Getting Lucky with Chao Nian Gao in DFW | Dallas Observer

Chao Nian Gao: A Stir-Fried Rice Cake by Any Other Name

Chao nian gao is a Chinese dish from Shanghai that at its core is stir-fried rice cakes (made with glutinous rice flour) and cabbage, typically eaten during the Lunar New Year ...
Fortune House, Shanghai sticky rice cakes
Fortune House, Shanghai sticky rice cakes Hank Vaughn
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Chao nian gao is a Chinese dish from Shanghai that at its core is stir-fried rice cakes (made with glutinous rice flour) and cabbage, typically eaten during the Lunar New Year because it’s supposed to bring good luck. If you can find it on your favorite Chinese restaurant’s menu, it might be called “chao nian gao” or “stir-fried rice cakes” or perhaps “sticky rice cakes”… that is, if you can find this at all. And that’s the point: As good as this offering is, for some reason it’s hard to find in the DFW area, even around Lunar New Year.

My wife grew up eating these at home, and she and her younger sister thought they looked like dominos, and the name stuck. That’s what we call them now in our house, too, and we’re constantly on the lookout for places that serve this perfect encapsulation of wok hei, that wonderfully elusive mélange of smoky charred stir-fry aroma that is the breath of the wok.

We were lucky to find four places in the area serving it now. There is actually a fifth that shall remain nameless that has this on the menu but refused to make it for us one Saturday recently when we went there for lunch. “No, no… that takes too much time. Why not get some dumplings instead?” we were told. Maybe this explains why very few places offer this, the time factor, but then one has to wonder why it would be listed on the menu in the first place. Oh well, we were successful four times, at least.

Food Republic
2049 Coit Road, Suite 300-H (Plano, inside the zTAO Marketplace)
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The stir fried rice cake at Food Republic comes with pork, shiitake mushroom and napa cabbage.
Hank Vaughn

At Food Republic the “stir fried rice cake” goes for $10. You get no choice of protein; it comes with pork and includes shiitake mushrooms and napa cabbage. There wasn’t too much pork, which is a good thing; sometimes too much protein in this dish can overpower the other flavors. Here it was just the right amount, thinly sliced and perfectly sauced. My wife proclaimed this one as the closest to the version her mother used to make when she was a child. Plus, when you’re done, you can peruse the extensive grocery store and pick up some chrysanthemum tea or a package of frozen dumplings.

Taste Of China
2001 Coit Road (Plano)
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Taste of China, not far down from Food Republic, and it's listed just as "rice cake" on the menu.
Hank Vaughn

Taste of China is in the same strip mall that houses zTAO Marketplace and Food Republic, and it offered the cheapest option yet for what it simply calls “rice cake” under the menu’s Stir Fried Noodle Fried Rice subheading. Here you pick the veggies or meat —  chicken, pork, beef or seafood — and prices range from $8.95 to $10.95. We selected chicken this time, and it came with shiitake, scallions, napa cabbage and thinly sliced carrots. This was perhaps the sauciest version and was a great representation of this elusive and lucky dish, approaching wok hei with all the requisite flavors and aromas.

Yao Fuzi
4757 W. Park Blvd. (Plano)
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Yao Fuzii's Shanghai-style stir-fried rice cake.
Hank Vaughn

Yao Fuzi is a popular higher-end Asian restaurant that boasts an “elegant and relaxed atmosphere.” Its foray into chao nian gao is called “Shanghai Style Stir-Fried Rice Cake” and can be found under the rice and noodles section of their menu. Of course, elegance comes with a price, so it’s no surprise that this was the most expensive entry in our list at $15. This comes with shredded pork, napa cabbage and scallions. It was very dry, with absolutely no sauce at all. This probably contributed to its rather bland flavor. Furthermore, it was the smallest portion yet, but at least we were relaxed in an elegant atmosphere.

Fortune House
8150 N. MacArthur Blvd., Suite 190 (Irving)
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Fortune House, Shanghai sticky rice cakes
Hank Vaughn

Fortune House often shows up on many “best of” restaurant lists and offers “Shanghai Sticky Rice Cake,” found under the fried rice heading on the menu. This place is almost as elegant as Yao Fuzi, but with less attitude, better food and larger portions. You can choose between chicken, pork or beef, priced $12 to $14. This is created with green onion, carrot and napa cabbage. It was flavorful, perfectly sauced and presented beautifully.

So there you have it. Four (and a half?) places in the DFW that are willing to serve up Shanghai-style stir-fried rice cakes, no matter what they are called. As it turns out, part of the reason this is considered a lucky food is that “nian gao” is pronounced similarly to “higher year,” and if true, this is just yet another reason to love them. Who doesn’t like a good pun, especially when it tastes so good?

Taste of China probably eked out a slight victory, followed very closely by Food Republic, with Fortune House finishing a respectable third and Yao Fuzi bringing up the rear. At least there are at a few options out there for one looking for this dish, including a rumored second location for Fortune House on Lower Greenville opening later this year. Lucky us.
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