When I was a kid and wanted comfort, my mother would retrieve a bag of dried rice cakes from her cabinets and soak them in a bowl of water before cooking. I used to play with the dried rice cakes, which were as hard as plastic and shaped like rounded dominoes. In water, the cakes grew soft and pliant. My mother stir-fried them with pork, cabbage, and pickled greens, but I would have been just as overjoyed to be eating the rice cakes alone.
They were very chewy, like mochi, with the sweetness of glutinous rice. I watched my mother stir-frying them in the wok, and if she tried to break up all the rice cakes, I begged her to leave a few of the extra chewy clumps intact for me, and so she would.
Rice cakes still mean the same thing to me today. They are the best cure I know for a lonely heart, a disgruntled outlook on life. Because they remind me of my mother and of home, they remain one of the few noodle dishes I do not make for myself. I want someone else to make them for me, and while in some cities this might be an unreasonable desire, I figured I had a decent chance of finding just the right bowl of rice cakes in Chinatown.
On the first night of my search I tried Shanghai Café Deluxe, where you can find one of the better soup dumplings in Manhattan. This place was packed at eight on a weeknight. I was standing amidst a mob looking about ready to storm the fortress; for a moment I worried about getting seated at all. Then the hostess came out and announced that there were two seats opening up for anyone willing to sit in the common table, and my arm shot up, like the winning hand at bingo, the obnoxious student in the front row.
Ten minutes later, the rice cakes arrived covered in a brown sauce that looked too dark, only it wasn't. It was full of good wok hay flavor. Bits of scallops, shrimp, and crab meat were perfectly seared.
So what was there to kvetch about? Well, the rice cakes were flaccid. They had a melt-in-your-mouth quality where I wanted an al-dente snap. Also, have you ever been inside Shanghai Café Deluxe? Aside from the crowds, the joint is decorated in neon lights. It occurred to me, as I sat there eating, that this was not the place in which to have evocative feel-good memories of childhood comforts and pleasures.
The next day, I cajoled Max and Robyn into accompanying me for more rice cakes. We went first to Shanghai 456. Our rice cakes came in a big bowl, the kind you use for serving soup family-style. They arrived piping-hot, white, and un-sauced, with slivers of very fresh bok choy, stir-fried lightly, and thin slabs of pork and chicken. The shrimp were excellent—sweet flesh with a firm bite. When I ate these rice cakes, I thought of my mother, how she would say the rice cakes tasted "clean," by which she means, simple but not plain, and not at all greasy. I liked them well enough, but I wished just the same that the rice cakes had a bit of char to them. Oh, the char! The haunting taste of wok hay, without which I am filled with noodle ennui.
"Can we go somewhere else?" I asked.
Max and Robyn smiled, a little nervously, I thought. They were already full, the weaklings. (Though, to be fair, we'd ordered soup dumplings and fried dumplings in addition to our rice cakes.)
Now, I've found in my years of avid eating that the best way to drag people to two restaurants in a row is to selfishly press on as though you haven't noticed their look of satiation, of defeat, of utter disinterest in your personal project. Or, you can try and make them feel guilty about abandoning you, which is what I did in the end.
We walked to Shanghai Gourmet on Pell, sandwiched between the confusingly unaffiliated Joe's Ginger and Joe's Shanghai (see Kenji's musings here.) Inside Shanghai Gourmet, the air was stale; light shone through a dusty storefront onto yellowing walls and old formica tables. I have a weakness for places like this. You could sit for hours with a book and nurse a pot of lackluster tea, and no one would ever think to rush you.
There was hardly anyone in the restaurant; still, it took a while for our order to arrive. Then, when it did, it just about broke my heart. Their rice cakes, dumplings, everything—tasted of old oil, which permeated everything, made it all beyond rescuing with the usual lineup of Chinese restaurant unguents (soy sauce, chili paste, Sriracha.) What a terrible shame, because the rice cakes themselves were peerless: just the right thickness (I like 'em thick) and just cooked through. In fact they might have been the chewiest rice cakes I've ever eaten.
"Wow, I'm getting a good five to six chomps with my molars," I said.
Robyn laughed, because that is what she does.
"This pork tastes a little sour," said Max.
"Agreed," I said.
"Are those two middle school boys taking themselves out for lunch?" Max asked.
I turned around and looked at the only other customers in the restaurant. These kids weren't kidding around—there was roast duck, stir-fried lobster, spring rolls, stir-fried rice on the table.
I wanted to ask the boys if everything they'd ordered tasted of old oil, too, but they looked like they were having a good time. So I sat, forlorn about the old-oil situation, pessimistic about my ever finding a bowl of rice cakes that would satisfy my every want. Desire is dangerous. You start with something simple, like wishing for a bowl of rice cakes that reminds you of childhood, and you end wondering if you will ever feel as happy as you did when you were young and green.
Then Max did just the right thing. He fed me the single rice cake that had been charred more than any other. He put it on my plate, and I gobbled it right up. How did he know to do that? How did he know how much it would please me?
It made me feel like the favored child at the table once more—catered to, spoiled, and most of all, buoyed by the assurance of the good things in life that are sure to come. And just like that, I was happy again.
Shanghai Café Deluxe
100 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (map) 212-966-3988
69 Mott Street, New York NY 10013 (map) 212-964-0003
23 Pell Street New York, NY 10013 (map) 212-285-0668