We've made a list of great sandwiches, even devoted an entire issue of our dead tree edition to notable noodle dishes, but what about rice? We often take it for granted because, well, because it's rice. But rice is essential, rice is good, rice is the giver of life and what makes these next ten dishes I list some of my favorite things to eat.
10. The Etouffee at The Attic
The Attic's étouffée was nothing like the one I ate at Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's in New Orleans more than 15 years ago. In that benchmark dish, rice is practically drowned with gravy thickened and colored by brown roux. The Attic's version is nearly dry, devoid of sauce, but it made up for it with so much tender shrimp and crawfish that I wonder if the Attic's ledgers weren't angry. I loved it, but also the rice, a mound as loose as sand, cooked tenderly, soaking up what little there was of the gravy and mingling with the seafood.
9. Nasi Campur at Indo Ranch
Though they're now open for lunch, for the most part, deciding to eat from Indo Ranch still means take-out and reheating the food at home. Some dishes takes some prior experience to know what do with all those condiments and sauces they give you. But if they have nasi campur, there is no assembly required. Just know that what they call nasi campur today won't be the same as what they call nasi campur tomorrow. Since nasi means rice, and campur means combination, think of it as the special of the day. For sure there will be a bowl-formed domed of it sprinkled with fried shallots, and some pickles; but for the protein, it could be chicken or fish, cooked with curry spices, or just plain fried on the bone. If you're lucky, you may even get sambal telor, which is a deep-fried egg simmered in chili paste. The one constant, as it always is with Indonesian meals, is that rice, and you can't imagine eating any of the other dishes without it.
8. Beef Bowl at Yoshinoya Beef Bowl
Yes, it's a chain, but in my opinion it's still the best bowl enterprise next to the NFL. Those salty, sweet and aromatic ribbons of sake-onion-and-soy simmered beef would be weird without the rice. And of course you need to ask for "extra juice", which simply means the fluffy grains will be doused with a ladle-full of the cooking liquid. And then there's this: you can ask for "extra skin" where they take the stripped off crispy chicken epidermis they might have thrown away and put it on top of your beef bowl, at no extra charge.
7. Soft Tofu Soup at Doo Ree
DooRe does one of the better pots of soondubu in Irvine. The second you receive custody of the soup, crack a raw egg into it, then tuck the yolk under the layers of boiling soybean custard, meat bits, and broth. Let it sink to the bottom to be swaddled in the warmth. By the time you slurp your way back to the egg, it'll be soft poached, ready to be spooned up with the rest of the meal, which will include at least a half dozen smaller dishes call panchan. So nibble on a cooling celery salad here, a wiggly cube of jelly there. But the whole meal would not be complete without rice, here served in lidded metal bowls. You can technically just ask for one tofu soup to share, which comes with one bowl of rice. Then, just order another bowl for a buck, which instantly stretches the meal to become a two-fer.
6. The Rice and Beans at Baja Fish Tacos
At Baja Fish Tacos, flanking your order of tacos, enchiladas, what have you, are rice and beans that aren't just mere supporting players. The beans are so blubbery it's almost soup; but as soon as you rake it up with a fork, it seems to congeal at the cooling touch of the metal. Then there's the rice. It's almost as flavorful as the rice they serve with Hainan chicken. The secret ingredient is probably butter, in fact, I'm pretty sure of it; but it makes these two sides, in my opinion, the best rice and beans north of the Rio Grande and west of the Mississippi. When I'm not particularly hungry, I just order a bowl of it, scarf it in spoonfuls with plenty of the pico de gallo and call it a meal.
5. The Pipeline at North Shore Poke Company
In nearly every supermarket from the sparsely populated island of Lanai to the dense tropical metropolis of Honolulu, poke can usually be found in the back of the store where you'd normally expect the butcher. A good grocer such as KTA often has at least a dozen varieties set in refrigerated bins and offered in tempting mounds. Some glisten with sesame oil, others miso and shoyu. A few variants involve octopus and squid. All are scooped into plastic tubs, priced by weight. But the most important thing is that Hawaiians usually eat poke as the protein to accompany rice, not by itself as an overpriced, cylindrical-mold-sculpted appetizer at a fancy restaurant. North Shore Poke Company recognizes this and serves theirs in plastic clamshell containers on top of a big sticky pile of rice. The starch is essential if you order The Pipeline, their most basic poke that's all about the soy sauce umami, the slight tartness of the ahi, and how the cool cubes slide down your throat with the ease of Jell-O. The soy sauce needs the neutrality of the grains to balance its saltiness–a job a tortilla chip or fried wonton skin could never do.
4. Al Bap at Surah
It's likely that you will be too stuffed to the gills with Korean barbecue meat before you get to part of Surah's all-you-can-eat menu where the special al bap risides, a rice bowl decorated with dollops of fish roe so colorful it resembles Hawaiian shave ice. But save room, even if you have to convince your groaning tablemates to share it with you. Tell them that the salty bursts of caviar, dried seaweed and rice are the perfect dessert (though in truth, it's ultra savory and could stand to be a meal on its own).
3. Koobideh at Hen House Grill
Persian rice is something of a miracle. Light and fluffy as if it were made of cotton ball clouds, it is also just slightly tangy, a streak of yellow on top of the basmati mound as bright as mottled sunshine. Hen House Grill does it well and as it should be. But if there's one other constant with this place and other Persian restaurants, the rice is always doled out in ridiculous portions. A typical serving is always more than enough to feed two. And in Hen House Grill's special chicken koobideh lunch, a fee of about $8 not only gets you the starring starch, but a freshly-baked flatbread the size of a small pizza, two meaty tubes of one of the best char-flecked koobideh's around, two grilled tomatoes, and a drink. Smoosh the tomatoes into the mound, making an impromptu rice-moistening sauce. Then shake flurries of sumac and squeeze lemon juice over our meal. The koobideh, ground and seasoned chicken cooked over flames on a metal sword and unsheathed, simply melts, and in my opinion, trumps the version made at the Wholesome Choice food court next door. And oh yeah, so does Hen House's rice.
2. Ground Pork Over Rice at Class 302
The best meals here are the simplest: The ground pork over rice should be the prerequisite course for everything else. It's one of a few items served in their oh-so-adorable lunch tins. Lift the metal lid, and the first thing you see is rousong, pig spun into fluffy cotton, along with boiled peanuts and soy-sauce-braised ground pork–all of it flavoring the rice below. Even those who aren't the product of Taipei's educational system will recognize this as the cultural equivalent of peanut butter and jelly.
1. Com Tam #7 or #8 at Com Tam Thuan Kieu
Broken rice, or com tam, used to be considered discards from the threshing process, the cheapest rice meant for the poorest people. But alas, com tam turned out to be the good stuff. The smaller bits of rice cook to a more interesting chew than the whole grain. Now there are restaurants that feature it as the centerpiece of a dish, eaten with simply-grilled meats, fresh cut vegetables, and a bowl of sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham. Virtually every restaurant and pho joint in Little Saigon has a version of it, but few actually specialize in it like Com Tam Thuan Kieu. Out front, toothless, chain-smoking old men sit and chat, no doubt reminiscing about a time in recent history when Ho Chi Minh City was still called Saigon. Inside, the menu–which features broken rice and meat pairings in sixty-four permutations–is dizzying. The specialty of the house is #7 and #8, two dishes which takes the name of the restaurant itself. Take either one and be prepared to feast: these rice plate masterpieces are topped with seven mouth-watering items heaped onto a generous mound of rice…broken rice, of course.