If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Calling the Tribe with Alex@Congee Village

I met Alex of the eponymous AlexEatsWorld at an open house for an apartment in East Village, where the owner/roommate described the living situation as his "happy dictatorship." The place had a 360-degree terrace, but neither of us took the room.

A month later, I got an email from Alex, who'd come across this blog on The Feedbag during my July 4th shenanigans. "Can't believe food didn't come up with two huge foodies in that room," he said, "let's grab food sometime."

Emails flew, Lists were exchanged, Asianness ensued. Congee Village. I'd never been, but I recognize superior judgment when I see it - the dude has a real domain name and some sweet photos.

A time was set: 7:30 on a Saturday. I got there five minutes earlier than he did, and in those five minutes, my eyes and stomach took in that epic menu and grew bigger and bigger.

Bamboo+Christmas lights=lovely kitsch

"We have a problem," I said when he showed up, "we need more people."

An ex of mine from Montana once spoke of Native American kids at his high school "calling on the tribe" when they needed help. A phone call would be made and like a snow chain, all the other kids with Native American ancestry would show up. Because it was high school, this generally happened when there were honors to defend, vengeance to be enacted.

Well, I'd like a tribe of Asians to show up whenever I need help eating. At Congee Village, ordering for one, or two, or even three people is just sad. Good thing we had time. People were spilling out the doors - Asian families, white teenagers, Hong Kong International School alumni there for a reunion, Asian goths...Asian goths??? The wait was at least 30 minutes, during which Alex proved much more successful at rallying reinforcements than I. Just as we were sat, his two friends, also Asian, male, showed up. Good men.

By this time I had - no joke - gone through a takeout menu and underlined everything I wanted. Alex was at first amused, and then alarmed when it became apparent that I was serious about "but we can just take it home after!"

Some serious editing - crossing out, circling, compromise - later, we settled on six dishes. Sacrificing the 7th, a soup, was really hard.

I broke my rule against ordering chicken for this, the house special chicken. See those fried garlic chips? Mmmm.

Over dinner, we talked about the Motherland. Specifically, foods of. We were birds of a feather - ABC (that's American-born Chinese to you) twenty-somethings with vaguely impressive American educations/careers and love for Asian cuisines. As a mixed group of Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Mainlanders - and Twinkies all - this feast was none of ours and all of ours.

To wit: Alex, who is a Yelp Elite member, mentioned an upcoming event at Water Taxi Beach for other Elites, and we got into a debate over Yelp.

"I hate Yelp," Kevin said, launching into a monologue that could have come from my mouth, "I was at Shanghai Cafe the other day, and this white dude and his son sit down behind me. They order fried rice, and I roll my eyes, and then they order the soup dumplings and I think OK, fine. When they get the dumplings, they don't know how to eat them, so they take their chopsticks and poke holes all over the dumplings to cool them, and all the juice runs out. They're probably going to go home and write a Yelp review being all 'I don't see what the big deal is.' I was like, get the fuck out of my restaurant."

We murmured sympathetically - we all get a little possessive sometimes.

Tofu and many different kinds of mushrooms. A little heavy on the cornstarch for my taste.

I asked Alex where he ended up moving, and he said Murray Hill, because the East Village was just got too small and too dirty for him after living on 4th and 1st for a while.

"But the food," I sighed, "how can you leave the fooooood??"

Sauteed pea shoots - my favorite. I could eat plates and plates of these.

These boys knew my hood, though. It's nice meeting three strangers at the same time - you get to have livelier discussions. When I told them I was doing the East Village ramen thing, they all professed allegiance to Minca. Minca was the first real ramen I ever had, and it was truly unctuous. Japanese has always seemed like the prissy, sanitized Asian brother to me: insanely delicious, sure, but hitting a more refined craving than pho/pad see ew/roast-duck-on-rice. Then I had ramen, and I knew I had been wrong. All the ramen shops tout ramen as Japan's soul food; I don't know if that's true, or even claimable, but it certainly hit a sweet spot with me.

"But what about Ippudo?" I asked, in the interest of fairness.
"I don't know...I just don't like the texture of their noodles," one of the boys said. The other two agreed.
"What's wrong with them? Undercooked?"
"No, I like them al dente. They were just too starchy. The broth is good, but it's a lighter broth than Minca's, and it doesn't come with a lot of crap in it." Clearly, crap is good.
"I like anything with pork belly on it," said Kevin, "they give you three huge slices at Minca." It's hard to argue against pork belly. I, having never been to Ippudo, find myself swayed by their opinions.

Bamboo rice with Chinese sausage

The first time I had this dish, it was on top of the famous "dragon back" rice paddies in Guilin, China. It was cooked and served in real bamboo, longer and thinner than this. The bamboo was simply split down the middle and stuffed with rice. After scooping out what you could, you had to scrape for the bits that stuck crispily to the insides of the bamboo. Needless to say, this version could not compare, and I don't hold that against it. Chinese sausage is magic.

If you've noticed that the pictures suck less this time, it's because Alex did the honors on my little Canon point-n-shoot.

Salt and pepper squid is the standard by which I judge Cantonese restaurants. Congee Village's portion was generous, but I wish it came with the usual mound of jalapenos and shredded lettuce infused with peppery squidy flavor - it makes such an awesome topping for rice.

Feast. The sixth dish was beef in a sizzling pan with onions. I had no interest in it. It seemed very...TGI Friday's

We cleaned. It. Up.

Halfway through our meal, a group of older Chinese people sat down at the table next to ours, and I became obsessed with what they were having. Everything looked incredible. Huge Dungeness crab, a tureen of drunken shrimp. All of a sudden, I felt like the white people who had ordered the fried rice at Shanghai Cafe. Schooled.

"Can we get the crab, pleeeeeasse?" I pleaded the horrified boys, who were leaning back in their chairs and taking deep breaths.
"Uhh, maybe next time."

I hope so. Alex and I made indefinite plans to hit up Mara's Homemade for Cajun food. I hope he winds up calling the tribe again.


  1. If you are ever in San Francisco we will go eat.

    You order like I always want to order.

  2. ok, your write-ups destroy mine so I'm just going to link to this post. and yes, mara's in sept, after I get back from costa rica!

  3. Good post and all looks awesome.
    The bamboo rice and Chinese sausage looks interesting as hell!