JP’s Food Adventures: A-Wah Offers Perfect Comfort Food
Last winter Chinese clay pots were often spotted on the bar at Clandestino. The reason was a mini-craze among staff and regulars for bo zai fan, Hong Kong-style rice casserole. The source was A-Wah Restaurant, 5 Catherine Street., a relative newcomer to Chinatown, specializing in Hong Kong cuisine.
This summer I mentioned wanting to feature A-Wah in an article to my buddy (and Clandestino regular) Peter Ho. He counseled me to wait until winter, because bo zai fan is a cold weather dish. When it finally felt like winter, I decided it was time for some rice casserole, so I headed down to Catherine Street.
A-Wah is a tiny place. You could walk by countless times and miss it. The front is dedicated to a barbecue counter and the grill on which the casseroles are made. A dumbwaiter leads down to a basement kitchen where more involved dishes are prepared. The back of the restaurant holds seven or eight tables. It’s a warm, cheerful place, with just-cuter-than-a-dive decor.
Rice casseroles range from $6.25 to $13. The house special, with Chinese sausages and minced pork is $9. Preserved duck and taro, another popular combination, is under $7. I went with the house special, to go, and was told it would take ten minutes. Less than ten minutes later I was out the door with a clay pot full of rice casserole, a cup of mild, ginger-scented chicken broth and a small container of sweet, very salty, thick soy sauce. Enough to be a lunch for two or a supper for one, under $10 with tax.
This is comfort food: starchy, salty and fatty — and utterly delicious in its simplicity. The Chinese sausage and nicely seasoned minced pork were joined atop the rice by a few slices of Chinese bacon and half a preserved egg. (Do not just pop the egg into your mouth as you might do with a boiled egg – it’s very salty). The neophyte mistake would be to eat the meats and egg, pick at the rice a little and be done with it. That would result in missing the best part: the crispy rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, which my photographer/wife proclaimed “as addictive as potato chips.” Health food this ain’t, but it makes for a wonderful (and somewhat novel) indulgence on a cold night.
In my own interest (as well as that of my neighbors) I’d made it a point to ask how far A-Wah delivered. Did they deliver to the Grand Street co-ops? The owner, Mr. Wang (who had made my casserole) told me, “I deliver to Midtown; I deliver to Brooklyn!” So if you live in the neighborhood, they’ll deliver to you. Ten dollar minimum order for delivery.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
I like a deal. I like champagne. Unfortunately the two do not go together. Fair enough. Champagne is supposed to be something special. But rising champagne prices have opened the market up for other sparklers, like cava and prosecco. Both are delightful; neither taste like champagne. Does that mean one has to fork over the bucks when one has a taste for champagne? For the real deal, yes. But if all that is required is the taste and feel in the mouth of champagne I can recommend Willm, Blanc des Blancs, Brut, NV. It’s made from the same grapes and with the same method as champagne. But it’s from Alsace, not Champagne, so it’s only $13 a bottle at Seward Park Liquors. This is a steal. It even has a bit of the “toastiness” that champagne drinkers rave about. A real champagne of this quality would easily be double the price. That’s my kind of deal.