For most of this fall, we’ve been drawn in by the illusion of an endless summer, where patio dining and sunny outdoor sipping — even in mid-November — have seemed like the norm rather than an autumn oddity. But Colorado weather always has the last laugh, unexpectedly flinging whorls of snow at scurrying shorts-wearers and chasing us all indoors in search of a crackling fireplace and comforting winter cuisine. Soup is what we need to combat the inevitable cold snap, and we’re not going to give up exploring the hidden pages of Denver menus just because the roads are a little icy.
Most of us think of noodle soups when our minds turn to warming Asian winter dishes. Ramen sales spike at Japanese restaurants, while pho joints fill up with customers hunched over steaming bowls of rice-noodle soup. Chinese restaurants have their share of homey noodle bowls, too, from hearty, pork-based zhajiangmian to Sichuan-style braised-beef soup, which heats up the tongue as well as the belly.
But just as American chicken soup is sometimes made with rice instead of noodles, rice soups can also be found in Asian cooking. In Chinese restaurants, congee comes in thicker or thinner versions, served plain or studded with simply prepared meats, tofu or eggs both hard-boiled and preserved. Vietnam has chao, more akin to American chicken-and-rice soup when served as chao ga, but other variations will lead you far from Western comfort food. Here are a couple of places that serve great versions of congee and chao.
The Empress Seafood Restaurant
2825 West Alameda Avenue
Congee is often served for breakfast, so head to the Empress when it opens, at 11 a.m. (10:30 on the weekend), and resist the temptation to order from the dim sum carts as they circle around with steamed buns, dumplings and other snacks — or just go with a group so you can sample a little of everything. This spacious west Denver restaurant boasts a multi-page menu in English, plus even more options in Chinese, so flip through until you locate the seafood congee. (Hint: You’ll find it well past the soups list.)
When the congee arrives at your table, you’ll first notice the generous portion and the bland, unadorned appearance. This isn’t vibrant food that will grab you by the shoulders and dance with you all night; it’s a simple country dish meant to nourish, heal and warm. Ladle a little from the serving tureen into your diminutive bowl and you’ll notice plenty of pieces of cod suspended in the thin porridge (or thick soup, depending on how you look at it). The only color comes from a few pink shrimp, held at a perfect temperature by the hot rice.
You could drizzle on a little soy sauce, but try a few bites plain first; it’s not often that the flavor of pure white rice is the star of any dish without some sort of sauce or seasoning. The same goes for the shrimp and fish; without accompaniment, the freshness and subtle seafood flavors stand out as almost bold. And then you’ll notice something else: the barest inkling of white pepper begins to creep across your tongue, gradually adding warmth like sunrise on a frosty morning. Now, go ahead and splash on a few drops of soy for a salty burst. By the end of the meal, what looked like nothing but boring gruel will become a satisfying dive into the power of simplicity and balance.
Where else can you find a great bowl of congee? Onefold, a tiny breakfast spot at 1420 East 18th Avenue, punches up its rice porridge, here cooked in chicken stock, with fresh ginger, duck confit, a poached egg, chile oil and scallions. At Hong Kong BBQ, 1048 South Federal Boulevard, one version of congee comes studded with duck or pork and black-tinted preserved egg, an unusual taste and texture for most Westerners that falls somewhere between salty, funky and slightly ammonia-scented.
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333 South Federal Boulevard
Many Asian countries have a version of rice soup or porridge that’s a way to extend a portion of rice or offer a warming meal to those in need of culinary comfort. Vietnam’s rendition, chao, adds colorful elements that enliven the tastebuds. V Express, the pared-down offshoot of Viet’s that opened when the original eatery moved next door (that one is currently closed for renovations), cooks up the dish in two styles: chao ga and chao vit, made with chicken and duck, respectively. This is also a breakfast mainstay, and luckily, V Express opens at 10 a.m. daily. The duck chao as served at V Express is much thinner than Chinese congee; a cloudy broth hides rice and chunks of duck (complete with bones, so be careful). A good stir brings matchsticks of ginger and onion to the surface and disperses a raft of cracked black pepper and rau ram, a Vietnamese herb with a pungent, musky flavor similar to that of cilantro. Vietnamese cooking has its share of fresh herbs uncommon in the Western diet. I asked my server about the rau ram; she gave me the English name laksa leaf, one of many labels for the herb.
Like congee, the basic flavors of chao are simply rice and whatever steamed or boiled meat is thrown in the mix. But the added herbs and spices put the Vietnamese dish on par with pho in complexity and variety from shop to shop. V Express emphasizes that similarity by providing a condiment plate loaded with bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapeño and lime. The sprouts are a good addition, but the lime would definitely overwhelm the dish. There’s also a small bowl of dipping sauce for the duck, made with fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, ginger and dried red-chile flakes.
Good chao is not as easy to track down in Denver as congee, but for an unusual variation, head to New Saigon, just down Federal, which serves chao long: rice porridge loaded with pork organ meats — something sure to melt away the layers of winter ice.