Illustration by Bob AulLike soccer, the metric system and goodwill toward man, rice is a staple nearly everywhere but the United States. According to the Asia Rice Foundation, the average Southeast Asian eats about 160 kilos of rice per year—about 375 pounds; Americans consume a paltry seven. We might eat more if we discovered about rice what everybody else already knows.
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ALEGRIA COCINA LATINA, 115 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 436-3388. Paella, the national Spanish meal, is one of the few good things to originate from the Iberian Peninsula besides Picasso. At Alegria, the paella del oceano combines the best of the sea—tart Manila clams and crunchy calamari, among other shellfish—with crisp saffron-influenced rice in the best Spanish union since the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. FERDUSSI TASTE OF PERSIA, 3605 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-9096. Iran has refined the cooking of rice to an art form almost as stunning as its women. Most attractive is the zereshk polo, billowy basmati rice baked with sour barberries. Ferdussi accentuates this platter with fesenjon, a thick sauce that—in a just America—would be as popular as ketchup. SUPER MEX, 250 W. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-2624. Most Mexican meals come with limpid rice of an unhealthy pink color. Not so Super Mex's green rice, a hill of the cereal covering soft shredded chicken. The adding of a green salsa tints the rice leprechaun-green and the resulting flavor is light enough to savor the meal but hot enough for chile freaks. CHA THAI, 1520 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 978-3905. Scientists believe rice was first cultivated in Thailand, but most Thai rice dishes are actually rip-offs of Chinese fried rice. You'll forget such politics when ordering Cha Thai's pineapple fried rice, steamed rice studded with raisins, huge almonds, rock-sized pineapple chunks and the perfect dusting of chili powder.