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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Clay Pot Rice: Slow Food at Ma's Dim Sum & Cafe

Posted By on Wed, Sep 7, 2011 at 10:10 AM

Clay pot rice with spare ribs and salt fish at Ma's Dim Sum, $4.50. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Clay pot rice with spare ribs and salt fish at Ma's Dim Sum, $4.50.

Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

Each time I stop in for lunch at Ma's Dim Sum & Cafe, the two women working the room, who look so alike they must be mother and daughter, lead me through the maze of chairs and elbows to a small table, which I am to share with a nonplussed man in his eighties. We blink at each other, then get shy. I pull out my book and he returns to the clay pot he is slowly emptying.

Ma's Dim Sum does indeed serve dim sum -- there's a bakery case in the front with dumplings and cakes, and the occasional table splits a plate of sesame balls -- but the "cafe" in its name seems more apt. With its checked linoleum flour, pink walls, wood laminate tables, it looks like it could serve cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven and split-pea soup on Thursdays. Cantonese-speaking paint crews are wolfing down rice plates, older women are deep into their gossip, but the small room, while full, doesn't have the same clanging bonhomie of Chinatown's larger restaurants. You can relax here with your pot of tea, and I do.

Taking my cue from the man across from me, I pick one of the half-dozen clay pot rice dishes off the menu. There are versions with salted fish, or frog, but the best of the ones I've tried has Chinese bacon, sausage, and spare ribs. "It takes 20 minutes," the server warns, and I reassure her I don't need to be back to work in a hurry, nodding toward my book. She brings over a bowl of house soup as a distraction, a thin broth with a few slices of bitter melon and one lone clam.

The clay pot rice is always worth waiting for. The pot arrives with the lid on, and so I gather a couple of paper napkins in my palm to use as an ersatz oven mitt. The surface of the steaming rice is garnished with two limp sections of baby bok choy and tiled over in meat: dark purple ovals of Chinese sausage, striped slices of Chinese bacon, pale chunks of rib meat strung together by tendrils of fat. I grab the squeeze bottle of sweet wine-and-soy sauce, squirt it around the top until it begins to hiss against the sides of the pot, and then quickly replace the lid.

The wait this time: just long enough to drink another cup of tea.

When the lid comes off again, the smell is even more aromatic. But it's impossible to shovel in. Clay pot rice demands patience to eat: The rice is still hot enough to scald patterns onto the roof of my palate, and so there's a 20-second lag time between scooping and eating. Each spoonful is aired out, blown on, examined. It is glossy with sweet, melted pork fat, and cooked just enough so that the tongue slips over each chewy, polished grain. 

While the bacon and sausage perfume the rice, the tender short ribs, faintly redolent of ginger, are the meat I linger over, worrying out the bone and carefully placing it on the plate. The rice is the humblest dish I have eaten over the course of my Chinatown tour so far, and the only one so far I consider keeping to myself.

By the time I make my way to the bottom of the pot, the outermost grains of sauce-glazed rice have burned onto its sides, and I scrape off the crisp, caramelized sheet as a last snack. The old man has gone by now, sometimes replaced by another. We blink at each other again and I thread through the tables to the counter to pay.

Ma's Dim Sum & Cafe: 1315 Powell (at Pacific), 788-3532.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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