory. My visits have never coincided with the appearance of chuan pei with crocodile, but the deeply bitter complexity of the black chicken broth with mixed herbs is almost fugue-like — I'm not sure what the concoction is supposed to cure, but even by itself, broth made with black chicken can seem like deli chicken soup times 10. I like the gentle rabbit with wei kei and the pigtail broth with cordyceps, a flower that is supposed to counteract both coughs and the effects of aging.
There are appetizers — flat, fried dumplings; grilled quail; and chewy, bland skewers made with beef or chicken. I once got porridge, which was the loose homemade kind instead of the smooth umami-bomb porridge you may know from dim sum parlors, no matter how much clam meat the chef tosses into it. You should probably get a plate of stir-fried vegetables — water spinach, Chinese broccoli — because you're going to need a bit of something green.
But you're there for the clay pot rice — and so is everybody else in the crowded dining room — topped simply with a few coins of preserved Chinese sausage or a handful of chewy braised spareribs with salty black bean sauce; funky salted fish and ground pork or saucy, vivid-yellow curried beef; braised vegetables; or chicken with lovely, tangy dried lilies. If you're OK with the idea of eating frog (and you get there before the restaurant runs out), the nubbly, super-fresh sauté with vegetables and lots of ginger is nice. I like the rice with salty, supremely fatty preserved pork belly, sliced into thick rashers and perfumed with smoke.
The clay pot is beautiful, glistening. It yearns to be photographed — your sister in Boston needs to know about this! In your head, a tiny voice begins to chant: Stir! Stir! Stir! But you resist. You can almost taste the crisp, bronzed rice crust that will soon be your reward.
A Hong Kong clay pot specialist in San Gabriel
312 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 570-8333, www.naturepagoda.com
Soups $7.95-$12.95; clay pot rice $8.95-$16.95.
11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.
Four mixed herbs with black chicken soup; wei kei with rabbit soup; fresh frog clay pot rice; chicken with lily flower clay pot rice; preserved meat clay pot rice.