Give the Poptarts a Rest: Cháo Edition
Photos by Kathryn DeBruler
Wake up and smell the pork's assorted, Dallas. What is pork's assorted, you ask? Well, from the look of the brown striated bits, the gray, ventricle-like pieces and the blocks of dark scarlet that occupied the bottom of my cháo bowl, it's a lot of things, none of which Westerners eat for breakfast. Having grown up in a culture where days often start with food that is individually wrapped or has its own mascot, a piping hot bowl of pork's blood cháo isn't exactly in my gastronomic wheelhouse.
It was new to me, but for a significant portion of the world's population, cháo, also known as rice porridge, is a sustaining part of life. And as with other things that people consume in large quantities -- oxygen, water, reality television -- one assumes that it must have redeeming qualities. In China, rice porridge gets its most well-traveled name, congee. In Thailand they call it chok, in Korea it's juk and in Vietnam it's cháo. The liquid base, cooking time, rice grain and toppings vary with the geography, but the tenants of the dish remain consistent: rice, cooked into oblivion (or close thereto.) This is the stuff that starts days, ends nights, feeds babies, mends the sick and eases hangovers. Having had a bowl, I can now see why.
For my first cháo experience, I went to La Me restaurant in Richardson. La Me is across from Bistro B, and is the quiet, reserved antidote to Bistro's neon, busy freneticism. La Me's menu boasts an expansive list of traditional Vietnamese food, with all the broken-rice, grilled meat and pho dishes you know and love but with the added bonus of cháo.
At La Me, there is a veritable farm of dead animals to choose from when it comes to your cháo. There's duck cháo, chicken cháo and seafood cháo, to name a few. For the adventurous or perhaps simply anemic diner there is the combination cháo, which includes shrimp, cuttlefish, pork's assorted (I choose to embrace the menu's improper use of punctuation and grammar) and pork's blood. I ordered the combination, because I like to try new things and also because I pass out a lot.
I must say that for a dish that can also be called gruel, this is a thing of beauty. The cháo was presented piping hot, its slick, slightly gray surface broken with a fistful of green onions and fried garlic. The rice had mostly dissolved, thickening the broth to a creamy consistency, but what little grain remained provided some nice texture. The real texture, though, came from the pork's assorted, also known as offal, also known as freaky bits. Here, the offal doesn't lend much flavor bite-for-bite, but rather provides springy, cartilaginous interludes to the otherwise smooth cháo. Another nice touch comes from the solidified pork's blood, which could pass for tofu if only it weren't the color of murder.
The cháo was accompanied by a side of fried bread pieces, which are to be thrown into the bowl and left to absorb the broth. And oh, that broth. La Me somehow imbues the very essence of pork into every molecule of this dish. Seriously, if someone could capture the pork-scented steam that was wafting from my cháo, I'm pretty sure they could put Chanel out of business. For how rich the broth seems, the cháo itself is surprisingly light. It's the kind of dish that is in the unique position of being both immensely satisfying and filling, yet doesn't leave you with that "what have I done" kind of feeling.
When life gives you bread, fry the shit out of it.
Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone should rush out Saturday morning for a big bowl of pork blood cháo ... oh wait, yes I am. Do you think the Great Wall of China was built by men who nursed obnoxiously adorned bloody marys all weekend? No. Great wonders get built by people who eat porridge. So go, breathe in the sweet perfume of pork, fill your belly and try not to think too hard about the freaky bits.
La Me 9780 Walnut St. No. 140, Dallas
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