Most Bay Area diners are unaware of Hong Kong's cuisine outside of the daytime parade of dim sum carts and elaborate evening banquets of lobsters and seafood bird's nest (no more shark fin here, but you can find it across the Pacific).
But there's a whole world of lesser known, less elaborate Hong Kong cooking now on display at the four month old Café Tsui Wah, nestled in a hidden corner of a San Mateo mini mall by 101 and the San Mateo Bridge.
Judging by the packed house at a recent lunch and the fact that I seemed to be the only non-expert diner even looking at a menu, the local Hong Kong expat community approves of this new gathering spot. And they really appreciate the stick to the bones comfort of the rice porridge ($6.95) (also frequently called congee).
Around a dozen toppings are offered with the porridge, from fish balls to beef. I asked my waiter to choose for me, and he chose "assorted pig parts." I wasn't cheated on either the porridge serving size that could easily serve two or the amount of pig parts in the bowl, and counted roughly six types of pork (I'm no expert on this subject) including the unmistakable funk of pig's liver that was my hand's down favorite for flavor and a pleasant soft, slightly creamy texture. There was the tender stomach, some tripe swirling about, and some part with the consistency of a meatball and the taste identical to chicken. None of the meats were chewy, stringy, or off-putting with taste or smell. None were boring either.
What really allows the porridge to shine, though, is the thick, robust broth that takes hours to simmer to this level of thickness. Too often porridge is expedited with starch, becoming watery and tasteless. This porridge had no shortage of character. I detected a blend of egg and chicken broth that together reminded me of a razor-sharp cheddar. A scattering of scallions adds the lone color and garnish to the equation.
But you can have fun tossing in some soy sauce or a fiery red chili condiment not very different from Sriracha. And why not crown everything for $1 with a century egg. It's a different earthy, nutty dimension that beautifully contrasts with the pig parts and makes the porridge delightfully creamier.
Don't forget the obligatory accompaniment. In Hong Kong, you dunk the "Chinese Fried Doughnut ($2) into the porridge. It's the same idea as dunking your baguette into coq au vin broth, except here you get a much more startling sweet-salty-creamy clash. The doughnut is called a "cow tongue" in Hong Kong for its puffy oval shape with a sweetened grooved center. (I'm told there is no tongue in the doughnut.)
Later I learned that the staff of the much-beloved, now departed Hing Lung congee restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown and Fremont are actually behind the congee and noodle soups here. It shows.
2946 S. Norfolk St., San Mateo; (650) 341-1899.