A-Wah Serves Up Pot in Chinatown
Those who think of Hong Kong restaurants as grandiose, glitzy, chandeliered rooms, reached mainly by escalator—where the menu flaunts nearly every Chinese dish you've ever heard of, but emphasizes pricey seafood—will be pleasantly surprised by A-Wah. This tiny place lurks just off Confucius Square on Catherine Street, with the ducks hanging in the window suggesting it's just another of the rice shops that line the neighborhood. But persevere down the hallway, past prep areas and a gas-fired brazier, and take an abrupt left turn, and you'll find yourself in a bright, plainish room whose only notable decoration is green-checked tablecloths that might have been selected by a colorblind Italian restaurateur—but where are the candles in Chianti bottles?
As you eagerly scan the extensive, fold-out menu—while Chinese karaoke videos flicker soundlessly overhead—you'll detect several themes. One of the most arresting is the borrowings from Japanese cuisine. Thus, a bowl of bright green edamame is the spitting image of one you might get in the East Village, except the price ($1.50) is a fraction of what you'd expect to pay. Steamed and glossed with sesame oil, a haystack of iceberg lettuce comes splattered with a chunky fermented miso called fu yu ($3.95). Though it sounds dodgy, the dish is mind-bogglingly good. Eel can be had in a rice casserole done two ways: the first steamed with Chinese vegetables, turning the fish rubbery and crumpled; the second, in the Japanese-style, coming out salty, greasy, and perfectly prone. The menu identifies the latter by the Nipponese name of "unagi."
The twin eel recipes and 15 further variations (most $6.25) constitute the specialty of A-Wah, designated "World Famous Rice in Casserole" on the menu, but known in Cantonese as "bo zai fan." These are made by depositing cooked rice in a porous and lidded clay pot that's been pre-soaked in water, then dumping two or three ingredients on top, from a catalog that favors frog, pork, preserved vegetables, duck, chicken legs, and aromatics such as scallions and ginger. The pot is then heated on the brazier for 15 minutes, so the flavors fully penetrate the rice.
After you doff the lid and savor the sweet-smelling steam that spirals upward, the casserole is eaten by squirting on enormous quantities of a special soy sauce that has the sweetness and consistency of maple syrup. The crusted rice that anneals to the bottom of the vessel is worth scraping off with a spoon, no matter how much elbow grease it takes. A-Wah is proudest of the bo zai fan called "house special Chinese sausage and minced pork," though the favorite at my table deployed three kinds of wild mushrooms. Along the same lines are a series of casseroles without rice, ensconced in the same squat clay pot, which is known as a "wabao." One version is made with eggplant soaked in luxuriant quantities of oil, while another tumbles pork belly, fried tofu, and assorted veggies in a delicate sauce perfumed with fermented shrimp paste.
A further section of the menu features Hong Kong–style lo mein. The pale thin noodles that have spread like wildfire throughout the world are served cooked and strained of their liquid in a big bowl, with a choice of add-ins that run from the barbecued pork, duck, and sausage you saw suspended in the window, to various seafood and offal options; a smaller bowl of plain broth comes alongside. The noodles are supposed to be briefly dipped rather than drowned. On my first encounter, I was about to pour the broth over the noodles, when the waitress sprinted from the other end of the room to stop me: "Don't do that! You'll ruin them," she asserted. In one curious variation called wonton lo mein ($4.95), noodles share the bowl with a handful of thin-skinned pork dumplings. This innovation prevents you from having to pull hot wontons from the soup and then wait minutes for them to cool. Brilliant!
Every visit produced fresh surprises. One day, we had a plate of razor clams ($12), steamed briefly and heaped with shredded scallions in a thin soy sauce. Another time, we waited expectantly for a beef chow fun ($6.95) that the menu promised would come with something called "Swiss sauce." Though the gravy proved thick and brown, we still couldn't figure out the "Swiss" part. "Probably because it looks like Swiss chocolate," a friend theorized as he scraped up the last of the sauce. "No," said another pal, "the menu writer really merely meant 'sweet' instead." That sounded right to me. Still, I was a little disappointed that the noodles hadn't managed to do some yodeling.
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