Chao Down at Kang Lac Bakery
In Western society, porridge is relegated to Dickensian horror stories of poverty and child labor, remembered not so much as a foodstuff, but rather bland torture. Thank God Orange County is no longer part of Western society and that many of us come from cultures in which porridge became an art form, whether the congee of China, a steaming bowl of atole, or the cháo of Vietnam—big, steaming bowls of rice porridge, milk-white, bobbing with meats. It's probably best to eat cháo during the winter, but a bowl of it is enough of a meal for a longshoreman's day: nutritious, filling, with a slightly sweet base from which restaurants can riff like Lionel Hampton on the xylophone.
As delicious as it is, however, cháo is Little Saigon's great undiscovered treasure, a dish almost always ordered by Vietnamese yet shied away from by nearly everyone else. But it's on the tables at Kang Lac Bakery, an always-humming dive that sells nearly a dozen cháos, all garnished with slivers of ginger and fried scallions that lend smokiness and zing. The novice should begin with the straightforward varities—cháo gá (chicken porridge, with firm chunks of hen) or a wonderful version possessing medallions of Chinese sausage. Once you've developed a taste for cháo, graduate to the kinds everyone else orders: cháo spiked with congealed pork blood, which spills forth its sanguinary tang upon biting into it, or the funky savor of pig kidneys (you can also order those as a side dish, lightly grilled—that's good eating!). The one made from pig intestines reminds me of menudo blanco, as both feature the same unctuous, nourishing beauty. You can spike all cháos with hot sauce, but Kang Lac's rice porridge is so satisfying you'll find that putting in anything else is like adding a few too many brushstrokes to a Basquiat painting.
One bowl of cháo will fill you, so visit with two people so you can share Kang Lac's other prize dish: bot chien, a quivering heap of chopped-up, pan-fried rice cake that's like the best omelet ever—stir-fried so that egg is its top and bottom, layers laden with slices of radish, daikon, even taro root. The waiters might forget you for a spell and give you the classic Little Saigon staredown when you enter the place, but no worries. You'll slurp down that cháo and finish the bot chien, and they'll recommend the next level of Little Saigon mastery on your next visit.
Oh, I almost forgot: Kang Lac is technically a bakery, with great pastries, pork buns and the like. Buy a bunch on your waddle out.
This column appeared in print as "Cháo Down."
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