Since Vietnamese food is the new "go-to" whenever diners want to go a little exotic, you're likely familiar with the staples: phở, bánh mi, vermicelli noodle bowls, etc. But have you ever tried cháo? It may not sound familiar, but it's more famous than you think. It goes by many monikers -- porridge, congee, juk -- and its variations are as numerous as the countries that regularly consume it for breakfast.
I was raised on the Cantonese version of rice porridge, so I wanted to experience this dish from a different perspective. Lá Me ( 9780 Walnut), located in the Hong Kong Market strip mall across the parking lot from Bistro B, is a small storefront tucked among other overlooked stores. It's easily the most modern of all the strip-mall stores, but the menu still serves all of the authentic favorites.
It was morning when I visited, and the restaurant was already buzzing with Vietnamese people filling themselves on noodle soup; I was seated from across the bustling dining room by a waiter busy clearing a table. Another waiter flew over, gave me the full menu and greeted me in Vietnamese; he seemed disappointed when I couldn't return the favor.
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Despite the entire menu being available at this hour, I immediately scanned for the cháo. Minutes later the waiter was back and ready to take my order, and I went with the "Pork's Assorted Porridge" (cháo lòng) and iced French drip coffee with condensed milk (café sữa đá).
It wasn't long before a large steaming bowl of porridge was placed in front of me, along with cut up fried dough and a plate of bean sprouts, jalapeño slices and a lime wedge, ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants, plus an iced coffee, served in one of those plastic cups commonly associated with boba tea. I spooned through the bowl to figure out what their idea of assorted pork meant: ground pork, slices of either stomach or ear, blood sausage, liver pieces, and coagulated blood cubes, all garnished with green onions and cilantro.
I dumped in some of the fried dough and bean sprouts to soften things up, squeezed some lime for acid, dropped in a dash of soy sauce for seasoning and added a couple of spoonfuls of dried chili oil for spice.
Admittedly, this is more dressed up compared to the porridge I grew up with, and it's definitely a deviation from the dish people rely on during hard times. But after one spoonful, I'd be the last person to argue cultural or historic authenticity. It's amazing how something as bland as rice porridge can be transformed into such a complex and balanced meal. As with many Vietnamese dishes (or SE Asia in general), the food elicits tastes and textures seldom found on this side of the planet; and the cháo at Lá Me is no exception. And if you're not as keen on devouring liver or coagulated blood for breakfast, there are plenty of other cháo options that have ingredients a little more recognizable. No matter how unorthodox the ingredients, though, a morning bowl of cháo means you don't have to wait until lunch to take a walk on the wild side.