No matter what you call it — congee, jook, xi fan, chao, lugaw or another name — nothing says comfort like a steaming hot bowl of meltingly-soft, savory rice porridge. Growing up in San Francisco, I have fond memories of visiting Chinatown on weekend mornings, sometimes sharing family breakfasts of wonton noodle soup; tang jai jook (aka sampan porridge, named after the boats where fishermen once made it), a seafood-laden combination with peanuts, shrimp, dried squid, green onions, and other tasty pork-y morsels); gup dai jook (a classic combination of pork offal parts); preserved egg (sometimes called 1,000-year-old egg) and pork jook; and long, crisp fried youtiao, the donut-like fried dough, that you can order cut into thin rounds to drop into your porridge. My family always liked to get them whole, and we’d pull them apart into jagged pieces to drop into our bowls.
Though not fancy banquet food, it was satisfying and delicious in its own right. Jook doesn’t challenge your brain or typically, ask you to contemplate its flashiness in style or execution (although I’m sure there will be a $72 version soon). This is food that comforts and holds you like a warm blanket on a cold, foggy day. Some swear by it as a remedy for colds and hangovers. While I’m not sure if jook counts as medicine, I do know that a fresh bowl of congee has some kind of magical healing property that always manages to soothe my soul.
Where can you get jook/congee in the East Bay? We’ve listed some of the region’s most intriguing options below, but this is by no means a comprehensive guide to every great congee spot in the East Bay.
In Uptown Oakland, Lion Dance Cafe serves up plant-based jook
Since it opened last fall, Lion Dance has been a fixture on most local “best restaurants” lists. The former pop-up serves up its “authentic, not traditional” vegan Singaporean-Italian food in the evenings Wednesday through Saturday (note that service is walk-up and takeout only). Its Teochew congee, served with fried shallots, scallions, chili oil, and seasonal toppings, is available at brunch, served every second Sunday from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Lion Dance Cafe, 380 17th St. (near Franklin Street), Oakland.
In Oakland’s Chinatown, Gum Kuo’s breakfast special is hard to beat
Like any good Cantonese Chinese deli, Gum Kuo announces its bona fides with roast duck, its richly lacquered caramel-colored skin glistening in the window. This restaurant and take-out counter does a brisk business selling roasted and BBQ meats as well as an array of Cantonese comfort food dishes. Gum Kuo, like Daimo, is a “jook, fun, mein” place — known for fresh and fast food, characterized by these carb-centric crowd-pleasing dishes (although both also serve family-style dinner dishes as well). At Gum Kuo, try the preserved egg and pork porridge. There’s also a breakfast special, available from 7:30-10:30 am, that includes a bowl of plain jook, youtiao, and simple stir-fried noodles for $7.50. Gum Kuo, 388 9th St. #182 (inside Pacific Renaissance Plaza), Oakland. (510) 268-1288
Mushrooms are the star at Oakland’s The Well Organic Kitchen
Vegans and vegetarians can also look to Oakland’s The Well for a takeout congee fix. Inspired by simple vegetarian congee, which is frequently plain rice porridge topped with an array of vegetarian toppings of different flavors and textures, the restaurant provides three options. There’s an organic vegetarian Breakfast Congee, topped with a tea-brined egg, peanuts, pickled carrots, cilantro, tamari, and sesame oil, as well as two vegan choices, one with five-spiced tofu, pickled carrots, and arugula and another with roasted shiitake mushrooms and turmeric-braised daikon. The Well Organic Kitchen, 5443 Telegraph Ave. (near 55th Street), Oakland.
Check out the Hong Kong classics at Richmond’s Daimo Chinese Restaurant
This Cantonese restaurant, located just north of the central mall building in the Pacific East complex near the Central Avenue I-80 exit, serves all the Hong Kong classics, ranging from jook and dumpling soups to fried rice and crispy pan-fried HK-style chow mein, as well as a full rice plate and a la carte dinner/lunch menu. There are more than 20 congee choices on their menu. The sampan jook here, billed in English as “assorted meat and seafood congee,” is savory and comforting. You can also find a variety of chicken, fish, pork, and beef options. Round out your meal with an order of their terrific shrimp and pork won ton soup, housemade BBQ meats, and stir fried pea shoots or gai lan, Chinese broccoli. Daimo Chinese Restaurant, 3288 Pierce St. (in the Pacific East Shopping Mall), Richmond. (510) 527-3888