There is something about the dark recesses of deep February that inspires people to get together and party. Every locale in the world with any significant Christian population enjoys the benefits of some sort of Shrove Tuesday or Carnival celebration–the million strong blocos in Rio, bead throwing and beer drinking in The Big Easy, masked balls in Venice. Falling sometime between February 3rd and March 9th, and also known as Fat Tuesday, it is a day to party and get piggy–to eat up all those rich foods in the larder before you begin the forty day fast for Lent.
Like Carnival in the Christian world, Chinese New Year is also a mid-winter moveable feast–landing on varying dates between late January and February. This year, we are celebrating the year of the snake. At first blush, perhaps not the animal you’d want your birth year associated with, but, upon closer examination, a creature exemplifying a host of worthy attributes: intelligent, thoughtful, scrupulous, rational, logical, insightful, and intuitive.The mensday crew, to celebrate the year of the snake, hit up probably our all time favorite Wednesday dinner spot: Congee Village in the Lower East Side/Chinatown (we always go to the Allen Street location). Specializing in Cantonese cuisine, Congee Village has become our automatic fallback for a variety of reasons–centrality, a generously minimal corkage fee, and a fun festive atmosphere–but, the most important reason, the consistent deliciousness of the food on offer. And this night was no exception.
While Congee Village does a great job with American-Chinese food favorites like beef and broccoli and general tso’s chicken, that is not what attracts us to this place. It is the less familiar dishes that keep us coming back. Like the eponymous congee, a thin rice gruel that is a million times more complex than the underwhelming ‘thin rice gruel’ description suggests: a steaming, soul-satisfying bowl of rice porridge that, like french crepes, serves as the ultimate flavor canvass whether you are heading down the sweet or savory path. Upon sitting down, we immediately ordered, as we always do here, the three meat congee–studded with shredded pieces of roast pork, chicken, and duck, lightly seasoned with soya and sprinkled with minced ginger and sliced scallion–over which we say our toasts and discuss the rest of the order. A word to the wise: if you want fried dumplings order them right away–they are as good as they get, but take twenty minutes to arrive.
We normally have a very strict five or six dish rotation that we stick to, but seeing that it was a special occasion (the new year), we decided to celebrate by venturing ever so slightly out of our comfort zone. One dish, however, that would be impossible to go without is the house special chicken–a heaping platter of cleaver-chopped roast chicken with impossibly dry, crackling skin and succulent meat. It’s flavor profile portended by the incredibly generous amount of roast garlic cloves adorning the plate.
The menu is vast and, despite the fact that we have dined there on numerous occasions, there are whole portions that we haven’t even delved into. Using that as a jumping off point, we decided to elucidate ourselves on the mysteries of the ‘sizzling hot plate’ section. The representatives chosen were sauteed beef short ribs with black pepper sauce and Chinese broccoli with ground pork. Both came on stand alone cast iron platters that, to our immense delight, were, in fact, sizzling. The beef was unctuous and tender and the Chinese broccoli achieved that rare vegetable feat of being ordered a second time at the same meal.
Our meal was rounded out with tai peng style chow mei fun–a thin egg noodle stir fried with a plethora of seafood and vegetables; pan fried minced pork patties–a dish reminiscent of diner-style pork sausage patties subtly flavored with salted fish and scallions, probably the standout dish of the evening–and, lastly, a not-for-animal-rights-activists titled ‘live shrimp with shell.’ We learned the provenance of this preparation from a member of the mensday crew who has spent a lot of time in China. The shrimp are placed in a sauce pot and steamed with a little bit of liquor (e.g. baiju), as the shrimp cook, they inhale the booze, a reason this dish is also called ‘drunken shrimp.’ Perhaps not for the squeamish, but sweet, succulent and devoured with gusto nonetheless.
The night ended at Lolita, right around the corner from the restaurant, where I hazily recollect chatting with some Brits and where I much more clearly remember leaving my brand new scarf. We enjoyed a night cap before dispersing to sleep off another Wednesday evening of decadent excess. As a final note, in reading up on the Chinese zodiac, I learned that the snake’s lucky day is Monday. This year our lucky day is Wednesday.
100 Allen Street, New York, NY (212) 941-1818
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”
Follow Mensday Wednesdays on Twitter @mensdae.