There are two kinds of people in this world -- those who eat the crust, and those who don't. We're not just talking about sandwich and pizza crust. In this case the crust in question is that of the traditional Chinese clay pot rice dish.
In a cuisine full of quick-to-prepare (and even quicker to consume) dishes, crispy clay pot rice requires a bit more labor. Rice is typically soaked in water for an hour before it's put in a clay pot alongside some form of fat, soy sauce, and a touch of oil. After 10 minutes of low heat, and 5 minutes of high heat cooking, the rice forms a crunchy, slightly burnt crust all around the bottom of the pot.
Here at Chow Bella, more often than not, crust is a must. So, with spoon in hand, we set off to try two local restaurants to get to the bottom of the clay pot -- and then proceed to scrape it off.
In This Corner: Deer Garden Signature
The Setting: Located inside Mekong Plaza in Mesa, Deer Garden Signature is an Asian fusion restaurant with a young vibe. The space is part of a larger Asian shopping center and has a modern, yet humble design. On a late Sunday afternoon you will find it packed with customers, hungry from a day of perusing the market and ready for generous portions of comforting Asian classics.
The Good: The rice at the bottom of Deer Garden Signature's Spare Rib and Black Bean Sauce clay pot rice was nicely crunchy with burnt bits that had a delicate, almost tea-like, flavor. As an added bonus, the clay pot helped retain heat for a good while, ensuring steaming bites throughout. Though the crispy rice is what we order the dish for, the topping of spare ribs marinated in black bean sauce made it easy to stay. The pork fat absorbed into the rice, and the meat itself was incredibly moist. Don't be afraid to use your fingers to get every last morsel of meat off those spare ribs, as there is sure to be someone loudly slurping down noodles right next to you.
The Bad: The menu warns beforehand that it will take 25 minutes to prepare a clay pot rice dish, so prepare to sit in slight agony. If you're eating with friends, it is highly recommended to buffer the wait time by sneaking bites of their dishes. Also, the black bean sauce was a bit sparse, making that bitter note in the dish a little weaker than desired.
In This Corner: Slanted Rice
The Setting: Neighboring Houston's and Bink's in North Scottsdale, Slanted Rice offers Vietnamese cuisine with a modern American influence. The smaller dining space is stylishly decorated with plush furniture, dim lighting, and elegant plating. The intimate atmosphere is fortified by background music that drowns surrounding conversations into a low hum.
The Good: The rice truly was the beginning, middle and end of the Chicken Crispy Clay Pot Rice dish at Slanted Rice. It is best to take your first bite of clay pot rice from the edge of the bowl, where there is sure to be a perfectly crispy spoonful. This particular clay pot did not disappoint. The rice was perfectly crisped and did not require an excavation team to scrape off the bottom. The flavor was balanced between a sweet yin and salty yang and soaked thoroughly into the rice.
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The Bad: Though a nice break from the potential monotony of spoonful after spoonful of rice, the topping of chicken, shitake mushrooms and baby bok choy that came with this clay pot was not particularly memorable. The shitake mushroom and bok choy were appreciated, but the white meat chicken was on the dry side and had very little flavor.
The Winner: If all you have eyes for is the crispy rice portion of this dish, then Slanted Rice offers a more flavorful and crispy grain. However, if every component of this dish -- from protein to veggie to rice -- is important to you, hoof it over to Deer Garden Signature. We have to give the ultimate nod to Deer Garden Signature.