Cooler weather gives us a new enthusiasm for eating in Chinatown. This is, after all, the time to seek out the starchy embrace of noodles and dumplings. But there's another Chinese comfort food that deserves some love, one that's always sidelined in favor of its more fatty, dough-based cousins: congee, Chinese rice porridge.
At its simplest, congee is just leftover rice cooked with enough water until it breaks down into an oatmeal-like porridge, usually eaten for breakfast. And it doesn't get much more complicated than that: some congee is made with stock, some with rice wine. Added proteins include anything from chicken or pork to preserved egg and liver, and ginger and scallions are frequent aromatic additions.
Look, I'm not going to say congee is the most exciting food out there. But if you're feeling under the weather—or just want to eat something for this weather—congee is just the thing. It's creamy and comforting, the Asian version of savory oatmeal, and the perfect mild meal for a quick cheap Chinatown breakfast or to round out a lunch of roast meat and stir fried greens. It's worth eating more than we do.
And did I mention cheap? You can get a quart of congee for as little as four bucks, enough for two to three people to share as lunch.
We went on a hunt for congee all over Chinatown, visiting the 20 locations we could find that serve it. The ten spots listed here all make congee we'd be happy to eat again and again.
You'd be surprised by how much variation there can be in a simple bowl of rice porridge. Some were quite thin and soupy; others as thick and creamy as oatmeal. Some congees were distinctly on the bland side; others were decidedly chicken-y, gingery, or scallion-y. We're of the mind that there's no right or wrong when it comes to congee, as long as it tastes good, so you'll find a porridge for every kind of eater in this roundup.
For a guide to Chinatown congee at a glance, here's what we're calling the Congee Matrix, a totally not-to-scale but reasonably accurate graphic depiction of where we'd place each of the congees we're recommending. For more details on each congee, check out our notes below.*
*We ordered chicken congee wherever that was an option; some restaurants only offered chicken and black mushroom congee. Prices listed reflect what we ordered; other flavors may cost more or less.
New Hon Won
Of all the aromatics-heavy congees we tasted, New Hon Won's was the most light and fragrant. It's all about the delicacy of ginger and scallion in a thinner broth that still bears some creamy body and fluffy, oatmeal-like rice grains. There are more savory and intense congees out there, but the aromatic complexity of this one stands out. We love the rice noodles at New Hon Won; now we have another regular item to order. $4 per quart.
New Hon Wong: 244 Canal Street New York, NY 10013 (map); 212-966-8832
Wo Hop (15 Mott Street)
There are two Wo Hops on Mott Street, and our tasting suggests strong differences between the two. 17 Mott Street's tasted unpleasantly of stale sesame oil; 15 Mott's was thin, brothy, and utterly delicious. Scallion dominates the mild chicken, which is overcooked but still a worthy contribution. $4 per quart.
Wo Hop: 15 Mott Street New York, NY 10013 (map); 212-566-3841
My personal favorite (I like my congee on the creamy-but-thin side), Yummy Noodle's congee is soupy and intensely flavored, perhaps the most chicken-y of the bunch. It's also the only one we tried with a strong garlic presence, which we loved. $5.25 per quart.
Mission Chinese Food
It's not really in Chinatown, but we'll give an honorable mention to Mission Chinese Food's Westlake Rice Porridge, which features a creamy, savory broth filled with braised beef, sweet shrimp, egg, and cilantro. Intense and complex, but still comforting. $13 per quart.
You can't talk about congee without talking about Congee Village, which has two locations a little North of Chinatown. It's the only one we recommend that's both on the thin side and relatively mild. There's a notable creaminess from the broken down starch in the rice, with hits of fragrant ginger and, in our chicken and mushroom congee, dark fungal funk. $4.45 per quart.
Congee Village: multiple locations; congeevillagerestaurants.com
Very thick and ginger-forward, XO Kitchen's congee was among the most flavorful. It boasts thick strips of ginger and huge hunks of bone-in chicken. It also had us thinking porridge more than most. $4.75 per quart.
JJ Noodle Restaurant
Thick and porridge-like without turning gummy, we dug the sweet chicken broth flavor of this congee from JJ Noodle Restaurant. The chicken itself is pretty uneventful, but we enjoyed this enough to recommend it. $3.75 per quart.
JJ Noodle Restaurant: 19 Henry Street New York, NY 10002 (map); 212-571-2440
Mei Li Wah
The thick yet loose congee at Mei Le Wah tastes starchy in a good way, with oatmeal-like grains that are satisfying to slurp. It's mild—don't expect much chicken flavor—but the cilantro garnish is nice. $4.35 per quart.
Big Wong King
The blandest of the bunch, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Big Wong King's is extremely thick, the consistency of a substantial oatmeal, which makes for a great Chinatown breakfast on a sick day. A little soy sauce and chili oil brighten it considerably. $4 per quart.
A-Wah makes another good congee for those that like it thick and mild. A moody black mushroom musk accompanies the bland chicken, enough to distinguish it from the other thick congees on our list. $3.95 per quart.
Where Do You Congee?
Have a congee spot that didn't make your list? Got an outer borough place we should check out? Let us know in the comments.