Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
There is a particular shade of teal that I'm beginning to associate with Rice Plate Journal food shots. It's the color of the tables at Utopia Cafe, Lucky Creation, and a couple of other places I've visited. And at Utopia Cafe, just a few doors off Washington on Waverly Place, the blue-green tables stand out against lemon-yellow walls decorated with pink menus -- an Easter basket of a room.
On every one of the teal tables, from the square two-tops along the sides of the room to the large round tables at its center, there is at least one brown stoneware pot, set on a cork trivet blackened from its heat. Utopia Cafe's patrons may have ordered any number of Cantonese stir-fried dishes and stews, but they're eating them with the restaurant's specialty: clay pot rice.
There are 15 varieties, all of which take 20 minutes to cook. Cuttlefish and minced pork. Spare ribs and black beans. Chinese sausage and preserved duck. All served with a few stems of baby bok choy draped over the top and a bowl of soy sauce, which you drizzle onto the rice, tinting the white grains beige and baking onto the sides of the pot, forming a dark brown crust.
On my first trip, I try the Chinese sausage and preserved duck, their salt and fat seeping down into the rice. There are two shades of sausage covering the rice: a sweeter pink lap cheong that leaves a faint taste of anise and spice on the lips, and a darker, muskier sausage with liver's metallic edge.
Are the grains of rice in Utopia's clay pot rice longer than the ones at Ma's Dim Sum, my favorite clay-pot rice? Perhaps -- they're drier and more distinct, and I'm not as fond of the straight soy sauce Utopia gives me as the sweet, wine-and-soy sauce Ma's delivers, in squirt bottles, with its rice dishes.
But the chicken and mushroom clay-pot rice I order on my second visit to Utopia, with wide chunks of pink chicken and tiny black mushrooms, is still a fine lunch. The steam has left both the meat and mushrooms tender, and there's just enough sausage added to the pot to give the rice on top a sweet, fatty gloss.
I swish the tips of the bok choy leaves in my bowl of soy sauce before crunching into them, and slowly dig down into the rice, excavating each spoonful to blow it cool, adding a piece of meat here or there, until I reach my dessert: the crust of rice that forms around the sides. Crunchy and nutty, mottled with brown where the soy sauce has baked into it, the rice crust is the main reason any of us are sitting at Utopia's teal tables. As soon as I sense myself nearing the point where I can't eat any more, I use my spoon to chip the rest of the crust out of the pot, to snack on with one last cup of tea.
Utopia Cafe: 139 Waverly (at Washington), 956-2902.