“Come for the exotic food and fascinating setting; stay for the characters.”
—The Boston Globe
Understanding Over-Rice Dishes
If you’re dining solo and looking for cheap eats in Chinatown, it’s a buyer’s market.
The sub-$6 meal in Manhattan’s enclave is ubiquitous, though one should be picky even at that price point.
|Roast Pork, the Chinatown Happy Meal, $5.50|
The bottom of the rung is the carton of streetcart noodles at $2 a pop. They are never really that good (noodles strewn across a hot grill tend to harden into plastic-sheathed wire) and are meant to satisfy a craving rather than hunger.
Instead, one should pay up the $5.95 or so for an over-rice dish, which many restaurants list on a separate section on the menu. For one thing, it allows one to have a meal while seated and for another thing, an over-rice dish is a solid meal.
The bonus is that there’s an endless variety, sometimes even more so than the offered entrees, and they accommodate all diets and allergies. Gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, seafood only, no seafood, no problem. Every taste is accounted for except for those of people who don’t like white or brown rice. And if you don’t like rice, then get the hell out of Chinatown—now.
Also, never confuse over-rice dishes with fried rice. Fried rice is essentially leftovers thrown together in a wok and has its own charms, especially to those nursing hangovers. Over-rice dishes are single-portion meals.
I’ll tell you two of my favorites.
In the early 90s, my favorite bachelor meal was lemongrass chicken over broken rice at a Vietnamese restaurant that was run by ethnic Chinese. That sauce alone had a distinctive flavorpoint and yet hit several notes simultaneously like a two-handed piano chord: lemon, lime, mint, salt, chili, and scallion so fresh it nipped my tongue like a raw onion. The broken rice was a perfect vehicle to deliver the sauce since a rice grain broken in half has more surface area (and a larger interface through which to soak up sauce) than a single whole grain.
The chicken itself? I like to think of chicken as a good rhythm guitarist. Show up, play on the beat, have a meaty texture, never be cut and dried, and let the sauce/seasoning play lead.
I think fish sauce was in there, as well, and even though I’m allergic to all seafood (I break out), I still scraped it all up with the flat side of my fork.
Wait, you say, a fork? Yes, a fork! Chopsticks are for eating out of a bowl. Over-rice dishes are served on plates, so don’t reach for the chopsticks—grab a fork.
My other favorite over-rice dish is that Cantonese soul food, roast pork. Your typical Cantonese place has a number of meats hanging in the window. Make sure you get roast “pork” and not roast “pig.” The former is roasted with barbeque sauce and the latter is an entire pig roasted plain until the skin is crisp, similar to lechón. For the purposes of an over-rice dish (simple, tasty and filling), you will want the barbequed pork. The roast pig is best as an entree as it needs to have its profile filled out with added sauces and stewed vegetables. You start futzing with what needs to be added, it reminds me of the mid-80s, when people began walking around with portable equalizers to supposedly get better sound from their Walkmen. You want the best sound possible from your music? Stay at home and fire up your stereo system. You want to eat your roast pig properly? Bring out your friends and have a full meal with it.
Roast pork, also known as char siu, with its sweet and tangy glaze, only needs the plainest of rice to complement it. The pleasant patches of fat in the meat nearly serve as the vegetable component to the dish by providing a contrast in texture.
In the late 90s, when I was working at a wire service on the 5pm-to-midnight shift, I would pick up a carton of roast pork over rice for $1.85 and head to the much-missed Music Palace movie theater for a double feature before work. They didn’t care if you brought in outside food, even though they certainly were no slouches with their own offerings, which included several different herbal iced teas, almond cookies and packages of dried squid.
I would chow away while watching Stephen Chow with the other working stiffs in the theater, which really brought home the original support base of over-rice dishes. They are inseparably a food of the working class, the people who didn’t have the time or money for otherwise eating out and worked odd-enough hours so they’d likely be eating alone.
While rice itself is a staple of the Chinese diet, one must also consider that when Chinese people try to go upscale, they eliminate it. The hoity-toitiest meals at weddings and other festivities are all meat and seafood dishes to show how prosperous the hosts are. Whenever I find myself at such functions, I always miss the rice. And my fork.