Object of desire: Congee
Congee may be the most ubiquitous breakfast food in the world, a loose, liquid porridge of rice simmered until it dissolves in hot broth. Crack an egg into it; toss in some ginger, a bit of leftover meat or a sliver of uncooked fish, and you've got a sumptuous breakfast in about the time it takes to boil the tea.
Is it bland? Of course it's bland. This is basically rice and water we're talking about here. You can find luxurious congee if you look hard enough — the abalone porridge at the specialist Bon Juk in Koreatown runs well over $30 a bowl, and certain specialist congees at Sea Harbour aren't far behind. But congee should be the furthest thing from expense-account food, and it may be a meal best enjoyed from a cheap plastic bowl at a joint where your elbows ever-so-slightly stick to the table.
When people discuss Cantonese congee in the San Gabriel Valley, one restaurant that always comes up is Har Lam Kee, an HK-style noodleshop in Monterey Park nice enough to take your mother-in-law for a bowl of wonton soup. But for congee, you'll be wanting to visit Harlam's Kitchen, stuck in the back of a food court behind the Square Supermarket, which is kind of a stealth Korean market in a former 99 Ranch. 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. (It's also the one closed on Wednesdays, which has caught me up more times than I care to admit, but we'll talk about that another time.)
Will your order be understood? Probably not. You will invariably end up with the doughnut rolls rather than the doughnut rolls wrapped in rice noodles; the wonton soup will come without noodles or the noodle soup will come without wonton; and nobody will tell you about the chile condiment hidden on the right side of the counter, which you need as much of as they'll let you get away with. Anyway, the congee 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.
— Jonathan Gold
Photo credit: Jonathan Gold