Congee Noodle House -
Being a parent of two young children, I’ve learned to always make plans contingent upon the unexpected. My original plan today was to first drive a family friend to the airport in the morning, run some errands in Richmond, and then to have lunch with my wife and mother-in-law at a dim sum place we haven’t been before in Richmond. But both my son and daughter woke up with a fever today, meaning that they would both have to stay home from school. This in turn meant that we would have to get takeout for lunch instead of eating out.
I changed up my plans so that I could take the kids to the doctors first, then drive the friend to the airport, and finally to make a little detour on my way home from the airport so that I could pick up some lunch in the form of Chinese comfort food from Congee Noodle House.
I wanted to time it perfectly so that I could minimize the time the food was sitting and cooling in their takeout containers. Ideally, the food would still retain some of its original warmth when it got to my kitchen dining table. I handed my wife a photo of Congee Noodle House’s menu that I had found online and pulled up on my daughter’s ipad and instructed her to ask everyone for their lunch selections while I drove the friend to the airport. I told my wife that I would call her right after I dropped off our friend and for her to wait another 10 minutes after I hung up to call in our orders to Congee Noodle House.
Arriving at Congee Noodle House and picking up our lunch order, I was able to confirm- through the heat I felt radiating from the takeout containers in the plastic bags containing them-that everything went according to plan.
I took what I thought was the most efficient and less congested route home, and arrived at my house while some of the containers still felt relatively warm. As soon as I walked into the kitchen, my wife took over to open up all the boxes, place each of them on the dining table, and take pictures of each individual item. We dug in after my wife gave us the ‘All-Clear’.
The first of two chicken items we ordered were the Deep Fried Chicken Wings with Spicy Salt & Chili.
The order was strictly a wing-only affair. There were no drumettes at all. The outer skin of the wings were very crispy even after being drizzled by the accumulated moisture on the ceiling of the styrofoam box that the wings came in. The meat beneath the crispy skin was also suitably moist, which indicated that the kitchen exercised great control in both the temperature and timing of the deep fry job.
I also liked the flavours of the wings a lot. I could taste the great flavours from the salt, peppers, green onions, garlic, red chilis, green chilis, and most importantly, the MSG that were used to season the wings. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not opposed to the use of MSG if it is not used in excess. Although not moderate by any means, I thought that the amount of MSG used to enhance the flavours of the wings were perfectly within acceptable (to me) limits.
Our second chicken item was the Soy Sauce Chicken.
I ordered this mainly so that my son could have it with rice. But since there was way too much chicken for my son to finish all by himself, I shared the pieces that he couldn’t finish (which was more than half of the entire order). This soy sauce chicken was also pretty good, in my opinion. The skin was both sweet and salty at the same time, but not overly sweet or overly salty. It also had flavours that were more pronounced than other versions of soy sauce chicken. The most prominent of those flavours was that of the star anise/five spice. I got a mental image of the star anise on every single bite I took into every single piece of the soy sauce chicken skin.
The textures of both the skin and the meat were also pretty darn good. The skin was as bouncy as the skin of a perfectly cooked pork hock while the meat was pleasingly tender when it was dark and acceptably tender when it was white. And unlike many versions of chicken that had tender meat, there wasn’t any grossed-out fear-inducing raw marrow oozing out of the cross-section of the chopped chicken bones.
My mother-in-law ordered the Special Beef Tendon & Beef Brisket with Noodle.
She liked her noodles very much. She thought that the briskets and tendons were very flavourful and very tender. She liked the fact that the texture of the noodles wasn’t too limp and she also liked the fact that the stems and leaves of the included gai lan weren’t too tough to bite through. But the element of the dish that she couldn’t stop raving about was the quantity of the included briskets and tendons. There were simply so many pieces of both briskets and tendons included that it took my mother-in-law two meals to finish all of them.
My daughter had the House Special Seafood Congee
Since my daughter had the fever, and since she ate directly from the bowl, no one else dared to share any of the congee with her for fear of catching whatever she had. My daughter said that she really enjoyed the congee. This was surprising because she usually despises congee of any kind. She said that this version was different than every congee that she has ever had. She further commented that eating it made her feel much better. The congee certainly made her much more energized and it seemed to take away the lethargy that had possessed her throughout much of the morning.
My wife and I shared the Spareribs w/Green Pepper & Black Bean Sauce Chow Mein.
This dish was probably the worst-tasting dish of the meal. As much black beans as there were in the dish, both my wife and I could hardly detect any of the usually pleasant black-bean sauce flavours. Both the peppers and onions were also lacking in flavours. The texture of the noodles was even worse. It felt like they just poured the sauce and the ingredients on top of some noodles boiled in water. The dried and charred crispiness that was normally found in Cantonese fried noodles was nowhere to be found in the noodles that we had today. Even the normally hard-to-mess-up spareribs were poorly prepared. There were much more pieces of bones and cartilage than there was meat, and it took quite an effort to extract whatever meat there was.
We also had an order of the Wonton in Soup
The Wonton in Soup translated into wonton separated from soup when ordered as a takeout item. The wonton was very typical of most versions of self-annointed best-in-class wontons, meaning that there were a couple of miniature sized shrimps binded together with some pork paste and wrapped with a sheet of wonton skin. I don’t see how this is special since it is practically identical to every other so-called ‘special’ wonton produced by every other wonton specialty place. And it would basically be identical to shu mai if it was steamed instead of boiled. I guess I’m not enough of an expert on the subtleties and nuances of wonton to appreciate the differences between supposed good versions and inferior versions.
The wonton soup was also ‘different’. Before I drank any of it, I put my nose down close to the bowl like I would a glass of wine. I took a deep breath from the surface of the soup to see what kind of aromas I could get from it. My olfactory glands processed the aromas and recalled a memory from my days as a 14-year-old boarding school student in Arizona. The aromas from the soup were strikingly similar to the aromas of the hay and horse manure I had to sweep up as punishment for engaging an instructor in a heated and profanity-laced argument on the merits of fear as an effective tool in the arsenal of authoritarian regimes (…the naivete of a 14-year-old).
I took another whiff from the soup just to make sure that I really did smell what I smelled and the second whiff was just as ‘grassy’ as the first. I had my daughter smell it and she said it smelled spicy, and that she would never drink something that smelled as spicy as this soup. This was clear wonton soup, no different in color than every other wonton soup served at every other congee/noodle/rice Cantonese restaurant, but its aromas evoked two entirely different and totally unsavory memories in two different individuals. There must be some serious hallucinogens in this soup (nah….it’s probably just a really unfamiliar aroma that our brains couldn’t find a suitable match in traversing our neural networks for a corresponding memory. The brain just returned what it thought was the closest match and that turned out to be some randomly unpleasant memory…sort of like google in ’99 or the early 2000′s when they were still tweaking their search algorithm).
What is my conclusion after eating the takeout I got from Congee Noodle House today? Stick with the chicken and you’ll do fine. Their beef brisket and tendon noodles also looks like value for the money. And if my daughter’s taste buds are to be believed, their congees should also be something special…but then do I really want to trust my daughter’s taste buds? After all, she’s the one that told me that the wonton soup smelled ‘spicy’ when the only aromas that I got from it was that of horse manure.