In These Uncertain Times, Something Warm and Soothing
During the Asian economic crisis of 1998, people stopped eating out and restaurants and eateries saw their profits plunge. Even street hawkers felt the pinch, and it wasn't long before signs advertising "economic rice" started mushrooming at food courts, office cafeterias, and the like. For $2, customers could get a serving of rice with their pick of three dishes: sautéed veggies, steamed savory egg custard with minced pork, sambal squid, etc. Enterprising vendors would offer a rotating menu of cheap, tasty dishes for office workers and students in need of a hot meal.
Now that we're in the midst of another economic recession, I've been on the lookout for cheap, good eats. At Porridge Place in Cupertino, California, you're not going to get quite as good a deal as the $2 "economic rice" meal, but what you do get is still a steal. For $6.99, you get to help yourself from a bottomless tureen of piping hot, Taiwanese sweet potato congee (rice slowly simmered with golden yams to a creamy porridge) and your choice of three dishes from the smorgasbord of some 20-plus dishes available.
The boyfriend and I have a number of favorites we never fail to order. He likes the pig stomach sautéed with preserved mustard greens (suan cai zhu du), while I adore the piquant moreish-ness of the dried, preserved mustard greens sautéed with fresh edamame (mei cai mao dou). If you've only ever had the kind of pickles that punch you in the taste buds, then the latter dish is a must-try. It's a stellar example of how pickles can be tender, mellow to the point of sweetness, yet still savory and very, very comforting (no punching here!).
We both thought that the whole, pan-fried fish—naturally flavorful with dark, oily flesh—is good value, though its numerous pin-sized bones present quite the chopstick challenge. The minced pork with julienned pickles is always a reliable pick—some people like to mix it in with the congee itself to get an approximate of Cantonese-style porridge (usually cooked with seafood and meats, in contrast to the plain Taiwanese version), while the pressed, marinated tofu sautéed with leeks offers a nice, firm bite to go with the creamy porridge.
The only dud we picked this time was a crisp konbu (seaweed) dish that was all texture and no flavor. But we did observe the table next to us polishing this same dish off with relish, so what was dud for us may well be fantastic for you.
If you're wondering why most of our dishes featured pickles, the reason is that congee was originally a "poor man's dish." The frugal cook boils rice in plenty of water to stretch it, and flavors the accompanying dishes so that a little goes a long way. Congee is also considered a "sick man's food"—something you down when you're feeling peaky or just plain homesick (for those of us who hail from Asia).
Personally, I consider congee to be the ultimate in comfort food—simple, honest fare that's nourishing, tasty, affordable, and unpretentious. It's great for when you've indulged in a period of gluttony and need something warm and soothing for the tummy. It also has a way of perking up your appetite when you're feeling blah mid-work week. Judging by the streams of office workers that Porridge Place attracts at lunch, and the families who dine here at dinner, I don't think I'm alone in thinking it comfort fare. Or maybe everyone just recognizes a good deal.
The damage: $6.99 at weekday lunch for a bottomless pot of sweet potato congee and three dishes. Otherwise, it's $2.99 to $5.99 per dish (much larger portions) and $1 per person for that same bottomless pot. Porridge Place is cash-only.
10869 North Wolfe Road, Cupertino CA 95014 (map) 408-873-8999 Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.